Goals don’t matter. Aim for routines.

It’s that time of the year again. It’s goal setting time. A new year just started, and that is a good chance for many people to set new goals and change their habits.

The problem with goal setting is: It never works. Setting a goal will not lead to behavioral change, because it does not include a strategy for how to achieve that goal. I want to walk 10'000 steps per day is a great goal, but most people will forget about it after a few weeks. They just don’t manage to build a routine around the goal. Also quite often, goals are extrinsic: You want to lose weight because someone told you to? Not a good foundation for long lasting behavioral change.

Goals don’t matter. Aim for routines.

If you really want to change your behavior, goals don’t matter. Because goals are a number of what defines success, a personal KPI. But not a path on how to get there. You are more likely to be successful if you have a plan, but no goal — than a goal, but no plan. Therefore: Don’t think about goals. Think about plans! Don’t think about what you want to achieve, but how you want to achieve it. Focus on action, not outcome.

Also, you will increase the chance for long lasting behavioral change if you make that change intrinsic. If your strategy becomes a part of you, a part of who you are and what defines you as a person, you will be more likely to succeed. Compare the two following answers to the same question:

Q: Do you want a cigarette?

A: No thanks, I don’t smoke.

A: No thanks, I am a non smoker.

While the first answer describes what you do, the second answer describes who you are, which is a lot more powerful. Redefine who you are in order to drive change.

And most importantly: Give each of your strategies time to breath during your busy schedule. Create routines. Every morning, every Tuesday, on the first day of the month: Define moments of action. When do you aim to execute? Block time. Don’t define goals. Define routines.

Of course also I spent the last days of the year to reflect on what went well and what did not. And especially: What activities had the biggest impact on my wellbeing. I learned so much about the importance of routines this year. And the danger of their absence. There are things I want to start doing, keep doing and stop doing.

This is my reflection on 2020, focussing on the top 4 things that had the biggest impact on my personal wellbeing: Meditation, Running, Diet and Fasting, as well as News Consumption.

Meditation 🧘🏻

Status: Started doing in 2020. Stopped doing in 2020.

A friend of mine gifted me a Headspace account in December last year. For the first weeks, I did not miss a single day of meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes and followed the breathing and body scanning instructions of the app. 20 minutes per day, totally worth it. I felt more calm, the mind was clear, I got better at it. I really enjoyed the experience, but for some reason I never turned it into a routine. So I stopped doing it.

  • Learnings from 2020: I feel more calm and focussed when I meditate once per day. Still, I forgot about it because I never established a routine around meditation.
  • Plans for 2021: I will make meditation the first thing I do in the morning.
  • Tools involved: Headspace

Running 🏃🏻‍♂️

Status: Started doing in 2018. Continued doing ever since.

Running gives me so much energy and happiness that I don’t want to miss it in my life. For the third year in a row, I crossed the 1000km line in 2020. Also, I finished 13 half marathons this year. While running by myself gives me as much pleasure as running in a group, I still see that not just goals (>1000km per year), but also routines (running with a group every Tuesday 6:45am) helped me get out of bed. While goals can be delayed, routines can not. For 2021, I set three personal goals: run more than 1500km, finish one half marathon every calendar month and finish at least one full marathon. My routines will define whether I achieve them.

  • Learnings from 2020: Especially during cold, dark mornings, having a running date with others helps getting out of bed. I would have skipped multiple runs, if there had not been people waiting for me outside. Strava also helped getting that one run done before the end of a week, just to not have a 0km weekly distance visible for everyone.
  • Plans for 2021: I want to add more shorter runs (<7km) to my routine, make it a goal to find new routes and use the weekends for longer runs. Besides that, there is no need to change anything. I am happy with my running performance in 2020.
  • Tools involved: Strava

Diet and Fasting 🥗

Status: Started eating less animal products in 2019. Started intermittent fasting in 2020. Lost track.

My first wow moment in regards to diet and wellbeing was some time in 2019 when I discovered that I felt so much better by just not drinking milk. I removed milk (the liquid, not yet cheese) from my diet and my physical wellbeing skyrocketed. Since that moment, I focussed more on my personal causation between what I eat and how I feel. In 2020, I started intermittent fasting, following a Tim Ferriss interview with Dr. Peter Attia. This became a second wow moment. My sleep quality and energy level during the day increased significantly, while consuming less food.

  • Learnings from 2020: What I eat has a huge impact on how I feel. Realizing that gave me a great amount of control over my personal wellbeing.
  • Plans for 2021: I want to continue following the 16:8 intermittent fasting routine from Monday to Friday, while enjoying breakfasts during the weekends. Also, reducing the consumption of animal products to a minimum, while still enjoying life and not becoming religious about it.
  • Tools involved: Zero Fasting

News Consumption 📰

Status: Set the goal to read less news in 2018. Failed ever since.

Staying up to date with world news makes me feel stressed and unhappy. As an educated human being I feel obliged to always be prepared for a conversation around politics, Covid and economics. In 2020, I became addicted to Donald Trump. I followed everything he said and did in real time. I hate myself for spending so much time with him. I read all his Tweets, and I read all reactions on his Tweets. It gives me zero value, I learn nothing substantial from it. And I forgot how to focus. I jumped back and forth from headline to headline, quickly scrolling through an article. By the end of the day, I remembered exactly nothing. 100% stress, 0% value. I need to change my behavior. I need to establish routines around media that gives me 100% value and 0% stress. I think, weekly news podcasts will be my thing next year. And maybe a weekly printed newspaper. My goal is to avoid digital news as much as possible.

  • Learnings from 2020: The internet is not my medium for news consumption. I need to accept that it’s OK to not be aware of everything the moment it happens. Learning about big news a few days later is not a problem. I need to establish routines that will turn news consumption into a pleasurable experience.
  • Plan for 2021: Listen to news podcasts, block news websites on the phone and laptop. I will purchase a printed newspaper whenever I feel like it.
  • Tools involved: Overcast

Of course there are more things I started, kept or stopped doing in 2020:

  • No phone in bed: My sleep quality increased after removing the phone from my bedroom and replacing it with a Kindle. I want to keep this routine.
  • Blinkist: I started listening to the Blink of the day as the first thing in the morning. But after a few boring episodes I quit. Probably I won’t get back into the routine.
  • Pushups: First thing after getting out of bed, HIT as many as possible, one round. I failed maintaining the routine, but want to get back to it.

Goals don’t matter. Routines do. 2021 will be my year of routines. Good luck and happy new year.

This story was originally published on my personal website.

Head of User Research @OneFootball in Berlin. Social & Decision Making Psychologist. www.konstantinescher.de