The power of habits
When I made my living by making problems go away for a local crime syndicate1, I had a certain set of beliefs and actions that kept me alive. Principal among them was an intense desire to avoid habits.
Every habit, I thought, was a weakness waiting to be exploited.
I became a ghost in order to survive. I never took the same route home, and I moved apartments every six months. I did not eat more than two or three times a year at the same restaurant. I never got delivery and I never ordered the same dish twice. I swapped out prepaid cell phones every week.
All of this was a natural outgrowth of my job: studying people, learning their habits, and then using that knowledge in a truly terrible fashion.
Having habits makes it easy for any idiot with half a brain to take you out, my thinking went. And there is no end to the number of idiots in the world with half a brain2.
A belated realization
I now understand the nature of my work had twisted my thinking. The truth was I lived a life rich with habits, and my habits were my strength.
Exercising every day was a habit. Checking the chamber of every gun I picked up was a habit. Ensuring I had multiple paths of egress before setting foot into a building was a habit. These things were as natural to me as breathing, and they helped keep me alive.
My boss wanted my targets gone. That the target liked eating breakfast at the same diner every Tuesday was, in comparison, hardly a problem at all3.
Goals are for keeping score, not changing lives
I see advice all the time about having life goals. Everyone should have a five-year plan. Pick a target weight and work toward it. What is your timeline for FIRE4? How many marathons will you run this year?
These goal-pushers are, by and large, operating from a good place. Some are con artists and sharks, but the vast majority think their advice is helpful. Some of this advice does have a place and will certainly help some people.
But in my experience, goals are a closed loop. Habits are the key to shaping your life over the long term.
Note: See my earlier post on choosing process over progress.
The problem with goals
Goals turn the endless marathon of your life into a short-term sprint. Sometimes that sprint needs to happen, but often the self-imposed need for a goal is counterproductive.
Not only do goals set our focus far back from the long horizon of our lives, the fetishization of goals makes it tempting to stretch ourselves in unrealistic and jarring ways. Unhappy people feel a natural desire to turn over a new leaf and make dramatic improvements to their lives. Happy people are not much different.
It is borderline insane to decide to:
- lose lose 3 pounds a week for the next six months after months of steady gain
- go to the gym for two hours every day from a baseline of zero hours every year
- save 40% of each paycheck from a baseline of accumulating debt
- run a marathon in two months from a baseline of not running at all
...but people set goals like that all the time.
Overambitious goals become insurmountable obstacles in almost no time at all. New Year's Resolutions are a culturally sanctioned failure-generating machine. Best to avoid them the rest of the year, too.
What comes after a goal?
Goals are not worthless. One of my life goals has been to rock out on every continent. I have achieved this goal, and let me tell you, it was glorious.
But the goal was not the point. The goal was not beside the point. The goal was not even on the same planet as the point.
What happened before I reached that goal, and what happened after, were far more important.
Because I spent years learning and living the joy of rocking out, I would still be me if I had not met this goal. I would still have lived a joyous life full of electric guitar distortion and partying hard.
Imagine the opposite path. Imagine that I partied hard and rocked out on every continent... but the music was not in my soul. Then I would just be another sad sack with a few plane tickets, some boring stories, and a box checked off of my boring life-list.
That is no way to live.
Most people's non-work goals are deeply personal and intimate things. The goal of losing weight is, for many of us, a love letter to the bodies we wished we had. My travel goal was actually a manifesto about seizing life and cherishing the beautiful diversity of nature and humanity6.
Goals can grow to mask or distort the humanity that gave them life. When you change your weight without changing they way you think and feel about yourself, your body, and your life, your body and your mind push back. Within a year of dieting, most people find themselves where they started.
Similarly, travelers who leave their home country without first opening their hearts and minds sometimes come back the same person they left. That is a tragedy.
A goal marks the spot effort ends and is often followed by reversion to the mean. A habit, on the other hand, charts the future course of your life.
Habits allow for progress without all the baggage of goals. Like a judo master using an opponent's momentum against them, habits turn the fiddly, stubborn, lazy, and pig-headed parts of your humanity into advantages rather than obstacles.
You may or may not fail at a goal to read a book a week for a year, but with just a little bit of work, you can almost certainly succeed at reading 10 or 20 minutes in bed every night before you go to sleep.
You might fail at a goal of losing 20 pounds, but with just a little bit of work, you can almost certainly succeed at carrying a few healthy snacks into work every day.
You might never be able to deadlift your body weight, but with just a little bit of work, you can almost certainly start each day by doing as many pushups as your body can handle.
Over time, the little course corrections of these small habits turn into major improvements. And because they are habits that get baked into the routine of your life, they feel easy. You do not have to waste your willpower on powering through to meet an arbitrary goal, leaving you with more mental strength and tenacity to bring to bear on the more pressing issues in your life.
Be an active gardener
There is no silver bullet. The habits you picked up in school may not be effective at work. The habits you developed as a bachelor may not translate well to married life.
This is because life is constantly in flux. It is a dynamic system, and in a dynamic system, stability comes from adapting to change7.
A good collection of habits is more like a garden than a sculpture. They require and reward regular tending. Like a garden, your habits will grow more diverse, beautiful, and functional over time—as long as you put in the work.
Habits are like plants in another way, too: the more established they become, the less work they require to maintain.
Goals come and go, but your habits are your destiny.
Andrew Reeves is an entrepreneur, touring musician, and practitioner of eleven martial arts. He reached financial independence at age 28 and has dedicated his retirement to fighting crime and helping others.
Different town, different time.
One of many reasons I have adopted a pseudonym.
That goes double when you are part of a crime family. Unlike the people I worked for, truly intelligent people quickly figure out how to increase the chances they will get what they want while simultaneously decreasing their odds of being shot in the face.
The boss of the family was more shrewd than smart, and eventually we had a falling out that lead to a difficult semi-retirement from the life.
But that's another story for another day.
Habits and routines are closely linked concepts. They are not interchangeable, but most of what I am talking about applies to both.
Financial Independence and Retiring Early.
The below quote is from a fairly readable Newsweek article, but the research it is based on is also available.
And partying hard.
Although some things never change. It is always a good idea to check the chamber when you pick up a gun, every time.
Ask me how I know sometime, and maybe I'll tell you.
Can you think of a goal that would be better served as a habit? How many continents have you partied on? Can habits be effective without goals?
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