Thanks to a lot of hard work by authors and behavior-based coaches, habits are having a moment. People are beginning to understand the value of focusing on their daily behaviors instead of making grand, vague goals over which they have little control. And as one of the first professionals in this area (with a masters thesis on habit-based coaching), I see a lot of people make a common mistake: They pick too many habits to start.
How many is too many? Anything more than ONE.
I understand the desire. Small daily habits are small! And in the United States, we think that if anything is good, then more has to be better, right? Well, it turns out our brains don’t work that way. Because having more than one short-term goal actually makes it harder to succeed.
Shah, Friedman, and Kruglanski (2002) showed that people with multiple goals only concentrate on one goal. Gilliland and Landis (1992) showed that we tend to concentrate on whatever goal is the most clearly defined. And Fishbach, Friedman and Kruglanski (2003) found that temptation makes us immediately start to prioritize our short-term goals—and then default to the one that’s the most clearly defined.
So once the rubber meets the road and you’re are out there and tempted by anything and everything, you’re going to default to one goal anyway. And you’re more likely to succeed if you can stay focused on one, single, clearly-defined behavior for long enough for that behavior to become a habit.
Here is the formula I use with my clients to choose a single, short-term habit goal.
I am 90-100% confident I will [action] when [trigger] for the next [1-14 days] in order work towards [first performance goal].
- Action = the tiny behavior you want to perform (like logging your food into MyFitnessPal)
- Trigger = a habitual behavior you’re already doing (like mealtimes)
- 1-14 days = the number of days between 1 and 14 that makes you confident you can perform the habit every day.
- First performance goal = the first thing under your control that shows you’re on the right track to becoming your best self (like eating 10% fewer calories)
Then we track it. We track that one goal and only that goal. I give them feedback on that one goal. We talk about that one goal. We reflect on that one goal.
If we try to set too many goals at the same time, we often can’t even see the results as they happen! We just get too distracted by all the things we’re not doing instead of staying focused on the very real progress we’re making. We judge ourselves because our attention is getting pulled all over the place, and all we see is failure.
Instead, we need to see we’re improving on one thing. Anything! So pick one well-defined, habit-based goal. Track it. And see that goal—and only that goal—through until it’s habit. Until you can’t imagine your life without doing it.
Yes, it’s hard. But it’s the mistake that we all make when we’re ambitious and ready for change. I have rarely seen a failure of willpower, but I have seen many failures of focus. So just pick one habit to form, and see it through.