What Is the Difference Between Setting a Goal and Creating a Habit?

What Is the Difference Between Setting a Goal and Creating a Habit

Setting goals and building habits are two common methods people use to improve their lives. At first glance, goals and habits may seem similar – they both involve doing something repeatedly to achieve a desired result. However, there are some key differences between goals and habits that are important to understand.

Goal Setting

A goal is a specific outcome you want to accomplish within a certain timeframe. Goals provide direction and focus as you work towards achieving a result.

Some examples of goals include:

  • Losing 30 pounds in 6 months
  • Publishing a book by the end of the year
  • Saving $5000 for a down payment on a house in 1 year

Characteristics of Effective Goals

To set yourself up for success, goals should be:

  • Specific – Goals should articulate a clear, unambiguous outcome you want to achieve. Vague goals like “get healthier” are open to interpretation and make it hard to take action. A specific goal would be “lose 20 pounds”.
  • Measurable – There should be concrete criteria to track your progress towards the goal. “Read for 30 minutes every day” is a measurable goal with clear metrics.
  • Achievable – Goals should be challenging but realistic given your circumstances. Setting an unrealistic goal like losing 50 pounds in a month usually ends in failure.
  • Relevant – Goals should align with your overall objectives and priorities in life. Don’t set arbitrary goals without a purpose.
  • Time-bound – Every goal needs a target date or deadline to create a sense of urgency. Without a timeframe tied to it, a goal may never get completed.

Benefits of Setting Goals

When done effectively, goal setting offers many benefits:

  • Creates focus – Goals narrow your attention on results that align with your priorities and interests in life. This focus helps guide decisions and actions.
  • Builds motivation – Having a clear endpoint motivates action and inspires persistence. Goals give you something specific to work towards.
  • Tracks progress – Measurable goals make it easy to track progress. You can quantify how close you are to the target.
  • Fosters learning – Goals require you to determine the skills and resources needed to accomplish them. This process fosters learning.
  • Provides structure – Goals impose structure, discipline, and timelines to keep you on track. They break down a large task into manageable steps.

Overall, setting S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) sets you up to effectively achieve desired outcomes. They provide direction, motivation and a blueprint for success.

Habit Formation

A habit is a behavior that is repeated frequently and tends to occur subconsciously. Habits are actions you perform automatically without thinking too much about them.

Some examples of habits include:

  • Brushing your teeth every morning
  • Checking social media during work breaks
  • Smoking a cigarette with coffee
  • Exercising right after work

Habits are powerful because they can be performed without requiring much willpower or effort once established. The routine becomes ingrained.

Characteristics of Good Habits

There are certain qualities that make habits more likely to stick:

  • Small – Start with very small habit changes. “Do 5 push ups” is better than “exercise 30 mins”. Small steps are easier to maintain.
  • Specific – Identify the exact action, time and location. “Take vitamins at 9am daily” beats a generic habit.
  • Positive – Try framing habits as additions rather than subtractions. “Add 10 mins of reading” rather than “quit social media”.
  • Unique cue – Tie habits to consistent cues like time or location. “Meditate for 10 mins after morning coffee” sticks better than vague cues.
  • Immediate reward – Link habits to an immediate payoff. “Eat an apple after each meal” gives you a quick win.
  • Consistency – Doing the habit every day strengthens it over time until it becomes automatic. Don’t break the chain.

Benefits of Habit Formation

Developing positive habits has many advantages:

  • Automation – Habits don’t require you consciously think through each action. This saves mental effort.
  • Compound effect – Small improvements from habits accumulate into big results over weeks, months and years.
  • Self-discipline – Consistent habits breed greater self-control and determination. They help overcome procrastination.
  • Stress relief – Habits can help manage stress and anxiety. Exercise and meditation are examples.
  • Time savings – Habits eliminate decision fatigue. You no longer debate things like when to go to the gym.
  • Skill building – Consistent habits help sharpen skills and abilities. Just like compound interest, regular practice pays continuous dividends.

In summary, habits powerfully shape our health, productivity, finances and happiness. Making positive habits part of your routine can pay major dividends.

Differences Between Goals and Habits

Now that we’ve explored goals and habits separately, what are the key differences between the two?

Goals Habits
Outcome-focused Behavior-focused
Have specific endpoint Ongoing consistency
Require conscious effort Can be automated
Provides direction Provides discipline
Motivates action Strengthens willpower
Measures by completion Measures by consistency
Achieved over long-term Developed through repetition

Although goals and habits work differently, they complement each other well. Goals provide the direction while habits build the discipline and skills to get there.

Here are some examples of utilizing both in harmony:

  • Set a goal to lose 30 lbs and build an exercise habit of swimming 3x a week.
  • Have a goal to publish a book and write 500 words a day as a writing habit.
  • Want to save $20k this year? Make a savings goal and automatic transfer habit to hit it.

Goals chart the destination but habits fuel the journey. Aligning goals and habits is a proven way to realize your objectives and get results.

How to Set Goals That Stick

Many people set goals with good intentions but struggle to achieve them. According to research, only 8% of people fully stick to their New Year’s resolutions.

Why do so many goals fail? Oftentimes it’s because they lack consistency and accountability.

Here are 5 strategies to set goals that stick:

1. Start with the end in mind

Begin by getting crystal clear on the specific outcome you want to accomplish. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. This creates focus and clarity on what you’re aiming for.

2. Break it down into milestones

Don’t get intimidated by a huge goal. Break it down into smaller milestones with their own mini-deadlines. Milestones create measurable progress and make the goal more digestible.

3. Schedule actions to achieve the goal

Use calendars and to-do lists to schedule the specific actions needed to hit your milestones. Schedule exercise sessions, writing time, and other steps required to succeed. This organization and structure will help the goal feel manageable.

4. Limit obstacles ahead of time

Anticipate potential distractions, obstacles and competing priorities that could derail your goal. Have solutions ready in advance for when life happens. Limit obstacles before they limit you.

5. Share your goal with others

Tell supportive friends and family about your goal. Share it with someone who will hold you accountable. Social accountability helps reinforce consistency and progress.

Setting goals is one thing but sticking to them is another. Use these 5 tips to create goals engineered for success from the start.

Top 7 Daily Habits to Build For Success

Building just a few positive daily habits can have a remarkable impact over time. Here are 7 great habits to consider developing:

1. Wake up early

Waking up early jumpstarts the day with calm and focus. Use the morning time for self-care rituals, goal-setting, and preparing for the day ahead.

2. Exercise daily

Daily exercise, even just 20 minutes, can dramatically improve health, mood, and focus. Build an exercise habit first thing in the morning or during a lunch break.

3. Read books

Reading educational books builds knowledge, expands perspectives and fuels creativity. Try to read for at least 30 minutes daily.

4. Write down goals

Writing your top goals every morning engrains them into your subconscious. This habit programs your mind to work towards them all day.

5. Schedule your day

Take 5-10 minutes each morning to schedule when you’ll complete important tasks. Planning ahead leads to better time management.

6. Practice gratitude

Cultivate gratitude by naming 3 things you’re grateful for every evening. This habit conditions you to think positively.

7. Unplug from technology

Set a habit to unplug from emails, social media and devices at least one hour before bed. This allows peaceful reflection.

Start small by focusing on just 1-2 new habits at a time. Do them consistently for 30 days to cement them into routine. Then build upon them with additional positive rituals over time.

Tips to Successfully Build Habits That Last

Creating lasting habits doesn’t happen overnight. It requires dedication and persistence. Here are 5 tips to successfully build habits that stick:

1. Start extremely small

The #1 reason habits fail is people start with goals that are too ambitious. Lifelong non-exercisers won’t start working out 5x a week overnight. Start with just 5 minutes of exercise per day. Just focus on sticking to the tiny habit. Increase the habit once the baseline is consistent.

2. Eliminate friction points

Friction points are barriers that make a habit tougher. Eliminate points of friction surrounding your new habit. For example, put your running shoes right by the bed to reduce friction to go for a morning run. Make the habit so easy you can’t say no.

3. Create accountability

Tell people about your new habit. Share it on social media. Having others hold you accountable increases follow-through. You’ll work harder to maintain the habit.

4. Reward yourself

Reinforce new habits by treating yourself after completing them. Enjoy a piece of chocolate after your daily walk. Give yourself an endorphin boost and positive association with the habit.

5. Be patient

It takes time for habits to stick. Be patient and focus on consistency, not speed. Logging 30 days of a habit makes it start feeling automatic. Persist day after day.

Building lasting habits doesn’t happen overnight but it is achievable. Start small, eliminate friction, and reward consistency. In time, the habits will stick for good.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 3 most important habits for success?

The 3 most important habits for success are:

  1. Daily exercise – Exercising even 20-30 mins daily has incredible effects on physical and mental health. It gives energy, reduces stress, and boosts confidence.
  2. Reading daily – Reading educational books builds knowledge, stimulates creativity, and expands perspectives over time. Successful people read daily.
  3. Meditation – Meditation cultivates focus, emotional intelligence, and inner peace. Starting each day with 5-10 mins of meditation leads to calm productivity.

How long does it take for a habit to become automatic?

Research suggests it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to become automatic. However, that assumes you are practicing the habit consistently and correctly. It’s important not to miss days, especially when starting out. The first few weeks are when habits are easiest to break.

What makes habits hard to break?

Habits become hard to break due to the conditioned reinforcement and neurological patterns created in the brain by repeating actions. The basal ganglia creates a neural “shortcut” that links the action to a contextual cue automatically. This ingrained neurological shortcut persists even when trying to stop a habit.

What is the best time of day to build new habits?

The best time of day to build habits is generally the morning or right after work before other activities ensue. Our willpower and discipline tend to be highest early in the day or right after work compared to late evenings. Creating routines around these naturally productive times leads to maximum habit adherence.

How do you maintain new habits long-term?

Key strategies to maintain new habits long-term include:

  1. Keep habit goals small and build gradually over time
  2. Maintain vigilance with daily consistency, especially on off days
  3. Schedule habits to lock them into your routine
  4. Create intrinsic rewards and enjoyments around your new habits
  5. Commit publicly by sharing your habits with others to build accountability


Goals and habits complement each other. Goals provide direction while habits create discipline. Setting S.M.A.R.T goals and sticking to them requires building positive habits like exercise, reading, and meditation. Small consistent actions create results. Focus first on building a habit foundation before expanding goals. Be patient and maintain consistency day-by-day. In time, the compound effect of small habits leads to big success.

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