The Power of Habits
12 October 2020
The myth of willpower
Willpower, passion, drive, discipline; these are buzzwords you hear a lot these days, and to which people attach a lot of meaning. Whenever someone fails, their failure is often attributed to one of those terms. They ‘lacked motivation’, or they ‘just weren’t passionate enough about it’, and failed to achieve what they wanted to. Conversely, when someone succeeds, it’s because they were disciplined, driven or ‘inspired’. Terms such as these are exalted to nearly divine qualities, as if possessing them is some mark of divine providence or grand destiny. While we rightly believe that to be a gross exaggeration, there is of course no denying that being inspired, passionate, driven and disciplined are great things to be; but they simply pale in comparison to the power of habits.
At the Productivity Company, we’ve made it one of our habits to browse the web every two weeks or so, searching for articles and blogs relating to subjects that are close to our hearts. Recently, we came across an article titled ‘Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life’ on the Farnam Street Blog, a website that contains a ton of interesting and thought-provoking articles and blogs. This article reinforced our belief in the power of habits (though the article in question offered a far more elaborate and eloquent take on the matter), and the idea that it is preferable to engage in habit-based learning than goal-oriented learning.
Habits versus goals
The article in question explains this very well. There’s several advantages attached to habits, and disadvantages to setting goals. A main disadvantage of chasing goals is that you are dependent on willpower, which is a finite resource that drains your energy and directs it away from other things you could spend it on. Habits, however, once ingrained into your daily life, don’t cost much energy or willpower. After all, it’s just a part of your routine.
Goals can also be as unrealistic as you like, and become as large and daunting as your imagination allows it. Our brains often confuse setting goals with working towards them, so it’s very tempting to set unrealistic goals and feel good about it, while falling into despair when you find yourself failing to meet them. Habits, in contrast, are usually small, and it’s actually more likely that you overshoot your habits than fail to perform them (when trying to read 5 pages per day, overshooting and reading 10 isn’t all that unlikely).
Goals are also subject to external factors to a far greater extent than habits; habits can be interrupted by unexpected events such as illness, calamities or personal issues, but since they’re small and ingrained in your behavior, you’ll likely recover quickly. The same can’t be said for goals, which, when brutally interrupted, cost you a sizeable chunk of willpower and momentum.
And let’s not forget that goals have a set endpoint, whereas habits are for life. Reading 25 pages every day of your life is far more beneficial than reading a 1000 page book once.
When you switch your focus from specific goals to lifelong habits, you’re essentially embracing Continuous Improvement as a lifestyle. Yes, the very same Continuous Improvement that is constantly being touted by Lean and Lean Six Sigma professionals all over the world as the Holy Grail of Productivity. And with good reason. It simply works. By introducing positive habits into your life, you are making progress in incremental steps, improving your productivity without much effort or thought.
Apply this to education, and you’ll quickly arrive at the crux of our message, the core message around which we structured our business and which inspires us to do what we do every day. Lifelong learning in bite-sized chunks, or as we chose to describe it in our motto:
“Learning shouldn’t be a struggle or a chore; it should be a lifestyle”
The most effective learning is learning that can be done every day. Clearly we’ve decided to interpret this as 30 minutes of e-learning every day, and believe that online courses are the ideal vessel for this philosophy of learning, but naturally this applies every style of learning. Read 25 book pages every day, read an article, watch a documentary on youtube, try out a new exercise.
Develop yourself every day, one habit at a time, and you’ll be more productive than ever before.