How to Achieve Your Goals with Healthy Habits

Note: This is a guest post by Leo Babauta who blogs at Zen Habits about setting goals, creating habits, productivity, GTD, motivation, exercise and more.

We’ve all faced the disappointment and guilt that comes from setting a goal and giving up on it after a couple of weeks. Sustaining motivation for a long-term goal is hard to achieve, and yet the best goals can usually only be accomplished in a few months or even years.

Here’s the solution: Focus instead on creating a new habit that will lead to achieving your goal.

Want to run a marathon? First create the habit of running every day. Want to get out of debt and start saving? Create the habit of brown bagging it to work, or watching DVDs instead of going to the movies, or whatever change will lead to saving money for you.

By focusing not on what you have to achieve over the course of the next year, but instead on what you are doing each day, you are focusing on something achievable. That little daily change will add up to a huge change, over time … and you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve come in no time. Little grains of sand can add up to a mountain over time.

I used this philosophy of habit changes to run a marathon, to change my diet and lose weight, to write a novel, to quit smoking, to become organized and productive, to double my income, reduce my debt and start saving, and to begin training for an Olympic triathlon this year. It works, if you focus on changing habits.

Now, changing your habits isn’t easy — I won’t lie to you — but it’s achievable, especially if you start small. Don’t try to change the world with your first habit change … take baby steps at first. I started by just trying to run a mile — and by the end of the year, I could run more than 20 miles.

How do you change your habits? Focus on one habit at a time, and follow these steps:

  1. Positive changes. If you’re trying to change a negative habit (quit smoking), replace it with a positive habit (running for stress relief, for example).
  2. Take on a 30-day challenge. Tell yourself that you’re going to do this habit every day, at the same time every day, for 30 straight days without fail. Once you’re past that 30-day mark, the habit will become much easier. If you fail, do not beat yourself up. Start again on a new 30-day challenge. Practice until you succeed.
  3. Commit yourself completely. Don’t just tell yourself that you might or should do this. Tell the world that DEFINITELY will do this. Put yourself into this 100 percent. Tell everyone you know. Email them. Put it on your blog. Post it up at your home and work place. This positive public pressure will help motivate you.
  4. Set up rewards. It’s best to reward yourself often the first week, and then reward yourself every week for that first month. Make sure these are good rewards, that will help motivate you to stay on track.
  5. Plan to beat your urges. It’s best to start out by monitoring your urges, so you become more aware of them. Track them for a couple days, putting a tally mark in a small notebook every time you get an urge. Write out a plan, before you get the urges, with strategies to beat them. We all have urges to quit — how will you overcome it? What helps me most are deep breathing and drinking water. You can get through an urge — it will pass.
  6. Track and report your progress. Keep a log or journal or chart so that you can see your progress over time. I used a running log for my marathon training, and a quit meter when I quit smoking. It’s very motivating to see how far you’ve come. Also, if you can join an online group and report your progress each day, or email family and friends on your progress, that will help motivate you.

Most important of all: Always stay positive. I learned the habit of monitoring my thoughts, and if I saw any negative thoughts (“I want to stop!”) I would squash it like a little bug, and replace it with a positive thought (“I can do this!”). It works amazingly. This is the best tip ever. If you think negative thoughts, you will definitely fail. But if you always think positive, you will definitely succeed.

Read more posts by Leo Babauta at Zen Habits.