Three Steps to Greatness: Using Your Habits to Influence Your Goals

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit is persistence in practice.”— Octavia Butler, America author and MacArthur Fellow.

As complex as people are, when it comes down to it, you might consider us intelligent meat machines fueled by chemical reactions and guided, in large part, by programs we call habits. These boil down to repeated, automated actions—something like those of a robot on an auto assembly line, though not as stringent, and not always occurring in the same order. One of my colleagues almost always makes a large cup of coffee first thing each morning, eats a bagel, and gets to work. After years of doing it daily, he doesn’t have to think about the process of coffee-making, nor does he have to remind himself to refill the water reservoir or add new pods to the holder when they run low. He does so without much thought.

Some habits, like this one, we self-program over time; others we have programmed into us by parents, teachers, mentors, employers, or pastors. But humans are more than just habit-based robots; we have free will. We can decide to change our programming to accomplish astonishing things.

Constructive habits are pure gold when they become routine, as they help us achieve our objectives more quickly, with less heavy thinking. This can make a huge difference. However, doing the same thing the same way every day without deviation from the status quo at the appropriate times, in the appropriate ways, won’t accomplish anything new.

So, when the need drives you, you can program yourself with new habits to achieve new goals. Start with these steps:

  1. Clear out the deadwood. Kill off any habit failing to lead you toward your goal. For example: even spending a few minutes on Facebook or taking excessive personal breaks at work steals valuable time. So put stakes in the hearts of slacker habits and remove the inappropriate ones. Just keep in mind: it’ll take a while. Mark Twain once said, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” He’s right. Take the time to coax down each bad or unnecessary habit and make sure it leaves nothing of itself behind.
  2. Cut and paste. Change your habits whenever necessary, no matter how deeply engrained. “Experts” say it takes about 66 days (not 21) to form a new habit. However, you can coax new habits upstairs faster if you piggyback them on existing habits, cross-pollinate habits, and merge the best pieces of old habits when you can. To create new and specific “identity-based” habits, as James Clear calls them, you may need to change your assumptions, your self-image, and even your worldview.

Here’s an example. An acquaintance used to work seven days a week and got upset when unexpected client calls disrupted his to-the-minute schedule. When he got sick of the stress, he decided to loosen up. He realized client calls didn’t disrupt his schedule much if he didn’t allow it; old software was slowing him down; and some of his best ideas occurred when he either headed off for a bio-break, or to weed the flower beds and sidewalks of his home office. Now he works six days a week (except during crunch times), uses updated software, and takes daily longer breaks. He’s more productive than ever. His new habits are part of his current identity and help him more easily complete his goals. 

  1. Exercise discipline and decisiveness. Habits can be boring. To avoid boredom, you can mix things up a little, but you also must exercise strict discipline to stay on track. You may be tempted to procrastinate on some tasks, but don’t. This requires a level of firm decisiveness forcing you to do whatever’s next—another positive aspect of habits, since you automatically know what’s next! Decisiveness also involves selecting which “processes” to kill, per #1, so you can function more smoothly.

Reaching for the Gold Ring

We’ve all heard about the old-fashioned practice of “reaching for the brass ring” on the carousel for a free ride—now symbolic of stretching to achieve a goal. A goal you don’t stretch for isn’t worth the effort, right? So, ignore the brass ring, and reach for the metaphorical gold ring just beyond.

To do so, harness your habits ruthlessly, channeling them in the directions you want to go, using the ways listed here to get started.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.