How to Cultivate Habit Goals

How to Cultivate Habit Goals

by: Emily Thomas

In the 2022 PowerSheets®, we suggested categorizing your goal efforts into one of three buckets: Habits, Finish Lines, or Big Dreams.

Habits: These actions establish rhythms in your life and create consistency. You may have Habits you want to continue growing, or new Habits you want to cultivate. 

Finish Lines: These goals move you from where you are now to where (and who!) you want to be. Finish Lines might be inspired by key areas of your life that need nurturing. They can be completed in the space of a year and are specific and measurable.

Big Dreams: These goals are often new, bold, or life-changing—taking extra effort or a leap of faith to complete. These goals may feel thrilling (or even a little nerve-wracking) to create and leave you inspired at the thought of achieving them. Most of us will set no more than 1-2 each year, and they may take several years to complete.

These three types of goals work hand-in-hand: for example, a Big Dream is often accomplished through completing several Finish Line goals and a handful of Habits adding up. Categorizing your goals like this helps you to understand the amount and type of effort that will be needed to achieve them. And when we have accurate expectations, we're less likely to get frustrated or overwhelmed!

Habits, Finish Lines, and Big Dreams are best accomplished in unique ways. Today, we're sharing some easy and proven ways to grow good habits from Team Cultivate and the CWM community!

First, though, it's worth sharing the four overarching ways to create a good habit and four ways to break a bad habit (you'll notice the second four are the inverse of the first four!). These are from James Clear's book Atomic Habits, and though many have shared variations on these ideas, I think he presents them clearly and succinctly:

How to create a good habit:

Make it obvious
Make it attractive
— Make it easy
— Make it satisfying

How to break a bad habit:

— Make it invisible
— Make it unattractive
— Make it difficult
— Make it unsatisfying

Keep these in mind as we look at some specific strategies!

1. Make sure the habit actually matters to you. You don't have to focus on the habits the world tells you to build, or the habits that look attractive when other people do them. Connect your habits to a strong, clear, personally-meaningful why and you'll be much more likely to follow through.

2. Make a specific plan for when and where you'll perform a new habit. This is called an implementation intention, and many studies have shown how powerful they can be! Write down the exact details of when you'll complete your habit. Think: "I will empty the dishwasher first thing in the morning," or "I will go to Pilates class every Tuesday on my way home from work."

3. Stack your habits. Pair a current habit with a habit you're hoping to grow. The key is to choose an "anchor habit" that is already a no-brainer part of your day. This way, you won't need to worry about remembering to perform your new habit—the old one will trigger it! Think: doing bicep curls next to the tub while your children take a bath or reading a chapter of a book while you drink your morning coffee.

4. Make the best choice the most obvious. Visual cues have the most impact on our behavior, so a small change in what we see can lead to a big change in what we do. For example, if you'd like to play your guitar more often, hang it on the wall instead of leaving it in its case. Another example: move cut-up fruits and veggies to the front of the refrigerator.

5. Make worse choices less obvious. This also works in the inverse: if you're working to reduce a bad habit, try to downplay the visual cues. Charge your phone in your closet or laundry room if you're trying to pick it up less. Keep chips and crackers in a cabinet you have to stand on a chair to reach.

6. Pair something you want to do with a habit you need to do. This is called temptation bundling, and it's a term coined by Katherine Milkman, a behavioral economist and professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Think: saving your favorite podcasts to listen to on your daily walk, or eating a brownie while you update your budget each week.

7. Highlight your new habit's benefits rather than its drawbacks. Especially if you're trying to break a habit, cutting back on something you enjoy can feel negative, like deprivation. Instead, write out the positive effect of your new habit: "Watching TV in the evenings makes me feel lethargic and frustrated. Reading in the evenings makes me feel accomplished and cozy."

8. Reduce (or increase) the friction. Make it as easy as possible to complete your new habit, because the more energy that's required, the less likely it is to occur. Lay out your running shoes and workout clothes the night before. Leave your Bible or book open next to your coffee maker. Meal prep for the next several nights on Sunday. 

This also works in the inverse: if you're trying to cut back on a bad habit, make it harder to do. Move your social media apps to the last page of your phone, inside a folder, and log out every time you close down the app. Do not bring sugary drinks into your home. Unsubscribe from all sales emails. Grocery shop at a grocery store instead of Target. 

9. Make a one-time change that will pay dividends. This tip dovetails with many of the others on this list, but it's worth highlighting. Spend some time brainstorming one-time actions that can lead to better long-term habits. Think: moving your TV out of your central living space. Canceling a subscription. Enrolling in a specific workout class or program. Hiring an expert. Creating a quiet time basket.

10. Surround yourself with like-minded people. The people you spend time with impact the progress you'll make. "One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior," writes James. "New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day." Find ways to spend time with people who are going in the direction you want to go, whether they're equally-motivated goal setters or people who are succeeding at the particular goal you're hoping to achieve.

11. Focus on repetition, not perfection. At the beginning of a new habit, you're building an identity. Every time you perform the habit, you're giving a vote of confidence to your new identity. Just go to the gym—don't worry about how far you run. Just sit down and write—don't worry about how many pages you produce.

Many apps and programs encourage repetition—think: the Peloton app's streaks, or the Forest app's trees to encourage focus.

12. Use external accountability. This can take many forms, but it can be very powerful. A few examples:

  • You and a friend are both trying to hit 10k steps a day. You text each other when you hit 5k, which spurs you to catch up if you haven't hit that milestone yet.
  • You and a friend check-in by text once a day to confirm whether you completed a certain habit. You can even just send an emoji—no long explanations needed!
  • You and a friend commit to meeting once a week to complete your desired behavior (workout class, walking together, grocery shopping or meal planning together, making photo albums—anything!). Knowing someone is waiting on you makes you less likely to back out.

13. Set a timer. If it feels hard to start a new habit, set a timer and promise yourself you'll do it for just ten—or even five!—minutes. Run for ten minutes. Clean the kitchen for ten minutes. Update the budget for ten minutes. Once you're ten minutes in, of course, you're likely to finish the job, but even ten minutes adds up over time.

14. Track your habits. Adding a small burst of immediate, positive reward for a habit is a great way to make it stick. Many studies have shown that our brains thrive on the tiny firework of pleasure that is checking a box. Check in with your PowerSheets each time you complete a habit to help it grow! 

Remember: the goal is not to keep tracking the same habits for all time, month after month in your PowerSheets. By applying one or more of these strategies to your habits, we can't wait to see how quickly they become second-nature, and you can move on to new goals and more of the things that bring you joy!

We'd love to hear: which of these tips have you successfully applied? Which are you going to try for a new habit you're working on?

P.S. If you loved this post, you'll love our book review of Atomic Habits!

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Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is Cultivate What Matters' Content Strategist and Writer. With over a decade at Cultivate, Emily loves helping women uncover what matters, set good goals, and live them out with joy. Her free time is spent with her high-school-sweetheart husband and three young kiddos.

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