Goals, Objectives, Habits, and Triggers

Image from Pyramid Building, by William J. Cromie, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images
Image from Pyramid Building, by William J. Cromie, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images

In yesterday’s post, I talked about resolutions. My post was incomplete, though, as I only touched upon how to make your resolutions real. Now, I’ll outline a mechanism you can put into action today.

The problem with most resolutions is that they’re extrinsic in nature. Your resolution might be to lose weight, be more successful, or earn more money. If so, I’d question whether you’re trying to live up to ideals that aren’t your own. I’m not passing judgement—in fact, I’ve had similar hopes in the past. But these sorts of desires are hard to realize—because they aren’t based on what moves you.

A way to get around this trap is to ask personal questions about the goals you set. For example: Why am I doing this? Why is this goal important to me? Why am I willing to dedicate all my energy to this?  You should ask these questions to avoid finding out that you’ve spent your life chasing something you didn’t actually want. And, if your goal is about changing how others see you, it deserves more thought.

Goals are more about direction than destination. Yours might be to live a healthier lifestyle. Your reason for doing so could be to experience life more fully. The point of this sort of a goal isn’t about “arriving.” Instead, it represents a state of being that you’ll likely want to remain within.

An objective is different; it’s something you’ll complete, and then replace with another. Think upon objectives like milestones. On your path to a healthy lifestyle, you could set an objective of participating in a 5km fun run. After you finish that race, you might ramp up to a 10km. Each of these objectives supports your larger goal. Try to limit your objectives to a small number (i.e. 1 or 2)—as more than this will become overwhelming.

Goals work over the long-term; objectives are more mid-term. In the meanwhile, you need to do something that starts moving you down your path. This is where habits come in. Habits are the bricks that you build your tower with. Even when individual acts feel inconsequential, they have enormous cumulative power.

If you want your habits to work, make them small. This allows you to repeat them without much strain. “Run 10km every morning” seems like a fine habit, but could be hard to repeat after a few days. So, try something smaller like, “walk to work.” Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, it’ll start to feel normal. This is important, as it represents the rewiring of your rituals and expectations. Soon, the notion of switching your morning walk to a run won’t seem like a big deal.

None of what I’m saying here is groundbreaking, or in any way new. Many have written about goal setting, habit formation, and the like. The part that has made a difference for me, though, gets less attention.

I’ve set goals. I’ve found excitement in objectives. But, I’ve had a tougher time with habits. I think this is because habits need time to become established as part of your daily routine. You’ll find that triggers will help with this.

Triggers are the small things you do to set yourself up for more automated actions. This might sound weird, so allow me to rephrase. If you need to think (at all) about your habits, you’re less likely to act on them.

Want to walk to work? Set aside your shoes, rain gear, and dry clothes (for after your walk), in advance. That way, all you’ll have to do in the morning is slide into your gear, and go. Want to eat a healthy breakfast? Put your smoothie ingredients in the blender the night before. That way, all that stands between you and breakfast is flipping the switch.

You can achieve almost anything you’d like. The problem most folks encounter occurs when they set goals that aren’t their own. Additionally, some fail to identify the small steps required to make those goals achievable. Meanwhile, some set conflicting directives—like wanting to earn more money and be less stressed-out. These mixed desires are an unintentional form of self-sabotage.

Find goals that matter to you. Choose objectives to work toward. Determine daily habits you can live with. Set up triggers that make action easy. Along the way, you’ll slip. That’s OK. Your setbacks are just temporary glitches—and not a matter to obsess over. But, every time you practice a habit, you achieve a small victory.


  1. I think the part about setting your goals and evaluating your desires is a fantastic point, but I think that there’s a few things that you’re missing when it comes to habits.

    To people struggling with maintaining them, it’s worth pointing out that habits are themselves tools toward achieving your ends. They’re pre-packaged chunks of thought that should require no additional effort to maintain. If you have to think about setting up for your habit, it’s not really a habit. The goal is to cajole yourself initially into developing it into mindlessness, and the important thing in doing that is focusing on the reward.

    So to review, briefly, there are three parts of the habit itself: first, the cue or the trigger, which you’ve described, the performance, and then the reward. The latter is the most important because it will help you overcome the effort differential between performing the habit and doing nothing — the second time around. The first time is easy, and often buoyed by our desire to change… but it’s the second time that’s tough, and every time after that until not performing the habit would be just weird.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you have to find the right reward. I know some people who can play Habit RPG and derive enough satisfaction from leveling up a digital character that they completely transform their lives… but I’m not one of them. The right reward isn’t always apparent, but if you really think about it long and hard, you’ll find the right reward, or realize that the habit you’re trying to pick up isn’t really the right one.

    (For extra reading: there are also certain types of habits that have transformative power. Charles Duhigg calls them “Keystone Habits” in *The Power of Habit*, and they’re absolutely worth reading about, because they’ll give you a natural springboard to your other habits.)

    1. I agree with you—that the reward is important is an important part of making habits work. That said, I’m not sure that identifying the reward is something that needs to be done deliberately. Instead, rewards can to reveal themselves organically.

      For example, my reward for having gone on a long run seems to be a sort of “happy buzz” that hits me after I finish. This feeling ties nicely to a hot shower, and laying on the couch afterwards. These are all rewards that occur naturally after my runs, and I probably wouldn’t have even known of them in advance of me running regularly. I needed to go on those runs, and let those rewards become apparent to me.

      Of course, if you’re looking to manipulate consumer behavior, such a relaxed timeline isn’t viable. (Many of Duhigg’s examples refer to marketing consumer products, which makes the book relatable for business folks.) P&G can’t wait to figure out the reward; they need to anticipate such events, and build them into their marketing plans.

      I’m not meaning to poo-poo reward mechanisms as they relate to habit formation. I just think they are more powerful (to the individual) when they’re the result of real experiences—instead of more calculated schemes. i.e. I could bribe myself with the reward of a beer after every run, but I’m not sure it’d be as powerful as what I get out of that natural buzz.

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