Home All Habits Can Beat Goals for Improving Performance

Habits Can Beat Goals for Improving Performance

written by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin 16 September 2009

Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin are the authors of the book Profit From the Positive. Articles written jointly by Margaret and Senia are here.

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio. Her solo articles are here.

Senia Maymin, MAPP '06 is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio. Her solo articles are here, and her articles with Kathryn Britton are here.

Building Muscles

Muscles Built from Habit

Suppose you routinely get an hour of exercise five days a week. You have a gym at your workplace that you visit every morning Monday through Friday. Both the location of the gym and the timing of your workout are convenient for you. Now suppose you change jobs and there is no gym at your new workplace. What is the likelihood that you’ll stick to your exercise routine?

Psychologist Wendy Wood of Duke University and two colleagues looked at the results on exercise of students that transfer into an environment different from their earlier environment. Those students for whom the environment was very similar (same distance to the gym, similar class schedule, etc.) reported that they stuck with their exercise habit. Those students for whom the environment changed quite a bit were more likely to drop the exercise routine.

Wood and her colleagues point to the importance of timing and environment in triggering our habit cues. For those students who either had the same context or were able to create one in their new environment, adhering to their exercise regimen was simple. It wasn’t something they needed to think about. It didn’t require additional mental energy.

Habits = Less Thinking, Less Stress

Wood and two other colleagues studied habits in everyday life and found that people who perform habits use less of their conscious thinking and have less stress when engaging in the habit compared to those who engage in a conscious, deliberate goal. Using exercise as an example this means that people who view exercise as a habit do so automatically – they don’t even really think about it; they “Just Do It” as Nike proclaims.

At the office first thing

At the office first thing

How to Turn A Goal into a Habit


In general, if we want to achieve something in our lives, we start with a new behavior to achieve our target result. If we want to be more productive, we have to deliberately plan, “I will spend the first hour of the morning on this important project.” Initially, there is more conscious thinking.

Then, if we create the same time and same place for that behavior – “every morning first thing in the office, I will work on this project” (same time, same place) – then it becomes more routine and requires less thinking and less stress to accomplish it.

That’s in summary the transition from a goal into a habit: a target result starts with deliberate focus, and then because of repetition in the same environment, becomes more automatic.

Wood and her colleague David Neal at Duke University have identified a theory of habit-goal interface. They propose three principles:

  1. Habits respond to environmental cues (same place, same time)
  2. Habits arise when people use a particular behavior to pursue a goal, and habits will remain even after people stop having that goal as a pursuit (the habit of running every morning can aim towards the goal of losing weight; running will be habitual even when the ideal weight is reached)
  3. Habits do not change to meet current goals; they remain linked to the environment in which they were created (running outside in the summer may not be transferable to running inside in the winter)

Hotel Gym

Hotel Gym

Sometimes we start by having a goal (like starting to floss everyday after being reprimanded by our hygienist) and eventually it becomes a habit (when I reach for my toothbrush, I also reach for the floss).

Be aware that sometimes we need a short dose of conscious thought to move from a goal to a habit. For example, although you may intend to exercise on your business trip you may not exercise as much or at all because you are away from your usual routine. The hotel gym is not the natural context for you. You will probably need to focus more conscious thought (such as remembering to pack your gym clothes, asking upon check-in for the location of the gym, etc.), in order to keep to your exercise goal. But keep in mind, even hotel gym workouts can become a habit if repeated often enough.

Goals Becoming Habits at Work

How well do you schedule and prioritize at work? Is this something you constantly need to work at, or is this something that comes habitually to you? For example:

Goal: “I have a goal to clean out my email in-box on the weekend.”
Habit: “I delete or archive each email after reading it.”

Given the above habit-goal interface theory, we recommend that you outsource as much of your life as possible to the unconscious, just get-it-done mental energy. Turn actions into habits.

Make your life easy for yourself. If something is important to you, don’t think about it each and every time. Make it a habit.

Some sample habits:

  • Decide on a time to plan your day with no interruptions (some of our clients prefer last thing before they leave for the day, some prefer first thing in the morning).
  • Look at your priorities and schedule for only 18 minutes out of the day, but at the same times of the day (a Peter Bregman recommendation).
  • Write a list of what you will do and what you will avoid for the day (another Peter Bregman recommendation).
  • Check email at only certain times each day, not whenever a new one pops up.
  • Read PositivePsychologyNews.com at the same time every day.

When you put necessary actions into habits, you free up your mental energy for other things – like building and deepening relationships at home, at work, and in our communities.

Enjoy cultivating your new habits!

Editor’s note: This is one of the ideas explored in the book by Margaret and Senia published in 2013, Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business.



Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the interface between habits and goals. Psychological Review.

Wood, W., Tam, L., & Guerrero Witt, M. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 918-933.

Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281-1297.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Abs courtesy of d_vdm
Hotel gym (Twitter 365 Project – Day 62) courtesy of lu_lu
At the office first thing (omg Shiny Trousers) courtesy of SimonDoggett

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1 comment

Vera Kleinschmidt 11 March 2016 - 1:10 am

This is very helpful. I used to be overly obsessed with too many things, my appearance, household, studies, friendships, hobbies all at once. Now I will try my best to make essential things like going to gym and cooking in the evening a habit and focus on important stuff.


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