Over the weekend, I attended a workshop that, at one point, covered the SMART Goals framework: good goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resourced, and Time-Limited.  I’ve seen the SMART rubric about a thousand times before, and there’s good research that backs it up. But, increasingly, new research – and my own experience, as long-standing readers here are doubtless sick of hearing – indicates that, for many of the things we want in life, habits are actually more powerful and effective than goals.

Goals work best when they’re essentially big projects, with discrete endpoints.  Let’s say you want to rebuild your grandfather’s WWII motorcycle.  Great!  That’s a perfect goal, as it breaks neatly into sub-goals, then into doable tasks in turn.

But imagine, instead, that you want to write a novel, lose 30 pounds, learn Spanish, or run a marathon.  For any of those pursuits, it’s less clear what sub-goals look like, aside from just smaller versions of the same thing (write half a novel, lose ten pounds, etc.).  As a result, those kinds of projects often yield better to just regularly chipping away.  To take the first example, a more effective approach might be to write three pages today, then three pages tomorrow, and then three pages the day after that.  In other words, a novel-writing habit.

So, goals have their place, as do habits.  But while goals have a snappy acronym (SMART!), habits don’t seem to have gotten similar love.  To give them a fighting chance, I took the liberty of coining them a framework of their own: The DUMB Habit.

To illustrate, let’s look at a habit you hopefully already practice – brushing your teeth – as well as a few other examples.  Off we go:

First, a good habit is DURABLE.  In other words, it’s something you could still be doing, productively, six months (or six years) down the line.  That’s the primary factor that differentiates a habit from a goal.  For your grandfather’s motorcycle, you might need to polish the rust off the fender today, but in a few weeks, that task would neither be needed or relevant.  Whereas you can brush your teeth tonight, and you can brush them in ten years; you can do it for however long you have (and want to keep) your teeth.  So, for example, to keep my Italian sharp, for years I used Google news to find and read one or two of the day’s top articles in Italian each morning.  It took just a few minutes, but it forced me to use the Italian part of my brain intensively, in a real-world sort of way, and kept the language fluent.  As long as there was still news in the world, and Italian papers were still publishing, the habit remained DURABLE and evergreen.

Second, a good habit is USEFUL.  Or, put another way, a good habit has a payoff high enough to warrant the time spent on it.  Why do you brush your teeth every morning and night?  Because you’d strongly prefer not to lose those teeth, or have them turn black, riddled with cavities.  To that end, four minutes daily seems a reasonable price.  Weighing the value of habits is important, because while each is often small in isolation, as you take on more of them, they start to pile up.  It’s surprisingly easy to reach the point where you’re spending two hours out of each day on the full stack.  If all of your habits are worth their weight, great.  But it’s also worth occasionally auditing them, just in case some are no longer as relevant. Though I read those Italian articles for years, per the prior example, at some point, without any trips to Italy coming up, without any Italian speakers in my daily orbit, and with a lot other work on my plate, I decided it simply wasn’t worth the time, and I let that habit drop.  But, whether it’s an old habit or a new one, the calculus is the same: a good habit has to have a future payoff big enough to warrant the daily commitment of time; a good habit has to be USEFUL enough to sustain.

Third, a good habit is MEMORABLE, in at least one of two ways.  A lot of habits benefit from having a ‘cue’ – a place, time, or triggering event that reminds you to enact the habit.  Most people brush their teeth as soon as they get up, and right before they go to bed.  Wake up => brush teeth.  An easy, memorable cue.  Other habits, however, are inherently more amorphous.  Let’s say, for example, that you want to cut back on your drinking.  I’ve had a number off friends successfully achieve that by instituting a ‘glass ceiling’: they set a hard rule that they stop after two drinks in a given day.  (Some even count from midnight to midnight, so if they’re out partying into the wee hours on a special occasion, they can hit four drinks – two before midnight, and two after – by ‘using up’ the following day’s drinks.)  Obviously, there’s no specific magic to the ‘glass ceiling’ rule, but the name itself is stupidly catchy and memorable. “Sorry, I can’t have another, I already hit my glass ceiling” is somehow easier for your brain to latch on to – both as an explanation to others, and as an explanation to yourself – than just ‘I should cut back.’   So, whether your habit is tied to a cue, or has a name/catchphrase that lets you rehearse the idea in your mind, a good habit is MEMORABLE enough that you actually remember to do it at the right time.

Finally, a good habit is BEHAVIORAL – it’s a simple, concrete action.  You shouldn’t have to puzzle through what to do when the time comes; instead, you should be able to jump in and get to work.  Tooth brushing?  Put some paste on the brush, add some water, then scrub for two minutes.  Voila.  Whereas something like “eat healthier” isn’t really a clear habit.  Tomorrow, when you sit down for breakfast, you still may not know what to eat.  What is the specific action there?  That’s part of why, in my experience, intermittent fasting (or “IF”) turns out to be an extremely effective and sustainable diet approach for many people.  IF is based around a single, simple behavior: when you would normally sit down for breakfast tomorrow, don’t.  In short, after your last meal of the day, wait a minimum of 14 hours for women or 16 hours for men (I’ll spare you the long, hormone-based rationale behind the different numbers) until you eat again the following day.  Let’s say I finish dinner at 9pm.  Great; then I don’t eat until lunch the next day at 1pm.  That’s the whole thing.  But, miraculously, that has a slew of health and body composition benefits.  In other word, it’s a simple, BEHAVIORAL solution to the thorny problem of a healthy diet.

So, DUMB: Durable, Useful, Memorable, Behavioral.  If you’d like to make a change in your life, see if you can get there with a new habit that fits those four criteria.  Ironically enough, it’s a pretty smart approach.

October 18, 2017