The habit is more important than the goal – why this is also true for systems change

One thing I have to admit is that I am not much into doing sports, never have been. I know that it is part of a healthy lifestyle to keep yourself fit, but I’m struggling to put this into practice. The one sport I have tried to keep up is running, because of its simplicity – all you need is a pair of running shoes. But also with that, I have been struggling. For a while I do it fairly regularly, then I drop it again for the one or the other reason. I often struggled to convince myself to go out running during the day, particularly if running competed with reading a book or writing a blog post! So it has all been quite frustrating. 

In personal development and self-improvement, using an approach that is based on habits seems more promising for most people than an approach that is based on goals. Just think about the many New Year’s resolutions that were never achieved. I tried to put this advice into practice and it seems to work. By making it a habit, rather than by setting a goal of running a half-marathon in six months time, I am now running relatively regularly, which is good for my health. But would this also help us when we approach systems change? Can we think of certain institutionalised behaviours in systems as good or bad habits? This thought I had while running this morning seems worth exploring.

The core message with habits is that habits a strong factor shaping our individual behaviours. If we do something out of habit, we don’t think about it. And most importantly, we usually don’t question it. So taking this advice to heart, I started running as a habit, three times a week, first thing in the morning. The idea was not to run a certain distance or with a certain speed, but just to run regularly, at the same days at the same time. So it would become a habit. I have to say, even though I am certainly not fully consistent, I haven’t run as regularly as in the last six months or so for a long time. The central point is that I don’t have to argue with myself every time if it is a good time to go out running now, because you always find a reason why it isn’t. 

There is an interesting article about this on Farnam Street that describes the idea really well:

Nothing will change your future trajectory like your habits. We all have goals, big or small, things we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Some people want to make a million dollars by the time they turn 30. Some people want to lose 20 pounds before summer. Some people want to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase an intangible or vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness), making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are algorithms operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals more effectively and efficiently. Bad ones makes things harder or prevent success entirely. Habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

The article describes what the problems are with goals and what the benefit is to instead focus on habits. Goals have endpoints and once reached we might revert to previous behaviours. Goals rely on factors which we do not always have control over. Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline, which is tiring over time. And very importantly:

Goals can make us complacent or reckless.Studies have shown that people’s brains can confuse goal setting with achievement. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior. 

Habits, on the other hand, take otherwise difficult tasks—like running—and make them easy. If we build on habits, we don’t stop once a goal is reached but we keep going. Habits should be small and achievable but regular. A habit would be to read 10 or 20 pages a day, which is achievable even on busy days. My habit is to run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 6am for just 5 kilometres. Habits can be as small as necessary. And importantly, habits can compound: 

…, building a single habit can have a wider impact on our lives. [Charles] Duhigg [the author of ’The Power of Habit’] calls these keystone habits. These are behaviors that cause people to change related areas of their lives. For example, people who start exercising daily may end up eating better and drinking less. Likewise, those who quit a bad habit may end up replacing it with a positive alternative.

Why am I writing all of this? It dawned on my this morning when I was running (really true), that we should apply the same logic when we work in systems. The hypothesis here is that changing the ‘habits’ of a system is more powerful and more sustainable than achieving a set goal. 

Let’s take an example of a project I support in Eastern Europe. Our goal is to reach 2,000 people and improve their economic situation. The project takes a systemic approach, so the idea is to change the way the economic system works to deliver this number. The current ‘habits’ of the economy include training people with skills they cannot use in the economy, creating situations where growing companies cannot recruit enough people; for people to migrate to Western Europe rather than to look for work in the country; business people not getting the information they need about markets, demand conditions or available technologies; research and development that is not happening at all or not useful for the economy; etc. 

Two scenarios how we could tackle this situation (there are of course more, but just to make this point). First, we could find some business models that would improve the situation of our target group, ideally of at last 2,000 people. They could be tailored ways of delivering information, building the particular skills needed by the companies we work with or matching a particular group of people with a particular set of jobs. Of course we would make sure that these business models are sustainable, meaning that they are viable also without project support and are likely to be sustained after the project finishes – at least unless there are some larger shifts in the economy that makes them unviable (but that would be out of our hands as we would be out of there by then).

The second scenario is that we could attempt to change some of the habits of the system. We could work on how information is collected and distributed to economic actors so they know what interesting market opportunities are, how demand is shaped, or what technologies are available to improve the quality of their product. We could work with skills development organisations on how they make sure the skills they train are relevant and demanded. We could work with various key actors in the economy to become better in collaborating to make sense of what is going on and develop economic development strategies on their own. These sound like pretty good habits to have in a healthy economy – even if they start small in the beginning. This might not lead to 2,000 people benefitting in the next four years – the duration of the project. But it will most probably benefit many more down the line, because habits are generally long lasting.

The question is how do we define good habits and bad habits in an economy. Some more thought is needed on this. I would say that good habits encourage people to try more things and create options, to work together to develop common development strategies, to have the necessary structures in place that support entrepreneurs in what they do, etc. Maybe on more micro level habits could be that people would value repeated interactions that are based on trust and reliability rather than one-off, profit maximising transactions. Or that quality would be habitually preferred over quantity. A good habit could also be to include all kinds of people in sense making and decision making processes and in setting strategies and directions, because this generally leads to a more inclusive society. 

Supporting economies to adopt better habits and maybe shed some bad ones for me certainly sounds like a plausible alternative to the development practice of fixing current problems with narrow solutions, and would likely lead to more sustainable development and more resilient economies and societies.

Working on habits is also a continuous work. While I’m slowly getting into the habit of running, I’m still struggling with getting into the habit of reading and writing regularly. That is why my blog posts are fairly irregular. Definitely my next goal to create this habit … (pun intended). So in systems, strengthening the system’s abilities to reflect on its own habits and change them over time would be an added challenge.

Title photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The habit is more important than the goal – why this is also true for systems change

  1. Bhav

    In a strange way, it reminds me of Deming. He used control charts to map the variation in a system, and the upper and lower control limits of the variation. Then he would work on influencing the habits of the system to see if they would improve the variation and the limits. So as well as the habits, you need a way of understanding how the system changes for the better. That probably made no sense, can explain next time we chat!

  2. Frank Waeltring

    Great reflection. I once read a book by Gretchen Rubin “Better than before”-What I learned about making and breaking habits” where she says: “Habit is a good servant, but a bad master”. We should ask us ourselves in the work we do: To what end do we pursue this habit? The habits have still to suit the context and do not have a one´s fits all character. I liked that phrase.


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