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If you’ve ever read anything about personal development, you know the importance of setting goals.
But when you actually sit down to set personal goals, you may find it’s not always possible to just check one off a list and move on to the next goal. Goals are often supported by habits, skills, and ways of thinking or living that need ongoing maintenance. But as you add more and more goals, your list of activities or habits to do each day can get very long. Like, take-all-day and do-nothing-else-but-goals kind of long. Have you ever experienced this? Where you add more and more to your list and start to feel so overwhelmed that you don’t know where or how to start?
I used to get really tripped up on this. I would write out a bunch of goals for the upcoming year. Then I focused on one goal for the first month. At the end of the month, I’d think, “Score, I nailed that one! What’s next?”
Then, as my time and attention started going to the new goal, I would feel the old one start slipping out of practice. Oops!
So did I need to keep both items on my list for the second month? Wouldn’t this get out of control by the end of the year if I had twelve areas of focus that I was trying to do all at once?
And then I discovered a better way to look at goals. I started dividing my actions into two different kinds of habits:
Habit Blocks and a Habit Menus.
A Habit Block is a collection of habits or skills that build on each other to support a goal.
Let’s take the goal of creating a healthy lifestyle. To achieve this, the first habit I needed to build was basic: learning to cook something other than pasta. This was a small gradual goal that I could focus on over a couple of months. The next habit was meal planning so I could be more thoughtful about what I ate over the course of the week, to help keep me from either eating out or wasting food. The next habit was learning to meal prep so I had good food ready to go through the week.
These habits built on each other to get me to the next level. I didn’t stop one when the next one started, but instead I continued doing both. And I can keep going from there. For example, for my goal of creating a healthy lifestyle, the next habit after learning meal prep could be learning more about nutrition or trying different diets.
Habit Blocks are most useful when thinking about a big goal you want to accomplish. What skills, trainings, or habits might be needed to support that? And how can you gradually focus on these activities to build up your skill set to eventually support the bigger goal you have?
The other types of habits or skills that I like to think about are “Habit Menus”.
Have you ever started learning a new habit or skill, obsessively learned everything about it, and then were ready to move on to the next thing?
Me too! This is great for growth, but not necessarily awesome for maintaining a habit.
I used to be hard on myself about this, but as I’ve been able to recognize this pattern, I’ve started thinking of this behavior as establishing my “Habit Menu”: a list of habits that I have mastered that I can choose to start up or stop when whenever I feel inspired.
Exercise is a good way to demonstrate the concept of a Habit Menu.
In the past I’ve been interested in yoga, running, strength training, and soccer, but realistically it is difficult to do each these activities every week. So I like to think of each of these items as a menuof exercise options available to me.
I gain a level of comfort and expertise in each activity, so depending on whatever is going on in my life I can pick any one of these to focus on for a day, a week, or a couple of months.
Life is not linear. Different seasons of life require different kinds of support. Sometimes I have high energy and need that three-mile run to really meet where I’m at. Sometimes I am more reflective and inward focused, and a yoga session is exactly what feeds my soul. Having both of these options on my Habit menu means I can be fluid and flexible in my focus.
The goal then is to get comfort and mastery in that area, not to sustain it indefinitely. Can you see how freeing this can feel? I follow whatever is sparking my interest at the moment without feeling guilt that I am forever abandoning the habits that I have learned and enjoyed in the past because I know I can always come back to them.
Habit Menus are best for areas of your life when there are a multitude of activities that can serve similar purposes. For each key area of interest (like exercise, relaxation, organizing, learning) it is nice to have variety. So as you are planning your Habit Menu for the year, think about what areas could use some new activities and pick some habits to support that.
These two categories, Habit Blocks and Habit Menus, are useful because they help you to make better decisions when setting goals. As you think about each new habit, determine if it is something that will be part of a Habit Block that will be maintained and developed or part of a Habit Menu that will be rotated over time. You can write out a plan with these categories in mind at the beginning of the year and then continue to review and update each month.
Take Action: Grab a piece of paper, and draw a line down the middle, separating it into two different columns. On the left, write down a list of habits that you want to sustain to keep building in support of your goals. These are your Habit Blocks. On the right, write down a list of habits you like to do at times, but want to vary depending on what you are doing in your life. This is your Habit Menu. Keep adding to this list as you think of new habits and skills you want to incorporate into your life.