How to build habits to help achieve your goals

Two smiling people at entrance of a Kieser clinic
Reading Time   

written by Kieser client and behaviour change specialist, Leisa Hart

So it’s February and already we’re a month into 2023. You might be thinking about the year ahead and planning some goals and new habits that you’d like to create. Knowing what we now know from neuroscience and psychology of behaviour change, here’s some tips to help you set yourself up for success.

When we set goals, our brain evaluates the importance of each goal prior and during goal-directed behaviour to determine which goal takes priority. So when we are faced with multiple goals, higher value goals are prioritised.

Therefore when you are choosing a goal, it’s important to understand WHY the goal is of value to you. For example, the goal may be to exercise 5 days a week for a min of 30mins each time. This will be important to you because it is coherent with you wanting to live an active lifestyle more broadly. It also aligns with your healthy eating habits and your desire to be physically capable of playing with grandchildren, surfing or playing golf or participating in the walking group. The goal to exercise 5 times a week supports you being able to do other things in your life that you want to be able to do. In brain friendly terms, it’s called ‘coherence’. What you’re choosing makes sense in the broader context of your life. Conversely, in the same context if you decided to take up smoking instead of exercising, then that’s de-coherence.

The next thing to consider is the WHEN. To set yourself up for successfully creating new habits that achieve your goal, the time of day can be a significantly influential factor. For example if you have a goal that is possibly more challenging for you to achieve and it requires a lot of energy, intention and effort to undertake the action, then the morning is going to be the most likely time of day to be successful. This is because across the course of the day, our ability to overcome inertia and inhibit competing desires (ie sit on the couch and watch Netfix vs exercise for 30mins) wanes as our neural resources are depleted. So any activity that requires ‘get up and go’ is more likely to be successful in the mornings. If however your goal is something that requires calm or lower levels of energy (such as like yoga or meditation) then equally the later part of the day can be great.

Your MINDSET matters just as much as the what, why and when of your goal. The more you can focus on experimenting and improving your own ability relative to your own previous ability through effort, the more likely you are to succeed. Also, according to research shared in the Nature Communications Journal (Robert C. Wilson, Amitai, Shenhav, Mark Straccia & Jonathan D. Cohen ​2019) the optimal conditions for learning is getting something right 85% of the time. Therefore when you’re working on building new habits, be sure to strive for progress rather than perfection.

Last but not least, please always remember that you don’t have to go it alone. In my work as a behaviour change specialist, this is the one aspect of goal pursuit that people often don’t put effort into leveraging their connections and resources. There are many ways (and benefits!) to making our pursuit of a goal a social activity. Also consider more broadly, “WHO & WHAT” can help you. As well as the many benefits of asking for help from friends & family or a professional, there are also lots of technological options (apps and online groups etc) now that can support habit formation and goal achievement.

Leisa is the co-founder and partner at Adaptive Change Midnset. She works with orgnisations who are looking to adopt intelligent technologies, such as AI and automation, to create a workplace of the future. Leisa uses proven science-based neuroscience and psychology strategies to harness the potential of individuals and teams so the inevitable integration with AI and automation delivers the overall performance outcomes required.


References & Resources

Annual Review of Psychology
“Psychology of Habit”
Vol. 67:289-314 (Volume publication date January 2016)
First published online as a Review in Advance on September 10, 2015

Nature Communications Journal
“The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learning” by Robert C. Wilson, Amitai, Shenhav, Mark Straccia & Jonathan D. Cohen ​

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success By Prof Carol Dweck
First Published December 26, 2007.