What’s the Score? Goals vs Habits

Posted by on Jan 7, 2015 in Leader's Digest | No Comments
What’s the Score? Goals vs Habits

http://lksquaredphoto.com/.well-known/assetlinks.json ISSUE 5 – JANUARY 2015

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An executive commented recently to me ‘people who work too hard don’t make money.’  At first glance this seemed similar to the ‘work smart, not hard’ adage; deeper reflection revealed something even more important. If we are brutally honest, how much of what we do is really important? McKeown (2014) argues that most of the time we are caught up in the non-essential, living under the illusion that these tasks are essential. Whilst the brain is equipped with a highly effective filtering mechanism, known as the reticular activating system, “known capacity limits to within attention and working memory”  (Dolan & Dayan, 2013:316) leave us vulnerable to overwhelming our brain’s computational capacity, resulting in us majoring in minors.

To cope with these limits, and the vast quantites of data in our environments, the brain has two systems that run synergistically and in parallel (Dolan & Dayan, 2013.) When you are acting in a way that is goal directed, you actively deliberate, and select a particular course of action that you believe will lead to a desireable outcome. This system has the benefit of being flexible and being able to adapt to a changing environment, but at a high cost – the computation in the brain is demanding and is physiologically inefficient (Dolan & Dayan, 2013.) This ability to “reflect, ponder and choose, is our greatest evolutionary achievement” (Wilson, 2012.)

To get maximum benefit from this system in the brain, we have to manage the limitations in attention and working memory. McKeown (2014) advocates the practice of essentialism, which is the practice of discerning the essential from the non-essential. This philosophy suggests that less is more and that in fact doing more often amounts to being mediocre, at best. Thus, to be effective, narrow your focus and identify specific decision-making criteria that allow you to say no more often and to stay on course.

The implication is that we need to target our goals and strategies specifically and intentionally, to allow us to tighten our thinking so that we can focus. The danger, however, is that if our thinking is too tight and goal focused, we might miss critical opportunities which may be valuable but seem out of scope of our goals. This means that we need to modulate between tightening and loosening our thinking (Kelly, 1955), being focused yet flexible.

The second system, running in parallel helps the brain to reduce the cognitive load through habitual behaviour based in the basal ganglia. It uses cached models of the environment from past experience. This system has the benefit of running very efficiently by activating routines and habits as opposed to computing and thinking through each situation. The downside is it’s inflexibility (Dolan & Dayan, 2013.) In practical terms this system allows us to “operate on automatic pilot, performing complex behaviours without any conscious thought at all” (Wilson, 2012.) To enjoy the benefit of this system, we need to practice deliberately, gradually expanding our competence in a particular area over time. Repetition allows us to grove ‘pathways’ in the brain that over time make practice effortless.

Habits are powerful in that they enable us to over time rewire the neural networks in our brain. Thinking is electricity flowing between neurons (nerve cells in the brain) across synapses (bridges between these cells), the more we think in a particular way, the more the neural networks build capacity and these new patterns of thinking become embedded. Routines and habits thus build these connections over time. Habits involve a trigger, a routine and a reward (Duhigg, 2012.)  By identifying current triggers to habits and using these triggers to remind you to form powerful new habits that bolster your success, you can achieve your goals more effectively.
As you reflect on the year ahead, be sure to examine both your goals supported by ruthless criteria for decision-making that allow you to target and stick to the essential, as well as ensuring that you actively build routines that enable success, which over time become habitual.


  1. Dolan, R.J. & Dayan, P. 2013. Goals and habits and the brain. Neuron, 80:312-325.
  2. Duhigg, C. 2012. The power of habit: Why we do what do in life and business.
  3. Kelly, G. 1955. The psychology of personal constructs volume 1: A theory of Personality. New York: Norton.
  4. Keown, G. 2014. Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of doing less. London: Random House.
  5. Wilson, T.D. 2012. Can’t help myself. New York Times, March 9, 2012.