I knew the exact path I would go down once I escaped high school. Get my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in accounting, conquer the CPA exam, and get a good job with benefits.
That was my goal from day one. Every day in school this goal was in the back of my mind.
I thought about getting to the end of the road. I had my eyes on the prize, and imagined how my life would be better once I reached the finish line.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In an early undergraduate accounting course my school required a minimum grade of a B before moving on to the next course.
I messed up on the first exam. My world almost came crashing down. Everything I was focused on almost disappeared. The future I dreamed of was slipping away. (In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But in that moment, that was my whole world.)
Goals are great, but can be burdensome
I’ve been a fan of goals since I was young. They kept me accountable. They gave me a something to shoot for. They helped me zero in on what I needed to do.
Goals are important. But they are not the only thing that matters. (In case you were wondering, I had to retake that class, got an A, and lived happily ever after.)
The missing ingredient
In “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explores the depth of how humans function, including the neurological patterns that govern our habits.
He defines the habit loop and divides it into three elements: cue, routine, and reward.
According to Duhigg, cue and the reward are neurologically intertwined, creating a sense of craving. This is why some folks crave certain actions, like smoking a cigarette or eating that candy bar. What we really seek is the reward from the routine.
What can we do with this knowledge of habits?
Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wrote “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” where he explores the idea of goals and habits with a unique twist.
According to Adams, there are two types of people in the world: those who are goals-oriented and those who are systems-driven.
(For the purposes of this article, I use habits and systems interchangeably.)
Adams believes that goal-oriented people always exist in a state of pre-success or failure; there is no in between.
However, systems driven people look at the familiar in new and different ways. Those with a system in place succeed every time they implement the system.
In honor of NoNoWriMonth, let’s say I have a goal to write a book. My hope is to achieve this goal in the next few months.
Thinking of this goal, I see a gorilla of a task at hand. Writing an entire book? Sheesh, that’s tough to do.
Now imagine this: Say I get 70% of the way through the book, but can’t do it anymore. I’m a failure. All of those hours were merely a waste of time. Unless…
I have a system.
What would your system be?
My system would be writing for a minimum of 10 minutes first thing in the morning. In those 10 minutes, write at least 500 words. It doesn’t matter how good or bad those 500 words are. The system is merely the act of writing within this time frame.
These mini-goals, or systems, are what is going to help me reach that long term goal of writing a novel. By writing for merely 500 words per day, I could easily have a draft with 45,000 words within 3 months. That’s the power of systems.
Systems also make it so you never truly fail
The system is writing for 10 minutes, first thing in the morning. What would I hope to accomplish with this system? Well…
- I want to improve my writing skills
- I want to improve my editing skills
- I want to share my thoughts with the world
With my system in place, I would achieve bullets 1 and 2 every time I write. The 3rd bullet allows me an out even if you never finish writing the book. How so?
Let’s go back to the scenario earlier. Say I’m 70% of the way through the book and decide I can’t finish it. I just wasted a bunch of time.
But, if my goal is to share my thoughts with the world, I can still accomplish that!
I could break up the book into bite-sized pieces and share it with the world through articles my blog.
Systems increase your chances of success
Scott Adams looks at systems as a technique to increase your chances of success. It’s not simply success or failure, as it is in the goal-oriented frame of mind.
Instead, with the right system in place, you can succeed a little bit each and every day. These small wins drive you closer to accomplishing your goal of writing a book.
Adams actually recommends that you set up systems all throughout your life in order to accomplish those things that you want and increase your odds of success.
Another system example
One such system that I’ve implemented into my life is having 10% of my paycheck transferred into my retirement accounts every single month.
Instead of setting some audacious goal (say saving $1 million) and the obsessing over it every single month, I have a system in place that operates automatically. This one simple habit helps puts me on track for success. This system operates every single time I get paid.
Going back to the habit loop, the cue is receiving my paycheck, the routine is having it automatically transferred. What’s the reward? Checking my investment accounts and seeing the balance I’ve managed to accumulate.
This is one instance where having a system in life increases my odds of success. By creating the habit of saving, I don’t blow through my whole paycheck.
Instead, I slowly invest my cash that will help me reach my eventual goal of financial freedom. Do I know when I’ll reach that goal? No, but the system in place takes it from a pipe dream to a realistic probability just like that.
Systems influence your mindset. The right systems allow me to become mindful and focus on the present moment. Instead of thoughts about some future audacious goal, I focus on that task at hand.
I focus on what it is that I have accomplished already. With systems, the accomplishment is taking action. It’s writing 500 words today. It’s saving 10% of my paycheck every pay period.
The system becomes routine, and there’s no obsession on the end result.
Goals and anxiety
Personally, goals make me worry about the future to the point of anxiety. Goals can be overwhelming, especially if they aren’t expected to be accomplished for years or even decades.
Systems are a form of mindfulness, present state focus on the moment. They allow you think about what you are doing right now. You don’t think about how far away you are from that goal. This frees up your mental faculties so you can do deep work and do the best you can now.
Systems keep you grounded and present. They allow you not to obsess over the progress bar.
Don’t rob your present state awareness with audacious goals about the future. You can still reach them, you just need the right system.
What systems (or habits) have you implemented in your life that have had a big impact? Are there any systems you think we can benefit from by implementing into our lives?