Systems beat goals anytime.
I’ve written before about systems and goals, but in this post, I will discuss the difference between the two.
I finally got around to start reading Scott Adams’ book ‘How to fail at anything and still win big‘. In this book, Scott writes about the benefits of having systems instead of only chasing goals without a system in place.
And when I look closer to my own relative successes and my not so relative failures, I noticed that there was a system behind every success and a lack of system behind any failure.
Take for instance my weight. I’ve been struggling with the famous JoJo effect that so many people face when it comes to weight loss. Whatever approach I tried, eventually I gave up and all the weight lost came back, sometimes with a vengeance.
I had some longer streaks while staying in the USA for a while and I was pretty radical in sticking to a low carb diet. But once I returned to Belgium, the environment changed, the food options changed and it became harder (for me) to stick to my low card diet and eventually all the weight came back again.
In this example, weight loss was the goal and the low carb diet was the system I used to reach this goal.
But a system is only effective when it is sustainable. Once moving back home, the temptation of the local food was too strong to stick to the system.
So an effective system needs to be sustainable and needs to be resistant against changes and pressure. Nassim Taleb would say that an effective system needs to be anti-fragile.
Since a few months I’ve been trying another system called Intermittent Fasting (IF). The concept is very simple: only eat during a 6- to 8-hour window each day., fast during the remaining 16 to 18 hours.
This system is very easy to sustain. I skip breakfast and eat my first meal of the day at noon (12am). I try to have my second meal around 5 pm and try not to eat anything after 6 pm.
You can also notice that there is some anti-fragility built into this system. The duration of the fasting window is not set in stone. Although I try to maintain an 18-hour window, there is some room for margin on special occasions. I could eat until 10 PM and still maintain a 14-hour fasting window. As long as I stick to the no-breakfast rule, I can keep the damage under control.
The system is also effective. I lost 5 kg in the past 3 months and am now averaging on a weight loss of 1 kg per month without feeling like I’m on a strict diet. This gives also a certain predictability to the system that allows me to project progress to the future (one year = 12kg) and I can easily pick milestones (or KPIs if you want) to measure my progress by comparing my weight to the previous month.
Let’s take another example.
For months I’ve been telling myself that I should update this blog more frequently. And this might surprise you, but there are even some people that read this blog and ask about updates. Who knows, maybe my mom pays them to do that…
Anyway, updating my blog on a regular basis was my goal. My initial plan was to work on my blog on Saturdays. When I look back at the results, I see that my average posting rate was one post per month in the last 6 months.
So clearly the system didn’t work. There are many things one can do on a Saturday, especially in summer time. Writing a blog post often doesn’t make it to the top of the priority list.
But then I started thinking more about systems and how I could apply them to different goals in my life. That’s when I came with an idea for a simple system for writing.
I wrote before about using small tasks to make progress on big goals. And in the light of this, I decided to try writing a little bit every day, but the timeslot had to be small enough that it would be ridiculous not to do it. I ended up choosing for 15 minutes or 1 page. 15 minutes is very short, not even the length of a
I ended up choosing for 15 minutes or 1 page. 15 minutes is very short, not even the length of a Pomodoro but that’s the main idea. One page is all you need to make progress, that’s 7 pages per week or 365 pages per year. Imagine writing an entire book in one year by only spending 15 minutes per day.
One page is all you need to make progress, that’s 7 pages per week or 365 pages per year. Imagine writing an entire book in one year by only spending 15 minutes per day. Ok, nobody would like to read an unedited 365-page book but it’s the idea that counts.
I added some rules to keep it simple and to make this system more anti-fragile. First of all, I use pen and paper. This removes the need to sit down in front of a computer with all its distractions. Since my day job requires me to sit in front of a computer all day, the process of writing on a piece of paper away from a screen is more relaxing for me.
The second rule is to not skip 2 days in a row. Being realistic there will be days that I won’t write anything. So my rule is to not let it become 2 days that can go into 3 and ending up in not writing 7 days per week.
A system doesn’t always have to be a daily repetition of tasks.
In his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss, Scott Adams tells a story from his college years. Here is my version of the story from how I remembered it. The original story could be completely different…
Being a young man fresh in college, Scott picked the prettiest girl in his year and spend all his time and effort seducing her. When he finally found the courage to ask her out, she rejected him. One of his classmates had a different approach. This guy was talking to all the girls and asking them out. Although he also got a lot of rejections, he still ended up with many dates.
The difference between Scott and his classmate was that, although Scott had a clear goal, he didn’t have a system. His classmate stuck to a system and ended up being much more successful with women than Scott.
I can go on with many other examples but let’s think about this from your own perspective.
Are there goals you always wanted to achieve or changes you think you need to make?
It could be health related, like losing weight, stop smoking or doing more exercising. Or it could be financial goals, like paying off some debts, saving for a special dream item or just increasing your monthly income.
What system could you apply to reach this goal? Can you come up with a system that is simple, sustainable and anti-fragile? Can you see the difference between having a system in place and by merely chasing a goal?
Let’s say you want to increase your monthly income. You could try to apply for that one dream job you always wanted. But what if they don’t hire you anyway? Will you give up, feel miserable and disillusioned and stop chasing your goals?
Or would you set up a system? Your system could be to apply for many different jobs at the same time. This would drastically increase your chances of success to find a better paying job.
Your system could be to apply for many different jobs at the same time. This would drastically increase your chances of success to find a better paying job.
Or maybe you could make a list of all skills needed to find a better job and start working on these skills by reading books or taking courses before you apply for a new job. And even if you would prefer to aim for that one dream job after you improved your skill set, it would probably be a good idea to apply for similar jobs first so that you can learn from your mistakes in the progress and make necessary changes before you apply for that dream job.
This approach would also give you a backup plan in case they still refuse to hire you for that dream job. Maybe one of the other companies where you applied to prepare yourself will offer you a job that is still better than your current one.
If you have one arrow and aim for the bull’s eye, you better be the best shooter of the tournament. And even the best shooter can have a bad day. I prefer to be the shooter that has a lot of arrows. This way I can still win a price in the tournament.
Progress, Not Perfection
If you continuously try to improve your progress towards a goal, you are already applying a system. But if you only strive for perfection, you will most likely fail and give up.
And the thing is, perfection is just a definition. It’s not a constant. Your idea of perfection today might not be the same as your idea of perfection tomorrow. So you might end up chasing an always changing goal that is unreachable because you keep changing it.
By applying a system of continuous progress, you might actually find yourself reaching much further than what your original goal was.
Take for example my goal to writing more. I just noticed that I already reached a 1700 word count in less than one week by using a simple system.
It also made me realize that probably not many people will reach the end of this post and should end it here.
But before you go, you would do me a great favor if you would share some of your own systems you use by leaving a comment below.