(This essay first appeared as a medium.com post)
It’s that time of the year again when we all set New Years Resolutions. I wanted to share a different approach to resolutions that works with your brain and doesn’t make you feel like a failure. I discovered this approach a few months ago and have a lot of success using it in my own life.
Typically when we set our New Years Resolution we choose a goal to go along with it. If we want to get in better shape shape we might set a goal of losing 10 pounds. If we want to learn a language we might set a goal of practicing everyday.
Goals seem like a perfectly reasonably approach and one that most people take. However, there are some real problems with a goal oriented mindset that get in the way of making the change we want to see.
While reading Scott Adam’s book How to fail at Everything and Still Win Big this passage jumped out at me.
Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out.
His point is that the way we typically define goals is binary, either we achieve a goal or not. To understand the problems this creates lets examine a traditional New Years Resolution like lose 10 pounds.
You might go to the gym diligently for a month and lose 5 lbs. You're off to a great start, but because goals are binary you technically haven’t achieved your goal so you keep going. During the second month you only lose two pounds, or worse gain back a pound. Frustrated by your lack of progress you give up resigning to the fact that you are incapable of change and are a complete and utter failure.
On the flip side, what happens if you actually hit your goal of losing 10 pounds? Well that is great, now you can finally check that off your todo list. You might even relax a little and take a break from the gym. However, this puts you at risk of gaining the weight right back. So even if you “achieve” your goal, there is little motivation to continue with the gym.
This is an area where I have personally struggled for years. Whenever I set a goal related to weight or diet I find it every hard to sustain. I just lose interest after awhile and it since I never really achieve my goal I give up.
So what is the alternative, not to set any goals? Well that’s not really a solution either because we humans are notoriously good at procrastination. Without some way of measuring progress it is all too easy to stop or put off our resolution.
Scott Adams offers a great solution to this problem with his "systems approach."
A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.
I’m actually big fan of systems. I use Getting Things Done (GTD), a systems for managing tasks, on a daily basis and without it my workday would be a mess. I’ve also built IT systems for small business and seen there power to keep people organized and increase productivity. But taking a systems approach to long term goals was not something I had ever considered.
So what does it mean to take a systems approach to your new years resolution? Put simply, it means coming up with predetermined a series of behaviors that are designed create the change you want to see. It means building habits and routines that remove the majority of stress, emotional bargaining, and indecision that undermines our best intentions.
Scott Adam provides a wonderful example of how a systems approach works with his system for working out.
Instead of doing what I feel I can’t do, I do what I can do— which is put on my exercise clothes and lace my sneakers. Central to my method is that I grant myself 100 percent permission to not exercise, even after getting suited up for it. This is important because I know I won’t take the first step of donning my exercise clothes if I feel it will commit me to something that just seems impossible in my current frame of mind.
I drive to my local gym, walk in, look around, and see how I feel. About 95 percent of the time this set of cues will put me in a sufficiently energetic mood to go ahead and exercise, and that in turn boosts my mood. But sometimes— and this happened perhaps five times this year, which is typical— I get to the gym, look around, turn, and leave. As I drive home I am not thinking I failed. In fact, I feel exactly the opposite.
What I have is not a goal; it is a system. And the system allows leakage. It is designed that way. As I drive home from the gym, a seemingly wasted trip, I never feel defeated. Instead, I feel I am using a system that I know works overall.
Systems are powerful because they work with our brain’s desire to form habits. Habits evolved as a way for our brains to converse energy. They work by storing and automating tasks we do on a daily basis, like tying your shoes. When you create a system you are leveraging your brains built in programing to reenforce the behavior you want.
In contrast, a goal oriented approach relies mostly on willpower. The problem with willpower is that it is a limited resource, which can be effected by sleep and stress and depletes during the day. So by the end of the day when all your willpower is gone, it is unlikely have the energy to work on your resolution.
In many ways creating a system for your resolution is like reprogramming your brain. In order to successfully reprogram yourself you need to have a basic understanding of the brain's operating system.
What follows are the 7 golden rules to creating an effective system. While the rules give you lot of flexibility to setup your system however you want, they cannot be broken.
The 7 Golden Rules to creating an effective system
Since discovering Scott Adam's book a few months ago I've had a lot of success implementing the systems approach. Chores, for example, have become a lot easier. After a month or so of using my "Dish Washing System" I've noticed that I start the activity automatically without any prompts.
I'm looking forward to figuring out all the different ways I can use systems in my life over the coming year. I wish you the best of luck with your resolution and I hope this post helps you on your journey.
In this section I’ve outline some helpful tips for creating your system. These tips are based on my own real world experience and on the many of the books that I have read on the subject of habits and routines.
I wrote this post as a quick action oriented summary of how systems and habits work. If you would like to learn more about this subject here are some books that I recommended.