So you've set a New Years' resolution, great, but what is your system?

(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.

The problem with goals...

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.

Is there a better way?

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.

The power of systems

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.

Setting up your system

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

  1. You need a trigger. Habits form around a cue or trigger which tells your brain to perform a series of actions. Triggers can relate to time, location, feelings, or people. You will probably want to create your system around a time or location because those are typically the easiest to control. A good trigger is something that happens without your involvement and is not easily ignored. I like setting an alarm on my phone since it is always with me and they are hard to ignore.
  2. You need an action. This will closely follow your trigger and is the when you preform your desired resolution. Start with a simple action and add complexity over time. For example, if you want to develop a workout routine start by changing into your close for a month, then adding in a workout later. This may feel like you aren’t doing enough but it prevents burn out and is surprisingly effective.
  3. You need a reward. This is a very important part of developing your system and often overlooked. Without a reward the “habit loop” will not be complete and your system won’t stick. Your reward could be as simple as checking off an item on your todo list, or as enjoyable as making a cup of coffee. You will have to play with different rewards to figure out what motivates you the best.
  4. It takes at least a month. The more you use your system the stronger the habit will become. However, habits are weakest during the first month and you will need to spend a lot of energy making sure you actually use the system. I highly recommend tracking your progress with a calendar or simple app for the at least two months.
  5. Willpower is a limited resource. Embracing this limitation will save you a lot of grief. Generally speaking you have the most willpower in the morning and the least at night, so plan your day accordingly. Don’t setup your system so that it takes place at the end of the day when you willpower is lowest.
  6. You cannot kill old habits, only replace them. Our brains are programed not to let habits die. This means it is nearly impossible to quite a habit “cold turkey.” However, you can use this to your advantage by hijacking an old trigger and reward, and using them in your new system.
  7. Habits are neither good or bad. The brain doesn't care if a habit is good for us or not, it just wants to create them. Knowing this takes some of the pressure off of trying to change. Instead of beating yourself up about not sticking with your resolution, you can start to evaluate what is causing you to lose your way and maybe figure out a solution.

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.

Bonus: Tips and tricks

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.

  • Figure out your personality. It is a lot easier to adapt your system to your personality then the other way around. If you aren't having success with your system try shifting the time of day to better suit your energy and motivation.
  • Start small. For example, instead of starting with intense workouts, spend a month making sure you put your gym clothes on everyday. This creates a solid foundation from which you can add more complexity.
  • Don’t do too much. Don't try to implement all your new systems at once. Pick one and stick with it until it really becomes a habit. That will free up mental space to take on a new system.
  • Start when you have the time. Developing your system and changing your behavior is challenging. Make sure you have the time and energy to fully commit to it.
  • Preform an action as close to the trigger as possible. The longer you wait the less effective the trigger will become. That is why it is important to pick a time or location that works best with your schedule.
  • Write it down. Writing down your system will help you design and use it. Even if you never look at what you wrote, the act of writing helps commit the system to memory.
  • Remove the decision making. For example, if you want to work out when you get home, try laying out your clothes before you leave in the morning. When you get home put on your clothes even if you aren't going to workout. The less thinking you do, the easier your system becomes.
  • Time and place matter. Try to keep the time and place for when you implement your system consistent. This will reinforce your trigger and make it easier to start.
  • Prepare for the worst. Try to imagine possible roadblocks that would get in the way of your system. Decide ahead of time what you will do in each scenario. This is a will help you overcome any resistance you will feel.
  • Always be tinkering. It may take some time to figure what a system that works best for you. Always be experimenting and adjusting as you go along. Systems are guild and will adapt or change over time.
  • Figure out the formula. It might help to think of your system as a formula made up of different variables such as time, location, trigger, and reward. Your job is to find to find the perfect combination of these variables in order to achieve a balanced equation.
  • Find a friend or community. Trying to change alone is hard. Being part of a community that is trying to make the same changes helps reinforce behavior and provide motivation when your willpower is low.
  • Be patient. Even though systems are powerful still require some amount of work, especially at the beginning. Don't give up if your system doesn't take hold right away. Keep trying and over time, as your system becomes a habit, it will get easier to maintain.

Suggested Reading:

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.

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Nelson/Roberto

Separated from my family during El Salvador's civil war, by death and adoption, I am a writer, photographer, and storyteller.

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