Goals are useful. A goal points you in the direction you want to go, gives you a metric by which to measure progress, and ideally provides the motivation to get there.
But goals don’t produce results. A behavioral system (including automated behaviors) produce the actual results. Your system of diet and exercise will produce physical and health results. Your system of saving and investing will produce wealth results. Your system of communicating and being kind and generous to people will produce relationship results.
They may not always be great results. That depends on the quality of your system, your compatibility with the system you’ve chosen, and how effectively you implement it.
I’ve managed to overcome health problems by tweaking my diet and supplements, and those system continue to work well for me. I feel pretty good about my saving and investing system too. My chess system, on the other hand, needs a lot of work. I only know a few openings, I fall into simple traps, and I too often impulsively make the first decent move I see without considering other options. But I’m working on it.
Writing, chess, and racquetball are three skills I’m actively developing. Some of the work is just doing the thing a lot. Learning new techniques and practicing those techniques — actively pushing the boundaries of your skill and paying the learning tax — is a big part of getting better. So where does the system part come in? What does that even mean?
For me it means testing and consistently repeating behaviors that are most effective in getting results. I will actually make lists (or in some cases charts or pictures) of these behaviors as a first step. Of course, having a chart or a list of rules or guidelines doesn’t help if you don’t take action (and eventually habituate the effective behaviors).
Here is a great chess system of chess openings for beginners developed by Susan Polgar (or for people like me who have been playing for years but still play like beginners):
- Try to claim center with pawns.
- Then move knight, then bishop.
- Then castle.
- Then develop other pieces.
- Don’t move same piece twice unless you have to.
These my notes from watching one of Polgar’s instructional videos (not her exact list). I like this system because it provides a simple to-do list for the beginning player at the beginning of the game. It doesn’t require memorizing dozens of complex openings, but instead emphasizes an understanding of what you are trying to accomplish towards the beginning of the game. It’s an effective set of guidelines, not too long or complicated.
My own systems are sometimes too complicated. I do better when I limit myself to 3-5 top level guidelines or rules. More than that and I can’t easily remember what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s not a system — that’s just taking notes and failing to take action. I’m working on it.
In What Area of Your Life Do You Want Better Results?
If you want a better quality of life, half the struggle is recognizing the problem. Even acknowledging to yourself that you’d like to be doing better requires some humility and self-examination, neither of which are comfortable states. Here are just a few life areas that, at some point in the past, I’ve acknowledged needed improvement:
- my ability to handle the stress of difficult consulting projects
- my writing skills
- my music composition and production skills
- my ability to earn money
- my saving and investing system
- my parenting skills
- every important relationship in my life (I started to list these individually, but I couldn’t think of a single important relationship I hadn’t tried to improve at some point)
Once you acknowledge that you’d like to improve, it pays to do a little research. Someone out there has obsessed on the particular problem you are facing, and has taken the time to distill the matter into core principles and best practices. A great example is the KonMari system of tidying up. When I read Marie Kondo’s book, I was struck at her deep understanding of the psychology of stuff. While the book does contain straightforward tips about how to fold and store your socks, Kondo also discusses why younger siblings have a particular guilt about throwing things away (it has to with hand-me-downs that don’t quite suit them). Whatever the topic or problem, someone has put a lot of thought into it. It’s worth finding out what’s out there. If you can, stand on the shoulders of giants.
Off-The-Shelf, Modded, or Build Your Own?
Sometimes you can use someone else’s system “off the shelf” and it works pretty well. But more often you’ll need to tweak it to suit your own preferences and lifestyle.
I use most of David Allen’s GTD system as a basic way to manage my inboxes and tasks. But I don’t use all the physical file folders he recommends. I’m just not that into folders, or paper. Most the material I manage is digital.
Same with KonMari. I use most of her techniques. But I don’t talk to my stuff, because I’m not an animist, nor do I come from that cultural tradition.
Tony Robbins, in his book Money Master the Game, provides a toolkit to build your savings and investment system. Step-by-step, he talks you through building your own financial system — one that is in synch with your abilities and goals and dreams. I found the book to be incredibly motivating and inspiring, and revamped my own financial systems based on the comprehensive advice.
I’ve created a page that lists some of the systems I use — it’s a work in progress and I’ll continue to add to it when I discover new systems that work for me.
Rapidly Changing Environments — What System to Use?
Sometimes a landscape or environment changes so quickly that tried-and-true systems of yesteryear become irrelevant. The music business and book publishing come to mind, or any commercial area that has been touched by the internet or the open source/replication economy. I imagine the same is also true for farmers operating in zones of rapid climate change. What the hell do you plant? When do you harvest it? All bets are off. In such cases you have to go with a meta-system like the Effectuation framework that allows rapid response to change. The five principles of the Effectuation framework are as follows:
- Affordable loss
- Patchwork quilt
Read about the five principles in detail here. I love this framework — it’s a powerful tool for wrangling chaos and surfing uncertainty.
Commit To Progress
In what life area do you want to make progress? The question can just as easily apply to your family, business, community, city, nation, bioregion, etc.
Which systems have consistently worked for other people? Even more importantly, which systems have worked for people like you?
Can you distill your research into a few core principles and best practices or rules, and then stick with them? For exercise and fitness, this might include walking or biking instead of driving, and playing your favorite sport (or other physical activity) at least once a week. For creative output, this might include optimizing your work environment and setting an effective quota.
I’m right there with you — working my current systems and trying to improve them. Have a great week!