I’m doing a 3-part series on how to overcome obstacles and achieve the real, significant and lasting change necessary to live the life you want, both now and in retirement. It’s a 3-part series, because we’re covering 3 big ideas. Idea #1 was minimalism: Deciding what doesn’t belong in your life—stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments, projects—and getting rid of it. Idea #2 is Essentialism: Deciding what IS important and DOES belong in your life and then doing it more often and better. And finally, Idea #3 is Systems and Habits: Taking the essentials from Step 2 and creating systems and habits that make doing those things consistent, automatic and nearly effortless.
For each part of the series, I’ve shared a book that dives deep into the issues at hand. For this final part, I’m sharing two books. The book focused on systems is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams (Quick note: The book presents several powerful ideas, but also a few that are a little wacky). The book focused on habits is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Why systems? When you have a system in place, you have a repeatable process that is designed to get a desired result. Apply that to life. If you have certain desired results you want, both now and in retirement, why not create a system that is designed to produce those results?
Why habits? Will Durant once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Greatness then, is not an act, but a habit.” Once you have the systems in place, you want to make them effortless. You achieve that by doing it over and over until it’s automatic.
Let’s look at systems first. In How to Fail, Adams makes the provocative statement that goals are for losers. If you really want to be successful at something, you should focus on systems instead. He explains:
“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. 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.
“Language is messy, and I know some of you are thinking that exercising every day sounds like a goal. The common definition of goals would certainly allow that interpretation. For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.”
“My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals…If you know some extra successful people, ask some probing questions about how they got where they did. I think you’ll find a system at the bottom of it all.”
Examples of goals vs. systems
Goal: Lose 20 pounds.
System: Eat right.
Goal: Run a marathon in under 4 hours.
System: Exercise daily.
Goal: Make a million dollars.
System: Be a serial entrepreneur
Examples of successful people who use(d) systems
- Warren Buffett: Investing
- John Wooden: Coaching
- Jeff Bezos: Business
- Michael Phelps: Swimming
- Stephen King: Writing
So here is this idea in a nutshell. If you focus on the goal, you’ll struggle. So focus on the systems—the things you will do day in and day out—that are going to help you achieve the goals. When you do that, the goals become a natural byproduct of using your system.
Yes, the lines are sometimes blurry between goals and systems, but don’t get hung up on it. Again, Scott Adams:
“The systems-versus-goals point of view is burdened by semantics, of course. You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power.”
So systems have power. I think that’s partly because they give you more at bats. You’re swinging every day. This may produce more strikeouts in the long run, but it will also produce more walks, singles, doubles, triples, and the occasional home run. It also affords you the opportunity to practice, learn, test and refine. What are some other benefits of systems?
- Mindset: According to Adams, “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”
- Being Proactive: When you do something every day (or regularly), you’re obviously being more proactive. You feel better about something when you’re doing something about it.
- Progress: Systems show more short term progress. Studies show that progress is the most powerful human motivator. When you see progress, you’re motivated to do more and it creates a virtuous feedback loop. Goals, especially big ones, are long term affairs. The finish line is way off in the future. You might never get there. That can cause you to procrastinate, lose focus, get distracted and give up
- Motivation: Again, progress = motivation.
- Automation: Systems help you to automate processes and make them easier.
- Improvement: The practice and repetition involved with systems helps you improve.
- Iteration: You’re constantly learning, so you can integrate that into your system to make it better.
- Energy: When you can celebrate little successes on a regular basis, that boosts your energy and makes you excited about doing more.
- Self-awareness: Research shows that we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Systems help you test your predictions (dreams, plans, goals) so you can get a clear understanding of what you want out of life.
- Structure: Systems give structure to your activities so that you’re focusing your time on the things that will give you the skills, benefits and results that you want.
- Productivity: Systems and structure make you productive. If you know what you’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month and how you’re going to do it, you’ll get way more done than the person who wakes up and randomly bounces from one task or decision to another.
- Skill acquisition: “I want to travel someday” doesn’t do anything to build your skillset now. “I plan and take one trip each quarter” helps you acquire the skills necessary to become a good traveler.
- Simplicity: With systems, big, complex things (write a book, save $1 million, travel the world, etc.) are broken down into bite sized chunks that seem easier and less intimidating.
- More time doing stuff: Goals are things you achieve later. Systems are things you do today. If you have a goal to travel, you will hopefully do that someday. If you have a system for traveling, you will be doing that today. At a minimum, this gives you more time to enjoy travel (or whatever).
- Focus: A system keeps you focused. It’s a repeatable process that you do day in and day out. It keeps you from getting sidetracked with 100 other things.
Things you should systematize
There are two primary areas where you should implement systems. First, you should have systems for things that you currently do on a regular basis. This could be things like paying your bills, responding to email, eating and exercising. You should have a system for each of those things that helps you to be both efficient and effective.
Personal Example: I used to pay my bills randomly as they arrived using a checkbook and a bunch of stamps. Now I pay my bills once a month in about 10 minutes using online banking. Less time. No stamps. Better system.
Second, you should create systems for things that you want to do. Do you want to lose weight? Save more? Read more? Travel? Don’t just have a goal to do those things someday. Create systems that allow you to do them today.
Personal example: I wanted to lose a little weight, but diets don’t seem to work long term and “Lose 20 pounds in 6 months” doesn’t help me overcome the temptation to stop at Dairy Queen today. So I downloaded the app Way of Life and I had it ask me two questions every day: “Did you overeat today?” and “Did you do something active?” Super simple system with daily accountability. No foods were excluded, I just couldn’t overeat. No specific exercises required. I just had to do something active. Walking around the lake counted just as much as an hour of high intensity weightlifting. Result: I dropped 20 pounds in four months.
Application for retirement
How can you apply this to retirement? Think about the major retirement goals that most people have. Financial independence. Travel. Hobbies. Volunteer work. Relationships. Health. Rather than keeping those as goals that you hope to achieve someday, how could you create systems now so you can start making progress? I don’t want to give you the answer, because what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. So give it a shot. Think about what you want out of life and retirement. How can you change that from a “someday” goal to an action that you’re doing by the end of today?
The Power of Habit
This post is already longer than most, so I’ll try to distill The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg down to the key idea that will help us turn our systems into habits that are effortless.
How Habits Work
Your brain is always looking for ways to save effort. One way it does this is by “chunking” activities. Simply put, it takes a sequence of actions and converts them into an automatic routine. Duhigg gives the example of backing out of your driveway in the morning. There are perhaps 20 separate actions involved in that process, but you probably do it without giving it any thought because your brain has “chunked” those activities and it does them automatically without even thinking. It becomes a routine. Your brain wants to try to convert pretty much any routine into a habit. It does this in a three-step loop:
- Cue: Step one is a cue that tells your brain to go into automatic mode.
- Routine: Second, there is a particular routine (physical, mental or emotional) that you perform.
- Reward: Finally, there is some sort of reward that helps to tell your brain whether this particular loop is worth remembering in the future and making into a habit.
Here’s an example related to exercise:
Cue: Your alarm goes off.
Routine: You get out of bed, put on your running shoes and go for a run.
Reward: After the run, you make and enjoy your morning coffee.
In this example, your brain soon starts to crave coffee right when the alarm goes off so it goes into automatic mode and completes the routine so it can get the reward. Voila! A habit is born.
How to Create or Change Habits
According to Duhigg, cravings drive habits. If you want to create a new habit think about the routine you want to create and then come up with a cue and a reward. If you want to change an existing habit, keep the cue and the reward the same, but insert a new routine.
Whether creating a new habit or changing an old one, the important thing is to get your brain to crave the reward. The craving drives the habit loop. It outweighs the temptation to skip the routine. When a habit is created, the brain stops fully engaging and the activity happens automatically. Once the habit is formed, you have to actively work to keep it from happening.
Certain habits start a chain reaction in other behaviors. Duhigg calls these Keystone Habits. For example, people who begin a habit of exercise discover that, in addition to exercising, they also naturally start to eat better, sleep better, be more productive at work and feel less stressed. With Keystone Habits, you don’t try to get everything right. You try to get several of the most important things right and the rest starts to fall in place.
Keystone habits can vary from person to person, but here is a list of 11 common (and sometimes surprising) Keystone Habits given by Duhigg:
- Have family dinners
- Make your bed every morning
- Exercise regularly
- Track what you eat
- Get enough sleep
- Save money
- Develop daily routines
- Plan your days
- Cultivate willpower or self-discipline
That’s a wrap!
Well, let’s end things there. We covered 3 big ideas that have the power to completely transform your life. I know because I’ve seen them working in my own life and I’ve heard from many of you who have started to implement them as well. Keep up the good work!
Simplify your life: The More of Less by Joshua Becker
Do more of what matters: Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Make the important things effortless: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg