Every athlete and team in competitive sports has the same goal, win. Unfortunately competitive sports are at best a zero sum game and for every winner there is a loser. At its worst there may be only one winner among hundreds of competitors. So, if goal setting does not differentiate those that ultimately succeed from those that fall short, what does? Systems. Systems are how the best become better and the novice becomes the master. Systems are used from the mundane,such as laundry, to the greatest human achievements like space travel. A goal is a direction or a purpose but a system is the path to achievement. The longer the race, season, or match the more important and relative the system becomes to ultimate success. Life is a competition of one; and our success falls to our systems instead of rising to our goals. Below are examples from Atomic Habits authored by James Clear of how systems are better than goals for continued success and one strategy you can implement to improve your systems in a realistic and meaningful way.
- The 1% rule. Aim to be better by 1% every day, week, month, etc. instead of shooting for 100% immediate transformation. Small changes and improvements will be imperceptible at first , but they will compound into massive change over time. If you were to improve by 1% every day for a year, at the end of that year you will have improved 37 times over! Conversely, if you decline by 1% every day you will be near 0 by the end of that year. Britain’s National cycling team employed this strategy to every aspect of racing, training, recovery, etc and it paid off in unprecedented success.“Habits are the compound interest of self improvement.” James Clear
- Outcomes are a lagging indicator of your systems. Just like the stock market is a lagging indicator of the national economy, your weight is a lagging indicator of your diet, messiness of your cleaning habits, net worth a lagging indicator of your financial habits. This is the hurdle to clear when building and maintaining good habits. Systems will keep you on the path when you have yet to see any tangible changes or success. Success often appears to be overnight but every major transformation begins with a single, tiny decision. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks everyday.”- John Heywood, playright
- Ignore the goal, focus on the system. This may sound contradictory to the prevailing mantra of set actionable goals to succeed. But, if you had a goal of losing weight and you didn’t step on a scale for 6 months and instead put all of your focus on the system of losing weight do you think you would still achieve success? I believe you would. It is important to have goals for direction, but once you have direction you need a path. “Do your job and trust the process.” -Nick Saban (he has won a few championships)
- Goals restrict happiness. How many times have we told ourselves “once we accomplish this goal, I’ll finally be happy” only to fall short or achieve and have that happiness be fleeting and need to chase a new goal? Systems are the antidote to this delayed, permission based happiness. You can find happiness each and everyday while the system is running and success in systems can come in different forms, not just the way you first envisioned. Goals are fixed and reductive. You can change them at anytime but they are a fixed destination. Success in goals is finite and defined. Systems are flexible and can be improved, modified, changed to fit your abilities, life stage, circumstances without being completely overhauled and discarded. Success is found in executing the process. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle
- Goals are temporary, systems last forever. It’s great to achieve long term goals and celebrate that achievement, but what then? Do you abandon the system that lead to your success? Unfortunately this is what tends to happen. We set a PR and back off on training. Lose the weight and relax our systems. Backsliding and repeating the same process all over again, constantly climbing and falling down the same hill. Insanity defined. If you are more focused on the system you will still be able to celebrate milestones without feeling like you have arrived only to fall back to the starting line. “The backslider blues ain’t a hard song to sing, you know right from wrong, you just don’t do a thing.” Backslider Blues, Jason Boland
What systems are you running to improve yourself and your life? Are you only focused on the outcome and ignoring the path? I would encourage you to focus on your systems for improvement. Remember, your transformation will be a lagging indicator of your hard work and commitment to good habits. Your failure is also an indicator of the same but opposite side of the coin. If you are coming up short in your quest for improvement in one or more areas of life, perform a systems check and you will most likely find the cause. If you are struggling to stick with your ideal system, modify it to something manageable and repeatable. We would love to discuss your goals and help you develop and refine a system to help you achieve success each and every day. Success in the game of life is not zero sum and is available to all, you have to work for it!
Written by Coach Jared MacDonald