A system for success
If you distill success stories from all over the world to one key component, you will likely see that the most prominent contributing factor to success is consistency. Whether you are limiting your daily caloric intake to lose some weight, or practicing on a daily basis to develop a new skill, your results won't amount to much unless you persevere for a long time.
As you have probably experienced, to do something consistently for many months or years can be very challenging because life has a tendency to get in the way and motivation has a tendency to wane. However, these two culprits that have put many ambitious beginnings to rest can be overcome with a help of a properly designed thinking system.
Systems are all around us and they help us to navigate our lives. Time is a system, education is a system, money is a system, even how often you brush your teeth is a system. In simple words, systems are organized ways to think and act about particular matters, and, if well-designed, they can help us to effectively move in our desired directions.
However, most of these systems reside in our subconscious minds, and are too abstract to be of much use. When our goal is long-term change we need to externalize these systems and make them specific.
Explicit systems have numerous advantages over implicit ones:
- They allow you to keep track of your goals. This keeps them in your focus, as well as frees up your mind from the effort of trying to remember them.
- They help you to streamline your goals and break the up into actionable steps.
- They keep you accountable. Sometimes knowing that you have to put a checkmark in a box at the end of the day can be stimulus enough not to turn your back on some plans.
- They allow you to glean insight into your working methods. This provides invaluable feedback that you can use to fine-tune your performance.
- They keep you moving forward and serve as a reference point.
- Unlike a random approach which is chaotic, explicit systems have constraints. Acting within these constraints allows you to have a better understanding of your system, which in turn allows you to tweak it as needed. The result is that your system evolves under your guidance, allowing you to accomplish more, or to spot flaws in your methods. In fact, the things that I am sharing with you in this article I understood after having used a system for some time, which eventually developed enough to reveal its own shortcomings.
I suspect that at this point all this sounds very theoretical and out-there, so let's look at some examples. For the sake of argument let's suppose that you are trying to establish a habit of waking up at 7am daily, and as your tracking method you will be checking off days in your calendar on which you succeed, and leaving blank the days on which you fail. Simple enough. You have externalized a goal and established a method to track it. But (!), herein lies one key peculiarity that can make or break your success: Is your system rigid or flexible?
The world has taught us to rely quite heavily on rigid systems. Salaried work, for example, is a rigid system that punishes you if you don't show up to the office or if you fail to complete your tasks on time. This kind of approach is essential in the on-the-clock professional world, but can be completely disastrous if we apply it to personal improvement or when trying to reform habits.
Unfortunately it is precisely these rigid systems that we often turn to. With our spirits high and our motivation through the roof, we aim for the following outcome:
This streak sure looks good on paper, but is hardly realistic.
Rigid systems like this thrive on perfect performance. However, perfect performance is asymptotic and, hence, impossible to attain. If we understand this quite naturally when it comes to certain rudimentary tasks, we struggle with this immensely when it comes to personal development. In the case of the latter we demand bull's eye perfection from every action we take. We fret over every single missed checkmark. We set the bar so high, and we try so hard to jump over it, that we lose track of what is really important, which is consistency over time.
Let's go back to our example of trying to wake up at 7am in the morning. Suppose that you have been doing quite well and things are starting to look pretty good. You have a long streak of checkmarks on your paper and your motivation is still in good shape. And then you go on vacation. With your significant other. To a place that is a 12-hour plane ride away. Exhausted upon arrival, there is no way you can wake up at 7am the next day. And besides, 7am according to which time zone? Something as innocent as going on vacation can introduce enough uncertainty to easily break a nice streak of performance. So you slip back into the old habit. You laze in bed till noon with your lover. Upon return from your trip, the question comes up: do you have what it takes to begin again after having failed for a whole week?
If that sounds petty and no-big-deal when it comes to waking up at 7 every morning, then rest assured that things get progressively more difficult when you are dealing with tasks more tedious or unpleasant. And things can get really discouraging if you have failed when a task is such where long periods of inactivity mean that your progress has begun to deteriorate (building muscle, losing weight, or playing a piano piece perfectly, for example). Many streaks end at this point, never to resume. Never resuming also happens to be a breeding ground for later-in-life regrets. Somewhat low in spirit, you look at your broken streak which now looks like this:
If you look at it from a wrong angle it can look like this for a very long time. Sometimes - forever. At fault is an improperly designed habit system that is too rigid and too self-involved to take into consideration the dynamic and unpredictable nature of life. This kind of system doesn't understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to sleep later than 7am every once in a while, and so in its dictatorial way it demands that you perform at 100% day in and day out. Aiming to fulfill these unrealistic expectations promotes a vulnerable mindset that lacks resilience.
This is where a system based on flexibility comes in.
A flexible systems looks like this:
A flexible system is very similar to a rigid system. You still have you checkmarks and streaks, but, there is a fundamental difference in how it computes failure. If a rigid system says that once you fail you are a f***ing loser, then a flexible system is smart and it understands that failure is inevitable and so it factors it into its algorithm. It doesn't punish you for failed days, or weeks, because it wants you to succeed, not to give up. In order to do so it redirects your focus from having failed to trying to succeed again. It says: We all fall. How quickly can you get up? A flexible system will gently remind you to step your game up, and it will reward you when you get back on track. Moving forward, even if not very regularly, is success.
Longevity and good average performance are the names of the game with flexible systems. When you look back on your records, what will count is not how long your perfect streak was, or how many times you failed, but how many days total you were successful over a given period of time. That's why you should aim to make your fail-streaks as short as possible. As you can see in the illustration, this will permit you to accomplish significantly more in the long run. And longevity is how you fundamentally change your habits.
In this beautifully subtle way, a small shift in mindset can create a world of difference. I hope that this article has been useful to you.
In closure, I invite you to consider the following: Think of a goal that you had wanted to accomplish 2-3 years ago but had abandoned. Whatever that goal was, it most likely required regular performance and dedication over a long period of time, but at some point you failed, got discouraged, and quit. To quote from one of my favorite books on creative process Art & Fear: "Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once." So imagine where you would be today, 2-3 years later, had you not quit.