Hack Success by Building Systems
In 2019, the fitness tracking app Strava documented and studied over 800 million user activities and found that most people quit their New Year’s fitness resolutions by January 19th. January 19th has thus been dubbed “quitters day.” In an article for inc.com, Marcel Schwantes writes that 91% of us won’t achieve our New Years resolutions. My big questions is: how do 9 out of every 10 people fail in their New Year’s resolutions? The answer extends beyond resolutions into any endeavor; starting a business, getting in shape, graduating from school, or keeping your house clean. Failure likely comes from these three things — focusing too much on goals (the outcome), not building systems to reach your goals (the process), and your relationship with failure itself.
Goals provide a target and direction of travel towards a desired outcome. Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, wrote “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” Without a destination in mind, the individual steps in your journey have less meaning. You become adrift in a sea of indecision, never knowing if you are making progress. The first step towards improvement is knowing where you are headed; make a goal. With a goal in mind, you’ll at least have something to measure progress against. You will have a point on a map that you want to reach. But focus too much on a goal, the outcome, and you can miss the importance of the journey. Focus too much on a goal and you might end up as one of the 9 in 10 people who fail in their New Years resolutions; just another person with a target and no way to get there.
James Clear, author of the New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits, writes that there are four main problems with goals. “Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.” Clear writes “Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.” I have read a lot about how to set better goals. I even wrote a previous blog post about it; SMART Goals http://kaizenculture.blog/2021/05/20/smart-goals/. But as James Clear said, most people have the same goals. Making better goals is not the answer. You can make goals all day and not have taken a significant step forward. You might know where you want to go, but still have no idea how to get there.
“Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.” You have reached the peak. Checked off every item on your to-do list. Finished your project. Great! But now what? Goals can create a short-sighted mindset; instead of focusing on continuously getting better, you focus only getting to the immediate finish line. Instead of developing strategies that will help win races in the future, you only focus on winning the next race. All progress is measured based on a singular moment rather than a continuous path to getting better. The goal can be achieved without a major shift in lifestyle and completing the goal doesn’t help with future goals.
“Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness.” 99.9% of pursuing a goal is spent in the failure state. Success doesn’t happen until that last 0.01%. Therefore, it is easy to be defeated and beat yourself up for not having reached your goal. James Clear writes “The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.’ The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.” Instead of being happy with your progress, you are disappointed by your lack of achievement. Clear calls this the either-or conflict, “either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.”
“Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.” Having a goal can provide a lot of motivation and energy. But after reaching your goal, what is left to push you further? Continuously adaptive goal setting can help with this, but that can just accentuate Problem #3. By moving the goal post further and further away you just create a longer failure state. Known as the hedonic treadmill, you are stuck in a never ending pursuit of goals that just get farther away as you get closer to them. That might work for some people, but it can be exhausting to chase something that you will never reach.
Goals, just like the people who make them, are flawed. On their own, goals won’t get you very far. Goals are binary, you either succeed or don’t. “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead,” writes James Clear. My discovery of systems based thinking has come from three main inspirations: James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, Tim Ferriss’s interview of Scott Adams on the podcast The Tim Ferriss Show, and YouTube videos of Simon Sinek discussing infinite thinking. The overall point is that focusing on your systems is better than focusing on your goals; use goals as a destination and systems as your path to get there. Systems create long-term progress and infinite opportunities. If you want to be the 1 in 10 that completes their New Years resolution, makes a successful business, or gets in better shape, all you have to do is build better systems. Systems are the life-hack for success.
James Clear writes “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.” Goals are short term, systems are long term. Goals are win or lose. Systems mean continuous improvement despite short term success or failure.
“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis,” writes Clear. No one makes the front page because of a 1% improvement from one day to the next. It is the result of hundreds or thousands of tiny improvements that we see encapsulated in a single magazine cover success story. Because big moments of success are romanticized, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we need to make huge changes to reach our goals. “The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them,” writes Clear. Doing the small things consistently means more than doing the big things sporadically.
Clear writes “If you can get 1 percent better every day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” The person who keeps getting better everyday is going to win in the long term. Achieving your goals is not setting goals and then moving mountains to get there. It is about setting a goal and developing systems in which you create small steps in the right direction that compound over time into massive change.
One of the reasons so many people fail in their New Years resolutions, business ventures, or fitness journey’s is that they try to change their entire life in one moment. A person with a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape might go from never going to the gym and eating poorly to attempting to go to the gym for five days per week and only eating healthy foods. This 180 degree shift is hard to attain and even harder to maintain. It is scary to change your whole life so quickly. First you should become the type of person that works out once per week for 30 minutes. The type of person that has a healthy meal once a day. Then build on that. Soon one day per week becomes two days per week and one healthy meal per day becomes two. Spread out over time, this change is easy to make and easy to sustain. While your goals can be big and audacious, the daily habits you use to get there should be small and calculated. The secret to success is not overnight. It is tiny, daily, barely noticeable changes. Look back and yesterday and it won’t seem like much. Look back at last year and you will see how much you have changed.
Episode #106 of the Tim Ferriss Show podcast is Scott Adams: The Man Behind Dilbert. Yes, Dilbert the newspaper cartoon. Adams is the author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Succeed. Adams discusses his systems oriented approach vs. the traditional goal oriented approach. Adams says “The hallmark of a good system is that even as things are failing, you’re still improving your odds and your personal worth.” If your goal is starting a successful business and that business fails, it is easy to look at the whole thing as a waste of time. But Adams says “let’s say making all the contacts that I made through the startup, the networking, the things I learned made me more valuable in the things, maybe my day job or the next job I do, then I came out ahead. So that’s the system.” So instead of looking at your business attempt as a failure, you take everything you learned from the experience and use that to improve the odds in your next endeavor. The contacts, resources, skills, and experience from the pursuit of one failed goal will help with the pursuit of your next goal. You become better because of your failure.
Focusing solely on a goal can cut you off from other opportunities. “Let’s say you said my goal is to get my boss’s job. That’s a pretty common goal. That’s stupid because your boss’s job is just one of the many things that could be better than what you’re doing now,” says Adams. If you measure all failure and success against getting your boss’s job, it might blind you from seeing other opportunities such as: getting your boss’s boss’s job, getting a better job with a different company, or making a lateral move that has more room for growth. In this case, your goal actually limits you to a single path forward. With a systems based approach to this goal, you would focus on building experience that would help you succeed not just at your boss’s job, but any other opportunity. So whether or not you actually get your boss’s job, you come out ahead as a more valuable candidate for any job.
Adams tells a great goals vs systems story about trying to ask the prettiest girl to the dance in seventh grade. Adams’ goal oriented approach was to walk up to the prettiest girl in school and ask her to the dance. Or, walk up to the prettiest girl at the dance and ask her for the next slow dance. Basically, if you get rejected you have failed. Goal pursued, goal failed, nothing achieved. Adams says: “So my friend Manuel, he had different approach. He had a systems approach. He would simply go wherever there were plenty of girls, and he would ask them in descending order of looks, ‘Will you be my girlfriend?’ or some version of that. Of course, almost everybody said no. You’re probably thinking, oh, you’re telling me the old story about keep trying, get back on the horse. I’m not telling you that story at all. I’m telling you he was learning a skill while I was wasting my time. That guy knows how to approach strangers. He knows what works, what doesn’t. He’s got a thicker skin. He also had a lot of girlfriends so he was learning a lot that way, as well. So he was failing in a way that put him ahead no matter what happened. I was failing in a way that didn’t put me ahead; it just made me feel like a loser and probably put me behind for the next time I wanted to feel confident in front of someone else.”
See a summary of How to Fail and Still Win Big below:
Every attempt at achieving a goal is an opportunity for improvement. If you look at your life experiences as practice for the next opportunity, you are constantly moving upwards. My grandpa always told me that how you do one thing is how you do everything. After fighting in World War II, my grandpa went to Central Washington University. He paid his living expenses by sweeping the steps of various university buildings for $0.10 an hour. He had a choice: to just mindlessly get through the the hours of sweeping or to use sweeping as an opportunity to get better. He said, I can practice being the best step sweeper. I can learn to work harder, to develop strategies to do my work faster, figure out better tools, and connect with other students and faculty. So instead of just doing what most people would do, grumbling and hating life as he swept the dusty stairs, he took it as an opportunity to get better. By practicing being the best stair sweeper, he gained something that could be applied to every other job he would ever have: how to get the most out of the time you have, how to use all tools and resources to their maximum potential, how to plan ahead and set small goals and achieve them, how to literally take it one step at a time. Building a system to achieve one goal helps you build better systems in pursuit of your next goal. Therefore, at every moment you are getting better. You can fail three or four or five times and then be more prepared for the sixth time.
A goal oriented approach is a finite game. Systems oriented thinking is an infinite game. Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, says “A finite game is defined by known players, fixed rules, and an agreed upon objective. Football for example. There’s always a beginning, middle, and an end. And if there’s a winner then necessarily there has to be a loser. Then there are infinite games. Infinite games are known as known and unknown players, which means new players can join at any time. The rules are changeable, which means everyone can play however they want, and the objective is to perpetuate the game, to stay in the game as long as possible.” Business, fitness, and education are all examples of infinite games. Most people, according to Sinek, approach these examples of infinite games with a finite mindset. This creates many problems.
For example: a business’s goal should be to continue doing business forever; steady and sustainable growth, without setting aside important core values, focusing on creating a great place for employees to work, and providing increasing value to customers. But many businesses live and die by quarterly reports. These short sighted views can put pursuit of a finite goal, like increasing quarterly earnings, ahead of building systems that would create a more sustainable business in the long term. Businesses burn out employees and put ethics aside just to get a few extra percent of profit growth. And in the infinite game, that few percent means nothing. “The great organizations are the ones who understand that the goals and the metrics are waypoints, they help us understand speed and distance but they’re not the purpose of the game,” says Sinek.
Sinek says that it is okay to have finite goals within an infinite system. We should all have stepping stones in our journey. But the question we should ask ourselves in the infinite game of life is: how do we make ourselves better tomorrow than we are today? Fitness goals are some of the most common New Years Resolutions. Many fail because of focus on the results over the systems. “You can’t get healthy by going to the gym for 9 hours, right? It doesn’t work. But if you go every single day for 20 minutes you’ll absolutely get into shape 100%. But I don’t know when and it’s different times for different people,” says Sinek. In addition, “Even if you do hit your fitness goal, you don’t get to stop working out. You have to keep going for the rest of your life,” says Sinek. In the infinite game of life, it is important to avoid the “now what” scenario. I lost 50 pounds, now what? I got the promotion, now what? I got the degree, now what? Use those finite goals as waypoints in your infinite journey.
Simon Sinek defining Finite Thinking vs. Infinite Mindset:
In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” In order to build effective systems, we need to change our relationship with failure. Instead of looking at missing your goals as a loss, focus on what you learned during the process. Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way discusses how every new obstacle we face becomes an opportunity to learn, grow, and get stronger. This mindset is critical to get past viewing failure as a negative thing.
My favorite failure mindset shift concept comes from Jocko Willink. Willink is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer who commanded the most highly decorated special forces unit during the Iraq war. Upon retirement from the military, Jocko founded Echelon Front, a leadership and management consulting firm. He has also written multiple best selling books: Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership. In an episode of Willink’s top rated podcast, Jocko Podcast, he explains his outlook on failing.
“How do I deal with setbacks, failures, delays, defeats, or other disasters? I actually have a fairly simple way of dealing with these situations, summed up in one word: ‘Good,’” Says Willink. To explain what this means, Willink says:
“…when things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that will come from it.
Oh, the mission got canceled? Good… We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good… We can keep it simple.
Didn’t get promoted? Good… More time to get better.
Didn’t get funded? Good… We own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good… Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.
Got injured? Good… Needed a break from training.
Got tapped out? Good… It’s better to tap out in training than tap out on the street.
Got beat? Good… We learned.
Unexpected problems? Good… We have to figure out a solutions
That’s it. When things are going bad: Don’t get all bummed out, don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated. No. Just look at the issue and say: ‘Good.’”
This doesn’t mean that a positive attitude will fix our problems. “It won’t,” says Willink. “But neither will dwelling on the problem. No. Accept reality, but focus on the solution. Take that issue, take that setback, take that problem, and turn it into something good. Go forward. And, if you are part of a team, that attitude will spread throughout.”
See Jocko’s “Good” motivation below:
Next year when January 19th, quitters day, comes around, don’t be one of the 9 in 10 people that has already quit their New Years resolutions. Don’t be the person that is defeated when their business fails. Don’t be the person that stops working out once you’ve reached your goal weight or completed the marathon. Don’t put everything in life into win or loss columns. A better way to record progress is with growth or no growth columns. Did that endeavor lead to you growing as a person? If it did, winning or losing, failing or succeeding, doesn’t even matter. Building systems is how you hack success. Just as Scott Adams’ book title says, you can fail at almost everything and still win big.
By Tyson Simmons
Sources and Inspiration
- Scott Adams: The Man Behind Dilbert (#106), The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, by Tim Ferriss, https://tim.blog/2015/09/22/scott-adams-the-man-behind-dilbert/
- The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts Episode 106: Scott Adams, by Tim Ferriss, https://tim.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/106-scott-adams.pdf
- Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead., by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/goals-systems
- New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work. Build Systems Instead., by Sam Thomas Davies, Last updated: December 13, 2020, https://www.samuelthomasdavies.com/goals-systems/
- WHAT IS QUITTER’S DAY AND WHEN DOES IT TAKE PLACE?, by Sabrina Barr, January 26, 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/quitters-day-2022-new-years-resolutions-b1994433.html
- A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year’s Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick, by Jeff Haden, https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/a-study-of-800-million-activities-predicts-most-new-years-resolutions-will-be-abandoned-on-january-19-how-you-cancreate-new-habits-that-actually-stick.html
- This is the day you’re most likely to let your New Year fitness goals slip, by SANA NOOR HAQ, 08/01/2020, https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/a776013/today-is-the-day-youre-most-likely-to-let-your-new-year-fitness-goals-slip/
- Researchers reveal the exact day you’re going to give up on your New Year’s resolutions, By Katherine Scott, https://honey.nine.com.au/you/youll-give-up-new-years-resolutions-by-this-date/166e0b3e-5dcf-4d8e-98b8-795b609679de
- How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science), by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/new-habit
- Studies Show 91 Percent of Us Won’t Achieve Our New Year’s Resolutions. How to Be the 9 Percent That Do, BY MARCEL SCHWANTES, https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/studies-show-91-percent-of-us-wont-achieve-our-new-years-resolutions-how-to-be-9-percent-that-do.html
- Simon Sinek: Building an Infinite Mindset, By Jonny Auping, July 20, 2020, https://www.success.com/simon-sinek-the-infinite-game/
- Five Leadership Lessons: How To Build An Infinite Mindset, Apr 18, 2019, by Susan Galer, https://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2019/04/18/five-leadership-lessons-how-to-build-an-infinite-mindset/?sh=4c999e7011f5
- The Lifestyle of an Infinite Mindset, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UY-1-9ObaLE
- Atomic Habits, by James Clearhttps://www.amazon.com/Atomic-Habits-Proven-Build-Break/dp/0735211299
- The Obstacle Is The Way, by Ryan Holiday, https://www.amazon.com/Obstacle-Way-Timeless-Turning-Triumph/dp/1591846358
- The Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek, https://www.amazon.com/Infinite-Game-Simon-Sinek/dp/073521350X
- Jocko Willink “Good” Transcript, by Nick Glassett, https://nickglassett.com/jocko-willink-good-transcript/