Systems and Habits



Last week I talked about how setting goals can be useful to help you achieve things. I then went on to say that goals can be difficult to achieve because of not knowing how to start a large goal, not finding the time to progress, and feeling a sense of failure until the ultimate goal is achieved.

So what can we do to overcome these hurdles and make sure our goal setting is a useful tool, rather than another thing to beat ourselves around the head with?

Goals versus systems

First, I’d like to talk about the goals versus systems approach to achieving success. I first read about this approach in the books of Scott Adams (Dilbert creator). Not only a successful cartoonist, Scott has written other books and blog posts on more serious aspects of life. This particular approach is one he wholly advocates, and after reading his thoughts on the subject and putting it into practice, I’ve found it worthwhile.

His theory is that setting up a system is a more effective method to achieve success than setting a goal.

The example he uses is exercise, and I think this is a good way to demonstrate it. So, let’s say you want to get fit. Instead of expressing this as a goal of wanting to achieve, say, a weight goal or doing a marathon, you simply set up a system. The system says “I will exercise three times a week”.

That’s it. You decide what exercise you do, and three times a week, you do it. Every time you exercise, you have achieved what you wanted to because you have followed the system.

If you have a day where you don’t exercise, yes, it’s a failure, but it’s a small failure of the system, not a big failure to achieve an ultimate goal. When the next exercise day comes around, you do it and you’re back to your system.

The systems approach is also good for something like housework. I get frustrated with housework goals, because ultimately, the house will revert to the state of a pigsty if you take too long a break from cleaning it. And yet, the rewards are short-lived. Having a system means you just do so many minutes of housework, or so many tasks around the house each day, as opposed to the goal of having a clean house. When you’ve done the day’s tasks, you have succeeded. And the habit means you continue to succeed and don’t have to worry about an ultimate goal. And the house is vaguely clean most of the time.

Developing habits

Eventually, over time, systems become habits. It will seem natural to you to exercise three times a week, and if you miss a session, you will genuinely miss doing it.

I think exercise is a particularly relevant discipline to apply this theory to because it’s something we should all be doing regularly. If you set big exercise goals and achieve them, you may lose the incentive to continue exercising afterwards. And you have to keep setting bigger and bigger goals to achieve which eventually may not fit into your lifestyle. But if you merely have a habit, you will keep it up.

The systems and habits theory can be easily applied to something like writing as well. Let’s say you want to complete the first draft of a novel. Set up a system to write so many words a day. If you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a 60,000 word first draft in four months.

Obviously, first drafts require planning, and there will be days where the words don’t flow, but if you have a system where you write a small amount of words each day, it’s easier to keep going. Otherwise, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer concept of writing all those words to make an entire novel.

Combining systems and goals

Despite the usefulness of the systems and habits approach, I personally find that a combination of these with the goals approach works best.

Generally, it’s the idea of the big goals that motivates us. The key is turning those goals into systems.

So, if I go back to my original example in the goals post, the goal was to self-publish a novel.

First, you need to break this down into its constituent parts: planning, writing, editing, and publishing. Take each step one at a time and work out how you can apply a system in order to ultimately achieve a goal.

With writing, a daily system can be helpful. So, for the first stage, you may decide to do half an hour of planning a day.

Breaking goals down into manageable chunks to form systems is a good way to practically achieve those big goals.

Problems with the systems approach

No approach is foolproof, of course, and these are some common pitfalls that may occur with systems:

Overcoming boredom: systems and habits are efficient, and they fit nicely into our routines, but they can get you in a rut. You may find yourself faced with a long list of things to do every single day and have days where you just can’t face it.

Getting motivation: systems require continual motivation. Once they turn into habits, it can become more natural, but the constant input needed can be draining.

Life gets in the way: an unexpected event can derail a system, whereas a large goal is merely postponed. Getting back into the system mind frame can be difficult if your life is not on a level playing field. And from time to time, all our lives will fit into this category.

So, In the next post I’m going to look at ways to help yourself stick to systems. Whether you have big goals, or merely wish to improve your habits, this approach can be effective.



  1. Another informative post! I use a mixture of the two systems as well–I have my monthly goals for my writing, and then a breakdown day-to-day of what I need to do to reach those goals. I might not always succeed in making them, but I’ve started keeping a color-coded chart and my goal is to have more green and yellow (made up work) than red at the end of the month.

    Usually when I start out setting goals, I aim a little high. If I fail, then I fail, but I know better my limits for the next goal setting, and can move on from there.

  2. Pingback: How to Keep Habits Going | Magic Writer

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