For as long as I can remember, I have been a goal oriented person. I think I have always enjoyed the process of outlining objectives and throughout my academic and professional endeavors have learned many of the “right” ways to set goals. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Bound) and validating that that I have an actual aim rather than a loose dream, wish or hope. But recently, I’ve been challenged to reconsider the way that I think about goal setting as I learn more about habits, making long term progress, and growth.
As James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, goals are not, in and of themselves, what sets someone apart – “winners and losers have the same goal…. goals are about the result you want to achieve. Systems[however] are about the processes that lead to those results.” Although an objective can provide a target and set direction, a system is what actually helps us to make progress and many of us spend too much time focused on the former and not enough devoted to designing the system to get us there. It’s all the incremental steps along the way, regular practice, and routine which enable the outcome and its long term sustainability. Clear argues that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
One of my most pervasive goals over the past few years has been to make my life more meaningful and satisfying. I wanted to learn to flourish. As far as an ambition goes, “being happier” is a goal just about as broad as they come, so I broke it down, month-by-month into specific areas or aspects of life that I wanted to influence and then from there outlined a few concrete actions to move the needle in said area positively. At the end of the day, it was essentially a project focused on building habits. Looking back on my Happiness Project now, I realize that one of the key contributors to its success was the system that I had in place with my daily resolutions tracker. It really made a huge difference to be able to physically see each of my commitments and my progress towards them everyday. It was such a useful system, that I made maintaining a habit tracker one of my 19 for 2019 resolutionsthis year.
Another brilliant example came to me recently in conversation with my father. He recently read David Goggin’s book Can’t Hurt Meand was consequently inspired to do his own miskobi. Miskobi is a Japanese term and idea for completing an annual challenge which is pretty much insurmountable, taking one literally to the end of their physical capabilities and definitely stretching beyond their mental barriers. For some this might be running a marathon or climbing a mountain, etc. – for my dad it will be to beat his own sit-up record. Over thirty years ago, while in the US Army, he won a contest for completing the most – 1100 full sit-ups in an hour. This year, on the 4th of July, he is going to beat that record by 100! And as he described this ambition to me, I was awestruck not only by the concept and his goal, but also the intricacies of the system that he has designed to achieve it. He’s practicing daily, building up reps week-by-week, and cross training to build overall strength and stamina. I can’t wait to cheer him on in a few months!
So if you’re looking at the start of a new month discouraged by the lack of progress you have made towards this year’s goals (like me!) – take a look at your systems! Invest the time to set yourself up for success. Identify what’s involved, the subprocesses and the small changes you need to make to get to wherever it is you want to go. As “they” say, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.