Forget goals. Let’s talk about systems

My recent writing-related post was a flood of barely organised, highly personal navel-gazing in many ways, but it sparked a lot of conversation and follow-up questions among people who’ve read it. I thought I’d chase it with a couple of more focused, actionable posts to help people who are putting their own goals in place this year, be they for exercise or any other reason. I’d like to say that I’m intentionally a month late with this because I’m protesting the futility of New Years Resolutions like some kind of rebel, but honestly it’s only this week that I realise I have some good, fresh examples to talk about. On top of that, I turn 27 this very day and birthdays are always a good opportunity to take stock and consider what you want.

I love making goals. I’ve been doing it all my life. The bigger, hairier and more audacious the better. However, like most people reading this, I must admit that the ratio of goals set to goals accomplished is somewhere in the region of 10:1. Up until the last couple of years that ratio would have been even worse, but thankfully I’ve learned some things that have helped me to slowly bring it back to something approaching respectable.

Although I love making goals – they can be incredibly useful as a carroty source of motivation and a kick in the ass when necessary – goals also bring with them a huge amount of pressure. Goals can be bloody scary.

On top of that, the kick of motivation they provide can be so short-lived. We’ve all been through the “new health routine” cycle before, I imagine. See if this looks familiar:

  1. You realise you haven’t exercised regularly in a while.
  2. You feel guilty, maybe berate yourself a little bit and think about all the people you know who haven’t messed up and now look ten times better than you (or so you perceive it) and are enjoying themselves and goddamn them just living a perfect life with a perfect goddamn body- Ahem.
  3. You make a grand, six-days-a-week exercise plan with accompanying dietary restrictions and envision yourself (starting Monday, of course), sculpting the kind of rippling musculature/svelte physique that’ll have heads turning all over your summer holiday destination.
  4. Monday arrives, you bounce out of bed with your alarm, chug a kale smoothie and hit the gym like the Energiser bunny.
  5. This continues, slowly degrading, for about two weeks, whereupon you resemble the “other brand” battery mascot a lot more than Mr. Energiser.
  6. The third Monday arrives and you hit snooze four times before stumbling to the shower and picking up a breakfast roll on your way to work.

I talked specifically about this in a couple of posts before, but it’s a poster-boy example for the death of any ambitious aspiration.

Goals are rarely low-hanging fruit. Nobody ever announces their burning ambition to get at least twenty minutes of exercise every day. They talk about wanting to drop two dress sizes or gain twenty pounds of muscle. These goals are so far removed from the day-to-day reality of what’s involved in achieving them that it’s almost impossible for your brain to associate what you’re doing with what you intend the outcome to be. We’re creatures that are wired for short-term gratification and our attention spans are short, particularly when things get hard – nowadays more than ever, apparently.

Taking a relevant example for myself; it’s certainly not the first time I’ve made a big set of writing goals. In fact, I’ve probably done so about once a year for the majority of my life. I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. The difference this time – I hope – is that this time I’m armed with a knowledge of breaking problems into smaller pieces, building habits and conserving willpower. These are all absolutely key in the fight to achieve our lofty goals. I’m not just trying to sustain this on childish dreams and wishful thinking anymore.

One well-known tactic is to back up your hairy milestone goals with a small series of well-defined interim goals. You might say you want to lose ten pounds by April 1st. Or put twenty kilograms on your bench press by March 15th. Or write a first draft of a novel by June 1st. Each of these is very specific, with numbers (10 lbs, 20 kgs, 1 novel) and a set date. If you can tick off the days until you’re meant to have lost ten pounds, it’s easy to feel a bit more urgency about things. It’s a lot shorter-term than the goal of two dress sizes by the time you head to the beach in August.

You can break these down further if you like, getting shorter and shorter term, but be wary of going too far. While “losing a pound a week” sounds on the surface more urgent than “10 lbs in ten weeks” and sounds like the same end result, you probably have no idea whether a pound a week is a lot or easy for you to lose until you are already pretty deep in the process. By that stage things will inevitably be slowing down, and if you miss a week you might be so disappointed you backslide.

Instead of outcomes that you may or may not be able to achieve in a given time-frame, look at daily, or near-daily things you can actually do that will lead to your goal. A goal without action will get you nowhere. Action without a strict goal will at least get you moving, even if combining the two is the best option.

Take my writing goals from the last post. There are some lofty ones there, but you might notice that my emphasis is more on sitting down to write every morning, with 1,000 words done by the end of each day. I set some hairy goals and some shorter-term ones, but they’re not the focus. In fact, my goals are almost intentionally undershot afterthoughts compared to the process I’ve put in place to achieve them.

For example, if I manage to write 1,000 words per day (the minimum, remember) every day for a year, I’ll have 365,000 words of writing done. That’s far more words than you need for the goals I’ve set. Even for the scariest of them all, the novel (doesn’t even hearing the words “write a novel” make you question your ability to do anything?). The average novel is “only” 70 – 100k words. My goals are still huge and terrifying, and still things I badly want to accomplish, but I know that if I trust the process – the 1,000 words a day system that I’m building – I will reach those goals almost automatically (at least in terms of words written!). Even disregarding the goals completely, I’d still have a lot of words written.

It’s in systems and habits that I think the key to achieving long-term goals lies. While it’s nice to stick your head above the parapet and gaze longingly at your potential end result every now and again – be it a beach body, a conversation in French with the baguette-wielding man of your dreams or a finished novel – the actual reality of making those things happen is not going to be half as glamorous as the goal or outcome itself. It’s going to involve hard work, struggle and sacrifice. You don’t breeze your way through to six pack abs unless you’ve got the genetics of a Greek god. You get there with sweat and salad and maybe even some tears.

It’s a crucial litmus test for any goal, to envisage the day-to-day process in realistic detail. If I set a big goal but then come to setting up the system and realise that I hate the process, then something has to give. If you want to learn French but realise you hate talking to strangers, despise memorising vocabulary and don’t even like wine (said nobody, ever), well, are you actually sure you want to learn French? Learning French isn’t its end result of witty conversations with beautiful people on rooftops overlooking the Seine. Learning French is umming and aahing through months of awkward conversation, messing up the conjugation for “I was” fifteen days on the trot. I should know; I’m knee-deep in learning Spanish at the moment and feel like an idiot on a near-hourly basis.

Importantly though – and this is what these goals live or die by – I’m enjoying the respective processes overall. Yes, I feel like an idiot learning Spanish most of the time. The vast majority of what I write in a morning (particularly in the bleary-eyed start) sucks. Some days I’m weak as a kitten in the gym.

But every now and again a fountain of perfect Spanish erupts from some deep part of me that actually is taking something in. Some days I end up getting so lost in writing that it’s a wrench to have to stop. From time to time I arrive at the gym feeling tired and doubting myself and then proceed to knock out the best workout I’ve had in months.

In each case, it reminds me what I’m doing it for. It’s not just about the goal – in fact I’d argue that in lots of cases the goal loses importance as you get deeper into the process. Rather, it’s about enjoying the journey. It’s about trusting the system for success that you create for yourself (or, in some cases like an exercise program, are given to follow).

Until next time, consider your own goals – what achieving them will actually take on a day-to-day basis, and how you can break them down into smaller, easier wins.

Thanks to Katie Chastain for the image. It comes from this post – which is shockingly relevant – and is based on a quote by the always interesting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.