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Create systems that make it easy for you to succeed (qz.com)
225 points by artsandsci on Jan 23, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

I'm not sure if it's exactly the same (I sometimes struggle with the nuance between a system and a goal) -- but I like to think of systems as "rules".

If I want to get healthy, I don't set a goal to "go to the gym three times a week" (classic 'feel bad when you fail' goal) or track how often I go to the gym on a calendar and then monitor the count (I felt like that with Beeminder).

But rather, I come up with a rule along the lines "If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday and I drive past the gym on the way home, I will park and walk in to the desk". For whatever reason, I don't feel bad if I break the rule every once in a while. If it's Tuesday and I missed Monday gym time because of $REASON -- I don't sweat it because the rule says don't do anything on Tuesday. But the rule itself is pretty easy to follow -- I pick a gym on my commute route and if I don't feel like working out, I can just walk to the desk and then leave, all I'm out is 5 extra minutes.

You need to periodically review your rules to make sure they are still making it easy to succeed.

Other "rules" I've done:

* If I bring lunch to work M-Th, then I can go out for lunch on Friday guilt-free

* I can watch as much TV/sports as I want, as long as I do it while on the treadmill

* If I floss at night, I can stay up an extra hour reading a book

These rules are super-sticky until something changes that makes it harder to follow (e.g. if I don't have a book queued up on Kindle, it's harder to read; a new work-project schedules lunch meetings at restaurants)

Reminds me of "temptation bundling." Here's a primer: http://jamesclear.com/temptation-bundling . I think this is one part (of a few) that makes good habit.

This is a great insight because I've been struggling to overcome the pattern of "setting up a plan, fail to come through a couple instance, then quit". This will help me tremendously. Thanks!

> I will park and walk in to the desk

Um, how else do you get the desk without parking and walking? Can you drive straight to your desk?


The thing is he sets up easy to follow routine.

He will always at least park and walk in to the desk. That's easy thing to force yourself into. Then he either will go in and exercise or he will walk back to the car and drive. He could be in no mood to exercise, but at least he will walk in to the desk. Sometimes this simple act could mean that he could go and exercise after all, because he changed his mind.

Here's what we (Beeminder) had to say about Systems vs Goals a year ago, also prompted by Scott Adams's book:


I bet people who like this article would also like http://complice.co which is all about systematized goal setting.

(And of course Beeminder, if you're a Quantified Self nerd into productivity hacks and don't shudder in horror at the idea of using commitment devices on yourself.)

I actually came to the comments to recommend Beeminder. If you're the type of person who sets goals and then feels guilty when you remember making them 6 months (... or a week) down the road, it's a fantastic service and worth every penny you'll pay for it.

The last example in your post seems odd -- "keep my weight below 100 kilograms, forever".

The rest of your examples are things you could miss here or there and then get back on track the next day. With this one, as soon as you miss it, doesn't it just turn into a "losing weight" goal that you said you don't recommend...?

I should generalize more: A goal to hit a certain weight is a bad goal because your weight will typically bounce back. But a goal to reach a certain weight and then stay below it forever is more System than Goal. You want to always be on track towards your ideal weight, which may mean staying flat if you're already there.

I just signed up to track my duolingo practice, but I'm curious what happens once I complete duolingo? Is there a way to end the tracking once it's over? At some point duolingo would get substituted for real-life immersion.

Once you complete Duolingo, treat yourself to a vacation in the country where the language is spoken :D I did this and had a wonderful time! From there, slowly immerse yourself in the culture.. for example, I am a part of some Swedish Facebook groups for developers, have Swedish-speaking pals both irl and online, etc. I was even offered a job to move to Sweden to lead a software dev organization but I have my own projects to focus on

I can't wait to try that! The software jobs aren't great where I'd go, but I have enough savings for 3-6 months of studying abroad. It would be a great thing to try in between jobs.

You can keep practicing to maintain your skills, or you lose them. Duolingo has been nice for quick maintenance study sessions that I would otherwise never bother doing. And the tracking remains useful because there are areas where I start forgetting.

I think the concept of the Forgetting Curve in language means that some knowledge you'll keep for years and years. For instance Duolingo thinks I'm completely rusty in one of my languages but I converse a few times a week so I've maintained it.

In case you meant this as a Beeminder question (it's a good one!) the answer is, yes, you can end a goal any time with one-week notice, or schedule it to end at a pre-specified date.

Daily actions without goals give no context for understanding progress.

The problem with goals however is that people assume the goal is the final output. Really though, a goal is like a destination that starts your journey in a particular direction. Goals are beginnings. The significant output is what your learn from your journey.

Sometimes the daily action can create its own context of progress.

Daily action: Work on my graphic novel, mostly by drawing, intermittently by sitting down and planning out the next dozen or so pages. Don't beat myself up if other stuff gets in the way now and then, either, just shrug and get back to it the next day.

Context that shows progress: A finished page, up on my website. A finished chapter on my site. A finished book, in my hands after a Kickstarter. Three finished books and a delightfully oversized omnibus on my shelves after their own various Kickstarters, and a Patreon page that occasionally pays my rent.

I sure as hell learnt a lot along the way, too. Drawing the individual panels was easy, I already knew how to draw. But dealing with a five year project? Self-publishing? That, I had to learn.

Yes, yes, there is no learning without doing.

I agree and I use a simple to-do list (Wunderlist) to set my goals and track my progress. I try to set short term goals, something between 4 and 8 weeks. As an example, my biggest current goal is to run my first Ragnar race in June.

I use sub to-do's in Wunderlist to break my goals down into manageable chunks. My Ragnar goal, then, is to hit the gym 3 days a week through May. My To-Do list for it looks something like this.

Ragnar, June 2nd

  - Gym Week Ending Jan 22

  - Gym Week Ending Jan 22

  - Gym Week Ending Jan 22
This system works surprisingly well for me.

If I found I enjoy the thing I setup to accomplish I set the goal again. Some of the goals even become habits, at which point I remove them from my list.

I do abandon some goals after a few weeks, if I realize I don't really value the thing I set-out to do, but for others I'm checking off items three times a week and making progress. I tend to accomplish more goals than I abandon.

What if you enjoy the daily actions? Or initially dislike them but get in the habit of liking them? Why does there need to be progress towards some goal? I've identified drawing as a healthy hobby, who cares if I get better, although I'm sure I will because the human brain adapts quickly, gets bored and needs a challenge. "Do this and you'll get that" - doesn't that hinder what you're doing because you're focusing on the "that" rather than the "this"?

Well I'm sure you started drawing with some goal in mind, even if it was "a more enjoyable way to spend my time." Personally, I like the term "purpose" more than "goal". The underlying WHY gives context and meaning to our daily actions. You draw for a reason. Knowing that (putting your attention on it), makes your habit even more rewarding.

Or initially dislike them but get in the habit of liking them?

That's exactly the point of having a goal. It gives you a nice end state that you can look towards so you can get past the day-to-day unpleasantness of actually forcing yourself to practice.

Different people have different motivation systems. I, personally, find it very difficult to do something without a goal in mind. If I try, I end up giving up very quickly, as my subconscious keeps asking, "What's the point of all this?" If I don't have an answer for that question, it's very difficult to keep going.

Goals vs. systems is one of those classic debates. There is also a third way: values.

For an excellent summary visualization and long-form discussion, check out Venkatesh Rao's post http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2014/09/03/how-to-fall-off-the-wag...

I've had a lot of success actually combining goals with systems. As in, I had the goal to quit smoking and to do that I borrowed a system from an addiction therapist I listened to on the Joe Rogan podcast:

Identify what makes me want to smoke and when, and pay close attention to those 'trigger' mechanisms. Start the day by counting how many cigarettes I had in my box. Each time I had a 'trigger' to smoke, I would pull out a pocket notebook, mark down a tally, and then tell myself "This cigarette can wait 30 minutes".

30 minutes later, if I had the same, or a different trigger to go outside and smoke, repeat the process. At the end of the day I'd count how many tally marks I had made with how many cigarettes are left in the box.

This gave me something I could visually track, it helped me pay attention to my habit versus blindly indulging in every nic-fit that came across, and within a month I had quit smoking.

This is just anecdote, but Goals vs. Systems might not be the best way of looking at this conceit; perhaps Goals contextualized within a system are the keys?

Interesting. So would you say you used willpower to quit smoking?

Hrm. Good question. I'd say when you sort of 'boil off' all the other stuff yeah. I've tried just sheer willpower before and would always fall back, but combined with taking stock of what made me want to smoke and tracking the progress I was making made the goal to quit smoking a little less hectic because I was actively paying attention to my addiction and what fed into it.

Add: Here is an example of values-first, since it's missing from this discussion of mostly systems vs. goals. It comes from Leo Babauta at zenhabits.net, and he refers to values as intentions:

Focus on intentions rather than goals. As you might know, I experimented with giving up goals after being very focused on goals for years. It was liberating, and it turns out, you don’t just do nothing if you don’t have a goal. You get up and focus on what you care about. Read more here. Instead, I’ve found it useful to focus less on the destination (goal) and instead focus on what your intention for each activity is. If you’re going to write something … instead of worrying about what the book will be like when you’re done, focus on why you want to write in the first place. If you are doing something out of love or to help others , for example, then you are freed from it needing to turn out a certain way (a goal) and instead can let it turn out however it turns out. I’ve found this way of working and living to be freeing and less prone to anxiety or procrastination.

In other words, don't set final goals per se, but brake it down in small steps that can be done in a daily basis.

That way you won't have to measure every day if you're getting closer to your goal (like dealing with numeric goals), you'll be evaluating if you're keeping yourself committed to things that will be part of your objective by the end of the year.

It avoids the burden that comes when you don't achieve a intermediate goal, and then give up of everything because it'll be hard to go back on track.

Create a goal, break it down into sub-goals, then ritualize behaviours that will meet the sub-goals, making sure to never introduce too many new rituals at once. Works pretty well for long term lifestyle goals. On the downside, there isn't much for BHAGs.

I've found that creating systems & not setting up a definite goal (stretch goal) makes the whole act of doing a task or practicing a skill feel little more on auto-pilot - which kills the drive for pushing it little harder. Creating systems towards a set goal has been more sustainable and effective for me

Are there any super successful people here? If yes, how did you set goals? (since definition of success can vary from person to person, for the sake of the question please consider the following definition- You are successful if you really think so, or if you think that the society think so)

Goal setting never worked for me. [Edit] But If I were to set some, it would be something like (Thinking.....) 1. Eat, Sleep and Exercise well 2. Surround yourself with amazing people (both professionally and personally) 3. Find something you truly love doing, and something that has value in the market 4. Work your butt off 5. Take time off & Forget the rest Let me check , if writing it down helps

Some of those habits your listed are hard to get going. How do you find something you love doing which is valuable in the market? Do you pay for coding camp classes or code every day? How will you ensure that you have the fortitude to do that every day?

If you know nobody in a new city, how will you go out to surround yourself with amazing people? Maybe go out to one social event a week, or always do social stuff at work: these are the methods to achieving that state.

Those things you listed are habits that presumably you can maintain, but the more interesting thing is how to create and change habits. That's the essence of self improvement.

To be honest, I never succeeded with goals. Those things that happen naturally , happens. Your comment made me self reflect, and I realised that , except point 4, nothing happened at my will. Point 4 happened because I found something that I enjoy doing. And finding something I love doing was a lot of trial and error. All the other points are just wishes.

I was wondering whether actually people set goals, remind themselves everyday etc, and go about to achieve the same. I think there is a lot of randomness in getting into a system and an outcome as a result of it.

Apart from one or two mental notes with a bigger picture, I am not sure whether the so called 'successful' people set those daily, weekly, monthly goals etc. I am genuinely curious to know if it worked for some.

Success is kind of subjective, maybe check out biographies? I know some people are absolutely nuts about these systems of goal setting.

I get inspired to goal set maybe once a year when I'm unhappy and I try to use the energy I have to establish a habit. The easiest way is singing up for a class, the better way is to have a bunch of friends who also have similar goals.

do you consider yourself successful using this system?

I do not use that system. It was more like a framework that naturally formed based on experiences.

And no. I am no where near to being successful. But I am happy though, since I have partially succeeded in Point 3 & point 4

passion may be overrated when viewed under the "systems vs goals" umbrella: www.businessinsider.com/scott-adams-on-goals-and-passion-2015-2 (view as one page for a better experience)

3 and 4 are the productivity equivalent of the two rules of dating: 1. Be attractive, 2. Don't be unattractive.

The weakest link in most goal systems is ourselves. Changing behavior is incredibly difficult because we get sidetracked, forget, and rationalize our failures. A good system should not rely on our memory or willpower to keep our goal top-of-mind.

So putting it up on Trello is a good idea, as is any other way to ensure your system stays in focus, especially for the first 45-60 days. I built an app for that purpose. It makes it easy to consistently do the small things that lead to results (reviewing your goal; assessing your progress; tracking habits; doing deep work; brainstorming), by reminding you via a browser extension. Check out Focal Point (focal.pt).

I couldn't agree more. Breaking objectives/goals in small tasks, and then transforming such small tasks in habits works very well for me.

I recommend habitica.com as a tool for such organization (btw, I have no affiliation to the project).

In not only helps you organize your TODO's/long-term objectives, but it also adds the element of gamification as an incentive. It also offers some data-visualization tools that help you see a big-picture overview of your efforts, e.g. maybe you didn't start going to the gym, but only because an unplanned time-consuming problem came into your life, which you handled very well without dropping the ball in other areas.

I am slowly working on doing this when I realized that goals always seemed too far away shortly after trying to achieve them. I have tried Habitica (https://habitica.com) and got really into it to enforce habits but once a few of them slipped I just got bogged down at some point and never went back. It's a real interesting system to help enforce habits. Perhaps I need to just suck it up and try again.

I tried Habitica but it wasn't doing it for me. I think a combination of it being self-driven (I can just keep clicking a button to progress if I were dishonest) and it lacking actual gameplay and being more of a stat boosting game akin to a clicker game.

Compare this to Pokemon Go where I actually felt compelled to walk to grind eggs since I had no good way to fake the GPS (though I did slowly drive one night since it was too cold to walk). There was an instance of the game actually forcing me to do something.

I like https://www.principles.com/ by Ray Dalio (of Bridgewater) for a 5 step goal-fulfilment strategy:

> Have clear goals.

> Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of achieving your goals.

> Accurately diagnose these problems.

> Design plans that explicitly lay out tasks that will get you around your problems and on to your goals.

> Implement these plans—i.e., do these tasks.

This reminds me of what is probably a similar concept, the idea that "successful" people don't have todo lists, they schedule time in their day to solve problems.

A todo list could be seen as a set of "goals", whereas a time slot could be seen as a system, which has no "success" criteria, just a period of time where effort is exerted on a problem.

I am constantly trying and failing at this. I dunno what it is, but the little demon in my brain loves to see a schedule, miss it intentionally, and then go, "see? nothing bad happened!"

Pomodoro helps a bit, but it feels arbitrary, and often I forget that I'm supposed to stop at 25 minutes (which I guess is good), so I'll be like 2 hours in on a project before realizing I was supposed to take a series of 5 minute breaks. The problem with this is it ruins the credibility of Pomodoro for me, so next time I'm finding it hard to start a thing, I don't think of Pomodoro.

I ramble about all of this because I want to highlight how real and permeating this is, as a problem, and I doubt I'm alone in this.

I'd first question who these successful people actually are, and by what metrics they're considered successful.

Over the years I'm starting to realise more and more that what I thought was success was actually prequalified by some sort of head-start or privilege: Born into wealth, great connections, amazing generics, etc.

It's important to scope these out first I feel.

To me, Pomodoro sucks. You need a pomodoro only if you do not enjoy doing something. The days I tried, I felt like in jail.

Since the author explicitly mentions his source, here is the idea explained by the source itself:


The system my partner & I set up:

- no exercise on a designated days? Donate $100 to Australia's One Nation party (Australia's Trump-esque ratbags).

- don't meet weekly work goals? I give away a watch; she gives away a pair of shoes.

I think I'll check in on the author come January 2018 :D

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