A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Lao-Tzu – Tao Te Ching
Over however many years of life that we have lived to date, we have built up a list of things in our head that we want to do. It is inevitable. Some people want to paint the next Mona Lisa, others to write the next Harry Potter, even others still to compose the next Moonlight Sonata. Big dreams spring into different minds every day, and with 7.6 billion people on the planet and counting, the scope is very wide.
Yet Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. Big dreams do not manifest themselves physically by happenstance, they are created by diligence and an unwillingness to accept defeat.
Dreams are also a malleable concept – they morph and transform in your head, changing and reinventing themselves day by day until you wake up one morning and they in no way represent anything similar to what they were when you started out on your journey.
One example that I love to think about is how many young men and women these days grew up wanting to be a professional athlete? I knew a tonne. Many of them pursued it diligently as they could around their schooling in their teenage years, spending every single evening training with the full support of their parents. They were “destined to be great.” But as they grew, and the realities and demands of life set in, people often gave up on such dreams in favour of more achievable, manageable, realistic desires.
To me, that represents the key differentiation between dreams, goals and systems. All three of these could be considered in some regard the same, but they require different thought processes and the outcomes can be dramatically different.
A dream is something that occupies your thoughts at all times, something that pops into your head in the middle of the night and wakes you up in your excitement. It is something that you wish deeply to be/do/accomplish/achieve/indulge, and it is a powerful motivator for change and new, positive action. The problem begins, however, when it is also used as an excuse. A dream can, and will, readily remain just that – a pipe dream. It can be something that you spend more time fantasising about than actually realising, a wish that never has any chance of becoming a reality.
In comparison with a dream, a goal is a much more tangible, graspable target. It is something that you can accurately track your steps towards. Generally, a goal can be broken down into smaller mini-goals that take you towards the top of the mountain. The key here is that they are measurable. To take something from a dream to a goal, you need to be highly specific with how you define it. Using a sporting analogy, a dream might be “I want to play in the National Football League.” Many young American boys have this dream – it is common nationwide in the US. What separates those who transform it into a goal is they begin to think about what they have to do to achieve that target. They might strive to get a starting position in their high school team, to work towards playing All-State or All-American; they may target certain strength or speed goals in the gym or in Combine testing; they may target specific times or results on positional drills, or beat a certain player that they compete with regularly. All of these things are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
The problems with SMART goals is as much care as you can take to make them achievable, you can still fail to achieve them. Due to the nature of being time-bound, there is an expiry date that you have given yourself and if that point is reached, it is easy to deem yourself as having failed in achieving the goal you set yourself. This may not affect everyone, but for some people, even one such failure can de-rail their progress and multiple “failures” can send someone careening off into a negative space.
That is where thinking about systems becomes crucial. It is a way of applying engineering or economic thinking to the way you live, and mitigating risk as best you can. You can either be successful in achieving your goals or you can fail to achieve them, and this by definition makes them fallible. Systems thinking is taking a repeatable, methodic way of approaching a goal such that even if the individual fails in achieving the smaller task, they are still gaining from the situation in some way. It is about finding a way to win even when you lose.
As Scott Adams has discussed heavily in his book on the subject, entitled “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life”, and expounded an in-depth blog post on the same subject of Goals vs. Systems, this thinking can remove demands from willpower and instead place them upon knowledge. Systems thinking is constructed on the back of small disciplines, by working at something every day consistently until the result is far, far greater than the parts.
Master the basics. Then practice them every day without fail. Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.”
John C. Maxwell
Eating well, exercising, reading, writing, studying and working can all be systems. Even if you dislike one or all of these things, there are two ways to approach them.
Take fitness, for example. To aim for a certain number of visits to the gym per week is a goal. It is achievable, and there are multiple ways to approach it to make it feasible, but at the heart of it, that goal will always have a condition under which you can lose. Oftentimes, people take the approach of “getting awesome quickly”, deciding from cold-turkey that they will go to the gym 6x per week. They sustain it for a week or two, or maybe even three, but eventually circumstances dictate that they fail to meet their resolution. When this happens, it collapses around their ears. If this is you, then this is the only take away for you from this article – don’t get awesome quickly! Instead, consider the implementation of small, daily disciplines to bring about change using new systems and habits.
As an alternative, there is the approach of using the idea of a low bar to entry. This is preferable to getting awesome but is still a flawed approach. It requires taking the number of weekly visits you aspire to, and inferring back from that how often you think you are likely to be able to go as an absolute minimum. So if you are aiming to visit the gym 6x per week, but think you can consistently make 4 come rain or shine, then 4x is your target. Your always-achievable bar. Then if you exceed it you have the positive reinforcement of going above and beyond your target, as well as limiting your odds of failing.
This is a gateway drug to systems thinking. You are thinking about what you can achieve consistently, and making it as easy as possible. To improve this even further requires looking into what can be achieved daily, and how we can encourage a change in thinking and daily action in establishing a routine that supports growth regardless of goal achievement.
Aim to move every day. Find a type of movement or exercise that you enjoy, and find a way to engage in it even if it is for only five minutes. To do this would be to apply systems to your health and fitness, allowing you to expand your knowledge of forms of exercise you enjoy and keeping it able to evolve constantly. Due to the nature of the journey, if you engage in the pursuit of a goal then by the time the goal is attained it may no longer be relevant to what you want. This is the inherent problem in cementing your targets for the future – you never know what setbacks will occur, or what life will throw at you. All you can do is create an environment for continual improvement in all things.
Injuring my knee has thrown my fitness out in the past few months. It has become a stumbling block in my pursuits and goals in relation to Crossfit or running this year. Those “goals” may be considered failures, within the time constraint of 2018. But by applying systems thinking, I have simply been able to re-appropriate my efforts. An enhanced focus on nutrition, writing, reading and Jiu-Jitsu has maintained a continued trajectory for improvement, even if it is now in different ways to those I foresaw back in January.
Discipline is remembering what you want.”