Moving from Goals to Systems
Taking away discipline, adding incrementalism.
Hi folks — Playing around with the format of the newsletter a bit — long-form every two weeks, slightly shorter every week, etc. And also playing around with more research-y posts versus ones that have a little more personal connection to them.
I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed launching and writing this, and I love the feedback you’re providing (keep it coming!). With everything happening in the world, it’s helpful to continue to try and put something positive into the world — so thank you!
Topics on the hopper include repairability, tech4good, and systems thinking overall. If there are specific topics or ideas that you want me to cover, please let me know!
It’s the middle of March, which is just enough time for our New Year’s resolutions to have worn off, for 3rd winter to arrive, and for whatever goals we have for ourselves to be stress-tested to their breaking point.
My brain grinds against something that doesn’t quite work with me until I find an alternative and try the next one (or next 20).
Lately in my life, that has been the whole idea of goals, and why I’ve slowly been replacing them with systems.
As you know from my Notion post and my general type-A-ness, I’m kind of a sucker when it comes to organization and planning.
But I’m not disciplined enough to work within frameworks that are no longer helpful for me — it’s a blessing and a curse. I wish I could have started Bullet Journaling lo these many years ago in middle school and just kept it up (alas).
The goal of goals
Goals are objectives — they are the light at the end of the tunnel, the dais of achievement, and the medal around your neck on something that you’d like to have that you currently don’t. But the thing about goals (most of them, anyway) is that they are hard.
Goals are hard to deconstruct, they are hard to motivate towards, they are hard to achieve, and they’re kind of hard to talk about.
That doesn’t stop us from putting them out there, though.
We are very good at holding ourselves to goals all over the place — career, health, relationships, milestones, habits — these things are easy to write down when we take a moment, but much more challenging to follow through on (much less accomplish.)
The same is true of lofty goals and high-level objectives — it’s just not enough to say, “I want to write a book in 2022,” and then the product magically arrives.
Letting go of goals
Over the last several months, I’ve been reflecting on my goals in the context of several other seismic life updates (jobs, careers, relationships, etc.)
And one thing I’ve noticed is that — goals haven’t worked for me the last few years. I think I’ve slowly been forgetting about them, as I (a little bit without thinking about it) just ended up replacing them without systems instead.
It wasn’t a purely immaculate conception on my part — there is this Zen Habits post and how the best goal is no goal. Another place I found for inspiration was James Clears Atomic Habits, where he takes a pretty strong stance towards systems rather than goals.
In the end, having goals hadn’t been helping me achieve those goals in the first place. If anything, they added to my anxiety about not achieving those goals. Who needs that?
Building up systems
Systems are about habits, processes, and feedback. They’re the carve-outs in calendars and scheduling that you have to make for something. Systems are also adaptable — you can change things more quickly in a system (committing to exercise every day, rather than the stricter run 5k every day.
The great thing about systems is that they don’t judge you for accomplishments or even progress necessarily. You can commit to something as part of a system that says, “I am a person that goes to the gym three times per week,” rather than a nebulous goal of “getting stronger.”
For me, this has been a game-changer because it removes my discipline from the equation, as well as any expectation about performance at the moment. Showing up is more important than peak performance, in my systems mindset.
And actually, there’s an exciting caveat about performance. You might be tempted to think that simply guarding the slot on your calendar and performing poorly is not going to get you to your (now non-existent goal). But that’s not what I’ve found — that, when I show up and put my butt in the chair, a different part of my brain and motivation take over, and I do end up working hard and making that progress. It’s just getting into the chair that was a challenge before.
Systems get your butt in the chair, and output comes later.
In my experience, this mindset of systems over goals has helped me launch ProprThings, to start this newsletter, to keep me engaged with friendships, to keep me oriented in these turbulent times.
And look — when you look backward, you find that you are achieving those goals, even if they’re not your focus anymore. The things you produce or achieve are a by-product of your systems, not the culmination of uninterrupted discipline towards an objective. Deliverables are the derivative of good systems, and incremental progress is a feature, not a bug of the system.
What else I’m reading
Hearts and minds — Very beautiful data visualization of immigration in Europe.
Maxar - Russian convoy outside Kyiv - 3D clip - Maxar — Another way the activities in 2022 Ukraine are visualized like no other conflict.
Why BBC Revived Shortwave Radio Dispatches in Ukraine - The New York Times — Sometimes the old technologies are the best technologies.
Ukraine Vice Minister Says SpaceX Starlink Is “Saving Lives” — I think this is before Elon offered hand-to-hand combat.
Thanks for reading,
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