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Last week I wrote about goals, covering the idea that we need Big Hairy Audacious Goals, because they have the potential to help us evolve to greater versions of ourselves. Combining that with smaller ‘checkpoint’ goals keep us on track, steadily stretching and progressing towards the BHAG. But beyond goals as we understand them, systems are an underrated tool and approach that work even better than just goals.

The power of a goal is readily compelling. It is the shining beacon that calls out to us, it is the big thing we want to achieve. And so usually we set it and then we hack away at it every day, or whenever we remember, trying things, failing, learning and trying again until we finally get there. This typical process requires a great deal of willpower, motivation and drive to get started and keep things moving.

Systems make things easier, and I’m going to unpack how. Like I mentioned last week, this is directly inspired by Scott Adam’s idea that “Systems are better than goals’ as expressed in his book. Check it out, it’s a great read and explains the idea in a fantastic way.

The idea of ‘Systems > Goals’ strikes a chord with me because it dovetails nicely with things I have blogged about before like ‘trust the process’, and ‘making time work for you’. It is understanding the incredible power of compound effect and leveraging that in your favor. There is a reason why the most prolific artists and creators of all time swear by some sort of system or routine. Routines free up energy to be creative where it counts, doing the actual work. Systems provide the framework to achieve greatness over time.

Using systems to achieve your goal

Everything we eventually become are the sum of the decisions we make and the actions we take in the day to day. The habits we pick up or develop become stronger every time until they become our default settings. If you can control that process and make sure your habits are the right ones, it becomes that much easier to attain success.

The systems approach works backwards by looking at the thing you want to achieve and reverse engineering the conditions needed to eventually get there. A simple example would be the goal to get to a certain level of fitness, or to get a certain body weight. We can guess that the key things needed for this to happen would be eating right, exercising right, and rest. The systems approach takes these elements and grafts them into your life in such a way that is tailor made to your strengths. You take those steps and turn them into habits by hooking them up to trigger moments in your day.

Quite simply, break down your goals to the actions that would take you there and then make it easy to regularly take those steps.

You could deploy strategies like doing meal prep on the weekends, boxing up each meal for the week separately. Now you don’t have to think about what to eat ever. You decided over the weekend. You simply pick the box you need, warm it up and eat when you need it. You could begin a lunch time or pre-bed ritual, spending 30mins stretching and doing body weight exercises before you go to bed. If you successfully executed these two relatively simple habits daily and weekly, you would be eating right and getting regular exercise. The habits get easier to maintain the more you do them and the effects compound over time. Once the habit is on autopilot you can tweak things to keep them interesting or more efficient. Like tweaking the exact foods you eat or doing more intense training.

If your goal is to read more books let’s say 40 books in the next 12 months. You could approach this goal haphazardly, reading whenever you remembered or had a book handy, or you could bake reading into your day-to-day life. You could simply commit to reading for 30mins every single day first thing in the morning, or you could decide to use your commute to work to listen to audio books. With a daily habit like that it becomes easier to hit that goal.

Systems require a considerable investment upfront to set up. It can be long and arduous work. But once they are running, systems save you time and energy. As they hum along, they make it easy, almost effortless to achieve your goals.

Using systems to improve your odds.

So far we have looked at simple goals, the kind that fall under the ‘checkpoint’ category. Could a systems approach be beneficial when tackling the BHAG, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

The Big Goals generally do not have a clear roadmap to achieving them. They are the sort of goals that take a long time of work and learning to eventually achieve. They also tend to require a large degree of luck. Being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people can play a huge role in what manner of success and experience you have. How do we get luckier?

We deploy a system to optimize for the odds. Simply put, we work to make it more likely that we can achieve the goal. That is the general idea behind formal schooling. You go to school, work hard, and get good grades in an area of high demand to increase the odds that you will get a good job.

Take a look at the things you want to get done. If you want to do cool, experimental events and be known for it or even paid for it. Then you have to do research into the area and see who else is doing that sort of thing. Who pays for that kind of stuff? Brands? Maybe look at the few events companies that specialize in out-the-box events and offer to intern with them for free. Make prototype experiences and document them. Choose to do the things that would increase the odds that you would be able to do the work that you want to do.

If you want to create a successful start-up, then you have to work out a system to increase your odds of success. What do you need to succeed? A good product or service, a large and growing customer base, ability to deploy and scale. There are a thousand moving parts and factors that affect your success. But imagine what the long-term outcome would be if you had a system for learning more about business every day. Maybe every weekend, you brainstormed and built a landing page for an idea and put it out there. 52 weeks down the line, one of them catches off and gains incredible traction. The idea is that every day or every week you increased your odds by learning, making stuff, putting it out there at low risk, watching it fail and then improving it the next time.

See how taking a systems approach makes everything easier. Sure, it takes some time to get used to and build new habits, but it’s a worthwhile investment to make. Your key job becomes making the system even better and more effective over time.

Systems thinking is a powerful framework to use in approaching your goals. If you used this way of thinking to go after your checkpoint goals and used it to improve the odds of success on your Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you will be leveraging the power of process and the compound power of time to create something incredibly remarkable.

And eventually you will win.