Habits vs Systems

One of the most common things I hear from frustrated patients is that they know what to do to get healthy- they just can’t seem to put it into action most of the time.  Which is completely valid. Although many people talk about needing accountability during the process of losing weight – what they are usually saying is that they need help turning their goals into outcomes.  I want to reframe this a little.  

Prevailing wisdom states that the best way to achieve something in life is to set a specific goal.  But, keep in mind that goals are about the results you want to achieve. Goals are great, and we should have lots of them. Some of the most common ones are:

“I want to be thin”

“I want to be healthy”

“I want to be rich”

“I want to be happy”

Having goals is part of being human.  But, consider this: Almost everyone has these goals.  So…if most people share these same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the successful people from the unsuccessful ones.  

Systems are different.  Systems are about the processes that lead to results.  If you want better results, then forget about setting goals.  Focus on your system instead.  

In other words, goals are best for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.  Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

Think about it this way.  A goal-oriented mindset often creates a yo-yo effect.  Let’s say your goal is to run a marathon. You kill yourself training for 6 months then run the marathon.  You get bragging rights. You get to tell people, “I ran a marathon.” However, once the goal is accomplished, you quit running.  Maybe two years later, you do it again. Now if your goal is to be a runner, those two years look quite a bit different.  Day in and day out, you run. You become a runner.  Even if you skip a day, you still identify yourself as a runner.  You could run a marathon if you wanted to – or you could keep running around town.  No matter what you do, you are still a runner. You aren’t someone that DID something. You are someone that IS something. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?  

If you are a coach, your goal might be to win a championship.  But it would be ridiculous to spend all of your energy thinking about that one championship game.  You have to first focus on the systems – the way you recruit players, the way you conduct practice,  the way you run drills, and the way to adjust the way you play after losing a game.

Think about this:  

The implicit assumption behind any goal is this:  “once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.  When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.  

When life gets hard, we do not rise to the level of our goals.  We fall to the level of our systems. Maybe it’s time to start working on our systems!

Until next week…

be strong – be healthy – be happy

Courtney Younglove, M.D.