Achieving Goals through Systems

So, it’s January 1st. It’s that time when we can’t help but reflect on the last year and think about how we’ll spend the next one. If you are setting some resolutions this year, I invite you to consider one of these systems to get you started.

Do the same simple thing every day

Years ago, I realized my life was better when I journaled. Writing regularly helped me consciously reflect on my life and my relationships. It made me more likely to act on the parts of my life that I wanted to change.

But, I had a problem—journaling regularly was tough. I felt compelled to provide backstory and complete accounts of events. I rarely started entries because they felt like such a commitment.

The Solution

So I lowered the bar. Instead of making my goal, “Write regularly in my journal.” My goal was this: “Write one short post every day.” Those words are inscribed at the top of the private blog I use for the journal.

The goal came with some rules:

  1. Write no fewer than 200 words. If you get to 200 words—even if you’re in the middle of a sentence—and don’t want to write any more, stop.
  2. Do not include backstory. Start with the present, if that’s what you’re thinking about.
  3. Write about anything. It doesn’t have to cover what happened today.

Following that system, I soon made journalling a habit. 200 words about anything and without backstory is an easy enough standard that I could dash out the entry and move on without being weighed down.

The Result

Journaling is now a part of how I process the world. I started the 200-word-a-day journal in January 2009. Today, I wrote its 479th post.

Though I no longer write as frequently in my long-form journal (it didn’t take long to leave the 200 word mark behind), I rarely ignore the little twitch that tells me I need to take the time to write and reflect. Now, between the twitches that require longer posts, I keep a handwritten five-year journal with even shorter entries.

Do some thematic thing every day

I have found that the do-the-same-simple-thing-every-day approach only works when the link between the goal and the “thing” is very clear, as it was for my journaling goal. Other, more abstract goals, are harder to twist into systems, especially if it’s a goal that you’ve done a good job at putting off until now.

It was in the pursuit of one such goal that I discovered a new approach, the do-some-thematic-thing-every-day approach. Here’s how it works:

1. Select a goal you’d like to accomplish.

My goal was to eliminate my back tension. I hold all my stress in my shoulders and back, and years of tensing these muscles has resulted in knots stubborn enough to impress a massage therapist. (“Impressed” was her exact word.) I finally got tired of the situation and decided to TAKE ACTION this fall.

2. Brainstorm a list of repeatable actions that will move you toward the goal.

The list works best if the actions vary in the amount of time and energy required. The variety eases the weight of completing one action every day. It allows more engagement than the sometimes-dooming idea of, I have to do this thing EVERY DAY. We’ve all felt that, and it can destroy dreams. (Or goals. Whatever you call them.)

Here’s the list of actions I brainstormed to reduce back tension:

  • Yoga
  • Cardio (gym)
  • Crunches
  • Walk the dog
  • Neck pillow
  • Hot bath
  • Hot shower

Look at that list. With “walk the dog” and “hot shower” on it, it’s impossible NOT to do something from the list every day. And that’s the idea.

Also notice that I didn’t put emphasis on what extent I would do the action. That makes it easy to check something off, similar to how I lowered expectations for the journaling system. The idea is to do something every day, without feeling guilty about not doing it exactly right.

3. Track what you do each day.

Screenshot 2014-01-01 11.30.24For my back tension reduction, I created a “Back tension action tracker.” Or, rather, a Google Form. At first, it had a single multiple choice question, “What did you do?” with the list of options from the brainstorm. Later, I added “When did you do it?” in case I didn’t fill out the form right after I did the thing, and “Comments” in case I wanted to make a note.

The beauty with the Google Form was that I could bookmark it on every device I used, and could get to it from any other internet-connected device I could get my hands on. There was no excuse not to tick that checkbox every day.

A Google Form is certainly not required for tracking. Just make sure that whatever you use, it will be with you any time you have the opportunity to do one of your listed actions.

5. Watch as your system—or perhaps habit—develops.

As time progressed, I started ticking the Yoga checkbox more often. Soon, it was the only one I was tracking.

6. Enjoy the results.

When I was trying on outfits for the EightShapes holiday party, my partner Tony noticed—”You know, you do look taller.” My system paid off!

Screenshot 2014-01-01 10.39.17

A couple months later, I don’t use the tracker anymore. I don’t need to. I’ve gotten in the habit of doing yoga most days, and have even expanded the sequence I follow.

I’m certain I wouldn’t have successfully added yoga practice to my routine if I had used a more direct, “do a simple thing every day” method.

Yoga is something I’ve been intimidated by for some time. I used to say, “I can’t do yoga; I’m not flexible.” It wasn’t until my mom showed me her routine and I made the flexible system that I could finally put my fear aside to realize that yoga makes you flexible.

Systems over goals, every day of the week

It wasn’t until I came across other people* writing about systems that I realized most of my successfully accomplished goals were achieved with systems.

Moreover, the systems frequently required action every day. Learn ukulele? Practice a little every day. Get more exercise? Use the elliptical every (week)day. Walk the dog farther? Walk no less than once around the block each time. Read more books? Read from one every night before bed.

Systems with action every week or every month can work. But daily systems are much easier to track. And the easier the tracking, the more likely the success of the goal.

Now you try it!

How will you achieve your goals? Try doing something every day, and see if you get there faster.

If you come up with a system that works well for you, please share it, so we can all learn.

* I’d like to note that it was Tony Pitale who pointed out this first article to me. We’ve been revisiting the idea ever since.

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About Veronica Erb

Designs, researches, illustrates, and writes code. Plays ukulele. Dances Balboa. Grew up in a geodesic dome, and hasn't gotten over it.
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