Want to reach your goals? Then begin developing systems today!

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Most of us approach life by devising unsystematic goals – read the entire AP Psychology text over the weekend, lose 10 kg, get rich by 30. This reflects the mindset that is the result of what has been drilled into us from the moment we begin to read, write, and converse. It was long believed that goal setting is a means to success and happiness in life; happiness is believed to be the result of achieving those goals. This explains the rat race, doesn’t it? And how people take pride in productivity at the expense of their psychosocial health? This competitiveness begins in school, with children being pitted against each other to achieve the best score.

The way we keep score of our successes and failures and berate ourselves for lagging behind, in the midst of it all, results in a moment of horror as you look in the mirror and fail to recognise yourself – the sadness, weariness, and fatigue hanging on you like a robe of misery. Why does reaching goals have to look like this? News flash – it doesn’t. Not if you build effective systems to reach your goals.

Goals are indeed necessary. It is what propels us forward in life and gives us something to look forward to. It is fairly easy to identify as it often reflects our desires and needs. After all, we almost always know what we want. It’s just a matter of getting there. Yet, the truth remains that identifying and setting a goal, and having it written down neatly at the top of a blank sheet of paper is not the way to achieve it.

The task at hand is rather simple however. We must set in place a system that helps us achieve our goals. The system I’m referring to here is what James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, refers to as habit formation. Thus, looking beyond goal setting, we must look into developing effective systems of habits as a means of achieving our goals.

But why must we go beyond goal setting?

As Clear explains, achieving a goal can bring about a momentary change in your life. Once you hit the 10 kg weight loss or finish reading the textbook, there pops a question of “what next?” Unless you have habits in place to continue to work on your improvements, you will be stuck in the same cycle of unhealthy eating or cramming the night before your exam.

You may also be led to falsely believe that you will be happy only once you reach your goal. In a sense, this implies that happiness is something to be reached at the end rather than during the process. For one, this interferes with your day-to-day wellbeing as you tolerate distress and discomfort and make sacrifices at the expense of your health, and secondly, this can make you question if the goal is really worth it, increasing your chances of abandoning the goal altogether.

Furthermore, you may even label yourself as a success or failure depending on whether you achieved your goals, and often in relation to the time you took to reach them. Hence, the only means of bringing about lasting change is to look beyond goal setting and focus on setting up systems.

Let’s take a look at how we can establish habit systems.


Step one: Take a look at your existing habits


A good place to start is by taking a look at your existing habits. For one, it builds more awareness of how we have been living thus far and allows us to see where the changes are necessary. It is important, however, that we remain compassionate towards ourselves and adopt a non-judgmental approach when going through our list. After all, there may be many habits that we engage in throughout the day that leave us scratching our heads in embarrassment.


Step two: Establish micro habits


Our natural tendency is to want to leap forward. However, try to take small steps instead. After all, it is the little things you do each day that form an aggregate that gets you closer to your goals. These are small changes that you would be able to incorporate into your life with relative ease. Clear proposes that we engage in habit stacking.

That is to say that we can engage in a new behaviour by tying it to something we do every day anyway. Suppose your goal is to clean your room on Sundays. At the start of the week, you build a habit of making your bed after having your morning cup of tea. Making your bed could be the smallest step you take in cleaning your room, yet doing this every day for the week can have a lasting impact. Take little steps like this and you would have already met your goal by Sunday without much exhaustion. Besides, you would then have the day to spend with your family or to relax.


Step three: Replace old, ineffective habits with habits that align with your identity


Any action that is not congruent with your identity will not last. You would either have to change your habits and goals, or you would have to change your identity. Question your intentions behind any goal, and then you can determine what habits need to be in place to help you get there. If your intention behind exercising to lose 10 kg is to become healthier, then you may need to adopt other habits besides exercise, such as looking into your dietary practices, seeking professional help from a nutritionist and fitness instructor, and going to a general practitioner for check-ups. This ensures that you remain health conscious even after reaching your goal of “losing 10 kg”.

Evaluate your self-talk as well. It wouldn’t help your cause to continuously refer to yourself as a “junk food lover”. Your actions will most likely be synonymous with the labels you’re assigning to yourself. It helps to constantly review your habits by asking yourself: “Does this behaviour help me become the type of person I want to be?”


Step four: Create a reward system


Rewarding yourself after displaying desirable behaviour reinforces that behaviour. A lot of the time we give ourselves rewards upon meeting our final goals based on this principle. It is also equally important to give yourself rewards throughout the process. This could be anything from a pat on the back for completing your homework assignments in the evening, a compliment to yourself in having established a habit of making your bed every day, or a healthy snack after a 30-minute exercise routine. The surefire way to wreck yourself in the process of reaching your goals is to expect to feel happiness only upon reaching your goal. If you can ensure that the goals and the systems you have put in place align with who you are, then the process of engaging in your habit systems to get you to your goals will bring you as much joy as reaching it. Thus, engaging in habits themselves can be a rewarding experience.