A Case For and Against Systems

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

from Atomic Habits and an adaptation of the Greek poet Archilochus.

This is a powerful statement. Neither the clarity of my dream, nor the sincerity of my declaration will take me to where I want to go. Ambition is simply the fuel and systems are the vehicle. Considering the failure rate of New Year’s resolutions, it’s not hard to find people with premium grade goals, but all too often their car is unreliable and the journey is abandoned within two months. Forward progress, especially on those meaningful projects, will only come with sustainable routine and a reasonable strategy for overcoming roadblocks. Atomic Habits is worth a read if you are having trouble reaching goals or can’t quite turn a healthy action into a healthy habit.

An idiosyncrasy I possess is taking a favored approach to the extreme, and this is a prime example. I built systems for my systems. The only half-joking dream was to create a grand adaptable algorithm for living well that would account for health, socializing, work, and whatever else. Yet with these over-engineered strategies, I would go to bed every night feeling guilt that I hadn’t accomplished enough, a consequence of my systems being unrealistic. I would hesitate when presented a unique activity or opportunity, and no matter how enriching it was I would mourn and harbor resentment over that day’s unmet quotas, a consequence of my systems being inflexible. I clung to unhealthy routines for years, but blamed myself for not being good enough to meet my own standards. Only recently I realized it was my standards that were off.

All that to say, there is a balance, a middle path that is not well marked. Discipline vs. flexibility. Knowing when the system is working, knowing when to put the system on pause for a more important opportunity, and knowing when it’s time to revisit what you ultimately want to determine whether the goals and their systems are serving you.

Systems, routines, strategies, goals, and objectives, they are all tools, albeit powerful ones, and not ends in themselves. Your work, your relationships, your downtime, your systems or lack thereof, these are all strategies you have taken on, consciously or subconsciously, whether effective or counter-productive, in an attempt to live well. Are they in fact helping you live more fully, not at some arbitrary point down the road, but right now?