Systems Versus Habits
Many prevalent first world problems arise from our bodies‘ lack of evolution focused on the modern environment. When food is scarce, it might have been advantageous to always choose the most calorie rich option, but in a setting with Twinkies and Burger King, choosing caloric density over nutritional density rarely turns out well.
In a world filled with so many choices, it can be hard to always make decisions which reflect the manner in which we want to live our lives. Creating habits is a topic that everyone has thought about, so why do we all still struggle with sticking to that new exercise routine, or whatever our intended goal may be?
While I certainly don't have all the answers, I think that this issue partially stems from the nature of habits themselves. We like to pick a goal such as "run a mile every day starting tomorrow" and just go for it, without prior planning. There are numerous flaws with such an imagined habit; for example, it is better to plan and then wait a week or two until you start. This gives you ample time to mentally prepare and really imagine what it will be like to live with your new habit.
Still, the most counterproductive aspect is that goals like these, both spontaneous and well-planned, tend to ignore the smaller decisions you will face on the way to running that daily mile, or whatever your habit may be. Maybe your first week gets off to a great start, but after that you come home tired. You reason that it is better to rest today so you can hit the ground running again tomorrow. Whatever the case may be, it is safe to assume that when given a choice, most people, most of the time, will take the path of least resistance.
Although that may sound depressing at first, it is nothing to be ashamed of. For many centuries, that exact instinct helped keep us alive, and allowed us to craft the world we live in today. Nevertheless, choosing the easy way out does not usually help us achieve our goals in life. But what if we could somehow make the easy way out, or the path of least resistance, the path we actually want to walk on? Enter systems.
The whole point of systems is to make following a habit plan easier than not following it. This may seem abstract, but a bit of creative thinking allows the idea to easily be turned into reality.
Let's say you want to keep a gratitude journal every night before you go to bed. Instead of jumping right into it, you take the time to plan. Thinking through your weekly routine, you realize that you often go to bed after being out with friends on Saturday nights. But, even on Saturday nights you maintain your habit of brushing your teeth before you go to sleep. So, you pick a date two weeks in advance, a Sunday, since you go to bed early to get a head start on the week. Then, in the weeks leading up to it you think about how every time you brush your teeth when it's dark outside, you will write down three things you are grateful for. Next, you tell all your friends about your habit, and pick three of them to help you out.
You tell friend number one that he or she gets to pie you in the face whenever they want if you miss two days in a row of your habit. Friend number two gets a few embarrassing photos of you from your childhood, and has to post one on facebook each time you miss a day. Finally, you make a deal with friend three that if you miss more than three days of your habit, you have to pay them $200. That way if you miss a day, all your friends will know about it. Now all that's left to do is write these constraints down, and hang them somewhere will you will see them many times a day.
Although these examples are arbitrary, they all serve to make it more attractive for you to perform your habit than to skip a day. Importantly, they over-emphasize the negative consequences of missing more than one day in a row. Oftentimes with new routines, the hardest part is getting back in sync after missing a day. That single missed opportunity often leads to feelings of failure, which for some reason we as humans like to follow up with more failure. Missing one day is not going to make any difference in the long run. Giving up entirely on a goal important to your life probably will.
As you can see, telling yourself that you are going to do something everyday probably won't end well. Yet, if you can create an environment for yourself where doing that activity is both the easiest path and the most enjoyable, that seemingly daunting task has now become much more manageable. By creating an entire system with the purpose of supporting your goal, you set yourself up for a much higher chance of success than just by blindly committing to a goal. With that in mind, what system are you going to create first?
Photo is of Hamburg Airport’s baggage sorting facility underneath the main terminal. They have quite a complicated system for sorting and checking baggage before loading it on the correct plane. I got to tour the whole airport on a work outing. The best part was driving straight down the runway in a fire department van, with everyone feeling like we were about to lift off.