“What lifetime are you waiting for?” – Bill Hybels
Christmas is soon approaching, and we will do some talking and thinking about it presently. Today, though, I want to encourage you to think about your plans for the new year. I have written before about setting SMART goals, and I won’t repeat myself here, but I want to urge you to think broadly with more of a systems approach to the life you want.
The plague of “If only” thinking
When I was a child, my parents sometimes gave me books as presents. One such gift was Dr. Seuss’ I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (published 50 years ago!). Although not as well-known as some of his other books, Solla Sollew made a great point — and thanks to Dr. Seuss and his gift for rhyme — I have remembered its message ever since.
The main character stubs his toe and encounters a series of other vexations and decides as a result to find a place without these frustrations. Just then, our hero meets a traveler who is on his way to Solla Sollew, “where they never have troubles — at least very few.” The story develops as the hero faces other challenges and reaches a surprising and hopeful conclusion.
If 2015 has been a bad year for you or your family, you might wish for a ticket to Solla Sollew, or at least to a better set of circumstances. I want to challenge you to resist the temptation to think this way. Perhaps you know people in the grip of “If only” thinking. You know: the single people who think if only they were married they’d be happy; the unhappily married ones who think if only they were married to someone else they be happy; the unemployed or underemployed who think if only they had a better job — any job — they’d be happy; or the childless couples who think if only they had a baby they’d be happy. And on and on.
For the record, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be married, with wanting children, with wanting a job, or with the desire for better circumstances. (Though if you’re married and it isn’t going well, I can’t advocate divorce.) The problem with “If only” thinking is, you’re always putting your happiness — and let’s define happiness as the peak of your effectiveness and fulfillment — into some hazy future. It might as well be never.
If you want to have a happier, more fulfilling 2016 — with more to show for it — I have a suggestion for you.
In these and other circumstances, they key is to think less in terms of goals and more in terms of systems. Although this principle finds its most common use in problem solving in science and industry, you may also find it useful for increasing your effectiveness and for creating virtuous circles — chains of things that go right, which facilitate other things that go right — in your life.
So, what’s a system?
A system is a collection of parts that all work together for a specific purpose or set of purposes. These parts can consist of physical structures or entities, but also of the inputs and outputs of the system. It’s possible for a part to be shared by more than one system, but to belong to a system, a part must be integral — essential — to the functioning of the system. To illustrate this, think about the various systems of the human body. The circulatory system contains your heart, lungs, blood, veins and arteries, and its input is oxygen and carbon dioxide is its output. You can identify the parts and inputs/outputs of the skeletal, digestive, endocrine, nervous and reproductive systems.
Now let’s apply this concept to the aspects of your life with an eye toward making next year better than this one. If you are seeking a better job, the parts might consist of your education, experience, attitude, talent, location, and your network. Your career system inputs would be time and effort, and your outputs would be your specific work product and the money you earn.
Putting it to work
Taking a systems approach to your career, you can begin to understand how to improve the overall efficiency of the system. So ask yourself what aspects of the system need tweaking? If you lack skills, how can you increase your competence? If your commute or your extracurricular activities leave you too tired to keep up the pace or maintain consistent quality of output, what changes can you make to enable you to increase your value? It could be a change to your diet to maximize energy, and/or it could be as simple as getting to bed earlier.
Your career is just one system. You can apply this to marriage and family, friendships, community activities, creative pursuits, and your health.
Eating my own cooking
For 2016, I am replacing the creation of annual goals with an assessment of the various systems in my life. My hypothesis is that this approach will free me from the restrictions of numerical goals (What if I establish too easy of a goal and kill it by the end of February? What if I was too optimistic?) while allowing me to increase the return on investment in every aspect of my life.
It is still important to have measurements and timelines, and yet I believe the systems approach will enable me to keep a better watch on my progress. In the realm of fitness, this approach has made me stronger and more flexible than I thought I’d be at this age.
Give it a try and let’s see where we end up next December — not someday.
So how about you? What systems, inputs and outputs can you identify in your life? How do you intend to tweak them to increase your effectiveness in 2016? Add your comments below.