Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.
“Self-improvement” is, counterintuitively, not the ideal aim if you want to live better.
System improvement is superior.
In the picture above, the man is using a fulcrum and lever. He’s pressing down on the lever, while the small piece of wood with a square base is the fulcrum. The lever rests on the fulcrum to create leverage, effectively multiplying the man’s power and making it significantly easier to move the object at the other end.
The fulcrum and lever combination makes it so that even a small amount of force on one end can have a powerful effect on the other end. This is a great metaphor for how we approach self improvement.
If this picture is a representation of personal development, most people, when wishing to better themselves, will go right up to that heavy chunk of concrete and attempt to lift it directly. Their effort does make a difference on the amount they can lift, but when the object weighs 800 pounds (real, lasting change is about “800 pounds difficult”), it probably doesn’t matter that you’re giving “110% effort.” Clearly, they’d benefit from a lever!
What then, is the fulcrum and lever of personal development?
A system. A good system will empower you to make good decisions. So instead of “trying your hardest” to make better choices (self-improvement aim), you can implement a system that makes it much easier to make better choices (system improvement aim).
Consider this: When I started doing one push-up per day, I put in far less effort than any of my previous attempts to get in shape, and got significantly better results. Why? The minimal amount of effort I put in was through the powerful Mini Habits system. This system served as a fulcrum and lever to amplify my efforts, and it became more effective than anything I had ever tried. Previously, I had been the guy trying to lift the concrete slab by himself, so when I tried it using leverage, my eyes were opened. The second attempt using a fulcrum and lever makes the first attempt without it seem crazy in retrospect.
We like to rely on our own strength. What’s more satisfying than to know that you put in work and got results? For this reason, we might be tempted to say, “Forget the lever, I can do this on my own.” Here’s why that’s a big mistake.
When you rely on a system, you aren’t admitting weakness and giving up, you’re applying your full strength in a much smarter way.
The man in the picture above can apply just as much force against the lever as he would trying to lift the concrete slab, and the former will be many times more effective. In the same way, personal development systems and tools don’t replace our strength, they multiply our strength. So while some people are succeeding through grit alone, they could be getting five times the results with the same amount of effort by using a system to leverage all of their strength.
This is an important question.
Put simply, a system is a specific and predetermined way of doing things.
If X, then Y, but if R, then Z.
Here’s a frequently-encountered system: When you call customer service at a company, representatives will ask you the same basic questions according to company policy. This is done to ensure a consistent experience for the customer. Some companies do it better than others (and some do it horribly), but it works well when implemented correctly. I’ve had amazing experiences with Amazon’s and Apple’s customer service because the systems they have in place are customer-friendly. If they left it up to the random chance that the service rep and customer clicked on a personal level, they’d have many more complaints due to wildly inconsistent service.
When we decide ourselves to follow a system, we hope that it will provide us the same thing as these companies: reliable results. That’s the only reason why people do P90X (unless they enjoy pain). That’s why we follow recipes.
Systems separate great companies from good companies from bad companies. The same goes for people. Back when I operated on the “whatever” system, I played Halo 3 for several hours per day. Yeah. I know. I was a real winner (in Halo 3). That game was my job, but I’m still waiting on my first paycheck.
Here’s the cool thing: I’m the same lazy person today, but I have much better systems in place to help me not waste my life away.
The same person in two different systems will produce two different types of people.
That’s because systems can drastically change our behavior.
When talking about a physical fulcrum and lever, it’s obvious what to look for. When it comes to personal development, we’re dealing with “invisible” strategies, so it’s not immediately obvious what will work best. Here’s what to look for.
Duh. But it’s worth mentioning because most humans have weak self-control. That’s not a “bad thing” so much as it’s just the way it is. Thus, a good system empowers you to control your own behavior. Mini Habits, for instance, helps you control your behavior by giving you very easy challenges to complete every day, and over time, you’re better able to control your behavior through practice and habit formation (e.g. go to the gym, eat healthy food, etc).
Do you think the man in the picture likes the fulcrum and lever? Of course he does, because it’s making his job infinitely easier. He might not always enjoy the challenge of moving large slabs of concrete, but the lever system only helps him.
Too many systems out in circulation are just plain hateable. They often demand too much of your time and energy just to manage them. What if it took an hour every time to set up and prepare the lever? Our friend might not be too fond of it then. But it’s just a couple pieces of wood that takes him a few seconds to set up and use. This is key. It’s fast and easy to set up, and yet it provides a huge benefit.
The most likable systems are easy and simple to use.
Simplicity, however, is only one facet of a system. The other is effectiveness. The simplest fulcrum and lever ever might be a weak twig resting on a small rock, but that’s not going to move anything, is it?
Some systems, like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), are extremely effective. GTD is brilliantly designed to help you manage all aspects of your life, but it’s also very complicated, time-intensive, and at times overwhelming to manage. The standard to-do list is the opposite — it’s extremely simple, but relatively ineffective because it lacks organization, accountability, and a strong impetus to act.
The best systems prioritize simplicity and effectiveness. But no system is perfect, because simplicity often comes at the cost of effectiveness. A rudimentary lever using wood is simple, but it’s less effective at moving things than say, a giant crane, and it won’t work for every job.
When considering a system, think about the balance of simplicity vs. effectiveness personally — what level of complexity and management are you willing to deal with in order to get additional effectiveness? Personally, I hate complexity and resist spending time to manage systems, so I tend to create systems that are extremely simple (Mini Habits and Mini Flex) but still offer a solid amount of effectiveness.
There are systems out there, like GTD, that offer a more comprehensive solution for managing your life. In order for you to get this benefit, however, you must manage and maintain them, and if you’re like me, you’re not willing to do it. I tried GTD at two separate times in my life, and both times started out extremely well, but both times I ended up falling behind and quitting because I didn’t want to micromanage my life anymore.
I’ve made a living by creating systems that maximize simplicity while also delivering good results. While rare, this sort of system is a better fit for most of the population, who are not experts looking to dominate their field, but more often your typical person hoping to get in better shape, develop better studying habits, learn a new skill, or read more books. From these humble beginnings, however, we can develop surprisingly strong skills.
Most systems in the world are effective, but difficult. The workout program P90X is a great example. If you can stick with it for 90 days, you’ll see your body change. But it’s not so easy to stick with it! I remember when I tried it a few years ago, and day 3 was the sorest I’ve ever been in my life! I quit after day 30. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad system — people regularly get amazing results with it — it only means that it wasn’t ideal for me. I needed something simpler.
The system I had success with was, of course, Mini Habits. I did one push-up a day to slowly change my brain. Over time, habituation acted like a lever to make exercise a less challenging task overall once I got used to it. From there, I have been able to ramp up and maintain my exercise intensity and duration. Today (Monday), I worked out for more than two hours and it’s nothing unusual. My progress was made possible by finding the right system.
To find the right type of system, I think it makes sense to start with a simple framework like the Mini Flex System. From there you can add in components or take them away as you see fit. The very best system for you will be something you can maintain over the long term, which is why I prefer the “safer” simple systems like Mini Habits and Mini Flex. It’s just easier to stick with them than most others, and like a wooden fulcrum and lever, they are surprisingly effective for how simple they are to set up and use!
Stephen Guise is the author of three books, including the worldwide bestseller, Mini Habits, which is available in 17 languages. You can learn more about him here.
Aim to Improve Your System, Not Yourself was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.