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The system doesn’t give a shit about the goal

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The system doesn’t give a shit about the goal

Scott Miker

We all operate through numerous systems in life. These systems are mechanical, biological, technological, habitual, etc.

Most of the systematic influence in life is ignored. We ignore the patterns and instead focus our attention on outliers. We see shock and awe and then turn our thoughts to the events, ignoring the underlying structures that determine more but attract less attention.

So when we try to use systems to improve in life we will start explore an area where humans struggle. Yet through this struggle we have developed systems for the entire history of mankind and have used these systems to better adapt to the world around us.

Many self-help gurus will focus their advice around setting goals. They claim having a goal is the first step to achieving something. We have to have a target in order to be able to hit the target, they say.

But goals don’t translate automatically to system change. Instead we try to use effort and motivation to break the system so we can gain value from doing something different. But systems are powerful and usually overcome our feeble attempts at change.

I’ve talked to many people who argue for or against goals. I see the value in setting goals but I also see disconnection between wishing and dreaming (setting goals) and doing the hard work necessary to succeed (system change).

But the truth is that the system doesn’t care about goals. The system is an independent series of elements. Your goal doesn’t mean anything to the process the system takes.

In I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, the author explains this. He says, “We might anthropomorphically describe a flush toilet as a system that is ‘trying’ to make the water reach and stay at a certain level. Of course, it’s easy to bypass such anthropomorphic language since we effortlessly see how the mechanism works, and it’s pretty clear that such a simple system has no desires.”

He goes on to say, “Why does this move to a goal-oriented – that is, teleological – shorthand system seem appealing to us for a system endowed with feedback, but not so appealing for a less structured system? It all has to do with the way the system’s ‘perceptions’ feed back (so to speak) into its behavior. When the system always moves towards a certain state, we see that state as the systems ‘goal’. It is self-monitoring, self-controlling nature of such a system that tempts us to use teleological language.”

The system doesn’t care about the language we use to describe it. Does a monkey care that call him a monkey? Obviously he doesn’t. Does the sun rise at a different time based on what the newsperson reports? Nope, he has no impact over the sun.

Systems are the same. They operate independently of our language. They don’t care how we describe them. They don’t operate based on goals or desires. They don’t have meaning in the way humans assign meaning to systems.

This is why the systems and habits approach to improvement focuses on action. It is through behaviors that we start to develop new routines in our life. These new routines will operate consistently once we properly tune them. By doing the same actions over and over we start to develop a behavior pattern that develops into habit.

This happens regardless of what we describe the goal of the system to be. The system operates based on the factors of the system and interacting outside factors. It never stops to think about a goal or desire.

In other words, using systems to improve your life can help you break into the systematic realm but doing so means we have to disregard many of the common methods of thinking about improvement. We have to start designing the system instead of daydreaming about the end result and writing goals for the system. Because the system (and its operation) doesn’t give a shit about your goal.