Welcome to 2020, a brand-new year, and a brand-new decade! If you’re looking to make 2020 your best year ever, the best way to start is by creating good habits. Tiny habits and small tweaks can build over time to create atomic-level change. Another key to changing your life? Forget about setting goals for the new year, and instead focus on building healthy, sustainable systems. The excerpt below is adapted from self-help and personal growth guru Steven Handel’s book, Small Habits, Big Changes: How the Tiniest Steps Lead to a Happier, Healthier You.

Goals are a major focus in self-improvement, for obvious reasons. We become interested in changing ourselves so that we can achieve some sort of direct result in our lives. However, thinking of self-improvement in terms of goals can be a double-edged sword. For many people, setting goals and deadlines can motivate them and keep them focused; but for others, setting goals may actually be a way to set themselves up for failure.

When we set a goal, we typically make a declaration to ourselves, such as “lose 20 pounds” or “make a six-figure salary.” Then we work our butts off to reach our specific goal. But there are many ways that this can backfire on us. What if you only lose 10 pounds before summer? You’ve still made progress, even though you didn’t reach your goal. Does that mean you’ve failed? Does it mean you should give up?

And even when we are lucky enough to achieve our stated goals, it doesn’t mean that our work is finished. We must also be able to sustain the change into the future. If you lose the 20 pounds, technically your goal has been reached. But if you can’t keep up with your changes in diet and exercise and you gain back that 20 pounds, it’s almost as  if you never succeeded at all. It might even sting more than if you’d failed in the first place.

This is why, according to How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, “goals” tend to be short-term thinking, while “systems” tend to be long-term thinking. If you’re looking to make a sustainable change or improvement to your life, what you really need to create is a system that works for you.

Creating the right systems in your life can energize and sustain you long into the future. Below are some guidelines to help you think more systematically about your life and create a system that actually works for you.

Apply a growth mindset. Always remember that you have the ability to change over time. You are not a “fixed self” that will always be the same exact person you are today. It may be a slow process, but growth is possible.

Keep your future self in mind. While it’s important to focus on how you can change in the present, there’s also tremendous power in projecting your future self to have a clear idea of where you want to go in your life. This can play a major role in how you act now.

Accept failures. There is no process of growth and improvement that doesn’t include experiencing failure along the way. Think of your mistakes as short-term bumps on your road to long-term improvement.

Do what works for you. Happy and successful people don’t all follow the same routine; they devise a system that caters to their individual preferences, values, and needs. Don’t feel the need to copy anyone else.

Be patient with yourself. The biggest trap in all of self-improvement is to think that you can change yourself and your life overnight. We crave quick solutions, but growth can be a slow process. It’s essential that we learn to be patient with ourselves.

The major difference between “systematic thinking” and “goals thinking” is that with systematic thinking you hold a long-term view of the future and what you are trying to build toward each day. It’s not just about pushing yourself for a few months to reach a particular goal but building a lifestyle that you can sustain endlessly.

One mantra I live by is to “think big, act small.” While most of the recommendations in this book are about making small changes, you must also keep the broader view in mind. That’s why systematic thinking is essential.

Try to think of your complete daily routine as a system in itself. Each daily habit is a small component that helps the system to run efficiently. Is this system working for you or working against you?


For more on how to create systems and small habits to change your life, read Small Habits, Big Changes: How the Tiniest Steps Lead to a Happier, Healthier You by Steven Handel!