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Thursday, September 22, 2011


Systems: The other day I put on my workout clothes and drove to the gym. But when I arrived I didn't feel like working out. This was not a huge surprise, since I didn't feel peppy before I even laced up my running shoes. Perhaps I hadn't gotten enough sleep that week. I wasn't sure what the problem was. I ate lunch in the snack bar then drove home and took a nap.

Question: Did I fail at my exercise goal?

Your answer will say a lot about you. But I'll warn you that it's a trick question. The trick is that I didn't have an exercise goal in the first place, so I couldn't have failed to reach it. What I do have is an exercise system, and I was completely successful at the system. My philosophy is that losers have goals and winners have systems.

In this case, my system is that I attempt to exercise five times a week around lunchtime. And I always allow myself the option of driving to the gym then turning around and going home. What I've discovered is that the routine of preparing to exercise usually inspires me to go through with it even if I didn't start out in the mood. This particular day, my body wasn't going to cooperate. No problem. The system of attempting to exercise worked as planned. I didn't have a trace of guilt about driving home. I've used this system for my entire adult life. I see exercise as a lifestyle, not an objective.

If I had a goal instead of a system, I would have failed that day. And I would have felt like a loser. That can't be good for motivation. That failure might be enough to prevent me from going to the gym the next time I don't feel 100%, just to avoid the risk of another failure.

A week after graduating college, I took my first flight in an airplane. I got in a conversation with a businessman in the seat next to me. He was CEO of a company that made aircraft screws. He told me that his career system involved a continuous search for a better job. No matter how much he liked his current job, he always interviewed for better ones. I assume he failed to get most of the jobs he interviewed for, but over time his system worked, and he became a CEO. My own system at the time involved listening carefully to the advice of anyone who was successful. I adopted the CEO's system in my own career, moving to higher paying jobs about once per year until I started drawing Dilbert (while continuing my day job).

If I were to summarize the CEO's advice, it went something like this: Your job isn't to do your job. Your job is to get a better job. That's a system, not a goal.

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