On Systems And Learning
There are more than a handful of self-help books that talk about building systems versus setting goals.
That’s a good start, but it’s all rather academic. You obviously set the goal and then build the system. It’s like the strategy versus tactics debate. Weird.
Anyway, let’s assume you have a goal of losing weight. Your strategy is to limit caloric intake and the tactics are your diet plan and your exercise routine.
Here’s where most people go wrong and fall into the analysis-paralysis stage and never crawl out. Colloquially, you’ll know these guys as armchair experts, but they exist in every facet of life and you’ll find them everywhere you go.
You’re probably one of them. So am I. Bear that in mind.
A Big System-Building Mistake
Let’s run with the exercise example. You’re out of shape, skinny-fat, weak and your cardio is practically non-existent. You know that exercise is important, but you’ve always been slightly-not-great as opposed to downright terrible, so you’ve let it slide.
However, you’re not eighteen anymore so the cheeseburgers and weekly cardio sessions just aren’t enough. What’s worse is that the guys who did start at eighteen are all fit, muscular and awesome, and when they say, “Hey buddy, wanna go to the beach” you have to decline because you’re the only guy there who’ll need to be fully clothed in order to avoid stares and laughs from five year old children everywhere.
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Alright. So you’re that guy. You figure it’s time for a change. You go to Google, find bodybuilding.com or wherever and you think, “Right… I’ll write down what I need to get into to get this stuff sorted.”
Your list might look like this:
- Gain muscle
- Lose fat
- Get cardio
- Get stronger
- …And faster
- Look better
In short, all of the stereotypical goals. Having decided you want to be able to do everything, you write down the path to get there:
- Eat less calories for muscle gain
- Eat more calories for muscle gain
- Do HIIT for fat loss and cardio
- Do steady-state cardio for endurance
- Weightlift 5 x 5 for muscle
- Weightlift for One-rep max for strength
So on and so forth… you don’t know it, but you’re already building a complex system… in your head. And it’s only going to get worse.
You Cannot Just “Build A System” With No Base
Now, our hypothetical guy is prone to tripping down rabbit holes. Before we know it – and before he’s done so much as a single push up – he’s dropping down into forum threads about whether somatypes are real, whether ketogenic diets are healthy and which rep scheme is the best for achieving real muscle gains.
By this point, most people give up, realising that – total surprise – complex systems are complicated. This is true of the law, business, health, mathematics and basically every complex system.
You have to remember at this point that no matter what this guy has read and no matter what he thinks he knows, he has zero real world experience or knowledge. This is the key flaw that’s revealed with the whole “building systems” approach.
When you start, you absolutely can’t build anything more than a basic system.
Take the whole Niche Site Challenge thing; the whole goal of that was to build simple websites that make money. Over the course of my year of posting, the sites could become gradually more complicated because I’d built the base of simple articles posted on a regular basis. If I’d tried creating all kinds of tricks and shortcuts at the start, I’d have failed utterly because the system would be too complex and my brain would be too small.
This is the same with our exercise guy; there’s absolutely no point in knowing about protein synthesis if you aren’t lifting any weights, and you can’t know the most basic of information about how your body responds until you actually do anything.
So what do you do when you want to build a system and make great habits?
Split it into simple and not simple.
Let’s continue with the health and fitness examples here, because we can highlight an amazing and common example of where people go wrong.
Grab any copy of a fitness magazine and you’ll notice the saturation of “Get this look by doing this workout” type articles.
“Usain Bolt runs 9 times a day” or “Here’s Conor McGregor’s workout so you can be a warrior” or “Get abs like The Rock” or whatever.
In reality, you can’t do Usain Bolt’s or Floyd Mayweather’s or Brock Lesnar’s workouts and expect to look like them. It’s a weird quirk of human psychology that we can assume this is true, and it’s a bad assumption.
If I tried to work out like any of those guys, I’d be a failure, and worse, I’d be an injured failure.
All athletes go through a lot of stages before the specific workouts that make the magazines work.
Elite athletes are weeded out as children. Now, none of you need care about that. (Unless you’re a future world-class athlete, which, if you are, you’re totally lost on this blog.)
What you do need to care about is what those kids are doing when they get weeded out.
They’re doing simple systems. General fitness. General preparedness.
When you’re starting something, that’s what you need to do. Basic movements, basic actions and then test your responses.
In athletics; here’s how it works: Kids have natural talents and they do set exercises to bring them out. They build strength, co-ordination and fitness like any human being would.
The ones with natural talent and the right attributes may then go down a specific route.
This is true of any new habit or system. Start with the absolute child basics.
Only Then Do You Specialise
Your general preparedness in your habit is something you’re going to stick with. Athletes still stretch, CEOs still answer their emails and monks still do basic meditations.
There’s no point in thinking you can skip the simple step because you can’t. Even experts do the simple steps.
But once you’ve built a general base, then you specialise.
Here’s where most people’s misunderstanding continues to play a role: you specialise as opposed to advancing.
Human beings operate within a very limited set of changeable attributes.
In a physical sense, there are limits to what your body can do. If you start off weighing 100lbs soaking wet, it’s not likely you’re ever going to be a professional strongman and if you’re 5’2, 300lbs and carry all your weight on your midsection, then you’re never going to be a catwalk model.
There’s a finite capacity for how you can change your body.
Mentally, you’re pretty set as well. You can expose yourself to different stressors but if you’re an introvert you’ll never be an extrovert, if you have an IQ of 80 you’re never going to be a world-renowned astrophysicist… so on and so forth.
Bearing those limitations in mind (and you’ll know this if you do the general preparedness building blocks) you must use your resources not to advance as in turn a leopard into a tiger, but to take your skills to specialise in whatever it is you are good at.
Once You Understand Your Limitations, You’ll Be More Efficient
For instance, I’m never going to be a world-beating athlete in any endeavour. I’m not gifted with any physical attributes that’ll make me a world beater. So spending hours upon hours reading about microcosmic fitness stuff is a complete waste of my time. Do I need to know about health and fitness? Yes, but in a “Think about a long and healthy life” sense as opposed to a “peak performance” sense.
In general, I’d be best off spending a few hours on health, eating well and not sweating the small stuff except for in certain circumstances.
So would pretty much everyone else.
If people did this, they’d free up the time, stress and worry of creating a perfect system. Reading online, you can see immediately that this is the major hobby of a whole generation of males. They’d probably all be better off getting a simple system, eating well and putting their effort elsewhere.
Instead, many people spend a whole lot of their free time debating the ten percent of high-end theoretical questions to problems they don’t even need to ask because it has nothing to do with them or their goals.
This is a total waste of your time and you can put it to better use.
I’m at danger of entering well into tangent-territory, so I’ll summarise quickly:
The idea of creating systems to get to your goals is generally a good one, but people massively overcomplicate it.
If you’re a beginner, you have no idea about the complexities of the system you’re building and you won’t know until you start. Most of getting to grips with a new system isn’t the information or habit itself, but how you as an individual react to it.
So, to start with, you find a simple routine. A “General preparedness routine,” if you like. Do the basics, do them well and then measure how good you are at them. You’ll learn about yourself and your reactions.
If you aren’t naturally gifted at something, then stick with the basics, make them part of your life as you will and move on to something you can excel at. If you have a natural talent, then go for it.
In any case, you need to think of the second stage as a specialisation stage.
You aren’t going to be awesome at everything, so take what you are good at and apply the basic rules to your particular problem – whether that’s an intricacy of the legal system that you work in, increasing your endurance for marathon running or applying your understanding of programming to some specific area in which you’re talented.
Only after you’ve done all of this and you’ve plateaued should you even think about delving into the infinite chasm of advanced knowledge. You’ll know when you’re there because you’ll realise that for 90% of topics, you really aren’t there.