If you need direction, goals are a great place to start. When it comes to making progress on achieving those goals, you need a system. Goals are necessary, but not sufficient to achieve them. Sure, your goals tell you where you are going. But your system is how you get there. Like a map, a system helps you move in the direction of your goals.

We need to know where we’re headed. That’s where goals come into play. Whether it’s losing weight, getting stronger, or getting SHMEC in check, goal-setting is an exciting and necessary part of behaviour change.

Goals tend to motivate us in the beginning but fall short as time goes on. The expectation is that our goals will keep us on track throughout the process of behaviour change. That’s rarely the case. Goals are necessary but not sufficient. When it comes to making progress on achieving those goals, we need a system.

Building your system

Picture a paper map or google maps. If your goal is a destination on that map, then the system is the route taking you from here to there. We need maps to guide us, especially if we don’t know where we’re going or what obstacles we’ll encounter along the way.

Most of us fail to achieve our goals, and not because they aren’t important to us. To support behaviour change, we need more structure – a clear route with some if/then planning. What if you get hungry, or need gas or washrooms? What if there’s an accident or construction work blocking a road? If you’ve ever gone on a road trip before, you know that there are some things that you can plan for, and others that you cannot.

To continue with this analogy, most of us wouldn’t jump in a car and start driving without a destination in mind. If you’re travelling somewhere new or unknown, you’ll likely map yourself a route. And perhaps you’ll decide ahead of time that you want to avoid toll roads, highways, or closed roads.

All of this planning is a system. You probably didn’t realize that you had a system for this, or that you employ the same system (or something similar) every time you road trip. Setting and achieving your health goals is no different. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have as much experience creating this type of system. But I’ll bet you can utilize the same skills!

Whether you’re new to this idea or you need help tweaking your current system, here’s a 7-step process that will guide you.

“Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.”

― James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

A 7-step process framework for creating systems to support desired health habits

Identify your desired health habits: Clearly define the healthy habits you want to establish, such as daily exercise, getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night, walking 60 minutes per day, and consuming 25-30 g of protein per meal per day. Habits often require daily practice. Consider what you need to “practice” in order to get better at performing the healthy habit you are building. If the habit is walking 60 minutes per day, but your endurance and strength are not at a level to support that goal, then start with 10-15 minutes a day. As your strength and endurance improve, you’ll be able to extend the duration of your walks.

Determine the barriers to success: Identify any barriers that may be preventing you from consistently practicing your desired health habits. Common barriers that come up include lack of time, confusion about what to do/not do, and feeling overwhelmed/exhausted. If you’re not able to identify any barriers, stay open and curious about the barriers as they present themselves – especially in the beginning!

Develop strategies to overcome barriers: Based on the barriers you identified, develop strategies to overcome them. For example, if lack of time is a barrier to daily exercise, then adjust your approach so that exercise fits more easily into your schedule. Not the other way around. For example, a 5-10 minute bodyweight workout with 3-4 simple compound moves that can be completed anytime, anywhere and with no equipment might be easier to schedule than a 45-60 minute gym session.

Create a supportive environment: Identify ways to create an environment that supports your desired health habits. When it comes to nutrition and eating habits, keep healthy foods prepped, ready and within easy reach. The opposite approach works for unhealthy or trigger foods. Create more barriers or “friction” between yourself and the habits you are trying to break or replace. Freezers work wonders for this. Unless it’s ice cream of course! It’s inconvenient to engage in mindless snacking habits if you’re waiting for a frozen brownie to thaw. The thaw time could create enough cognitive space to “surf the urge” and make a different choice.

Establish a routine: The brain loves routines, which is why habits are so difficult to break! Try to establish a consistent routine for practicing your desired health behaviours. This could involve setting aside specific times each week for meal planning, including shop and prep time. Pick one desired health behaviour, and practice it until it’s easy or until it becomes automatic like a habit. From that place, anchor the next one. Anchoring new behaviours to established routines is often easier than building a routine from scratch.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

― James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Track your progress: Tracking tools can be used to monitor behaviours, consistency, and progress or results. For tracking behaviours and consistency, food journals or exercise logs can be used. For tracking progress and results, weekly weight and/or measurements can be insightful. Most people are motivated by progress – especially when it’s personally meaningful. For example, if clothing size/fit is more important than the number on the scale, then tracking weight is less motivational. Visual forms of tracking that provide evidence of progress reinforce continued engagement and motivation in the process. Picture a calendar with an “x” marked on all the days that a desired habit was completed. After a few days of seeing that progress, I’ll bet you won’t want to break that streak! Tracking can also help you identify if you’re moving in the right direction or if you need to pivot. For more on “how to track and measure progress to make good habits stick”, check out this post.

Seek support: Consider seeking support from friends, family, colleagues or healthcare professionals. Depending on your support needs, you may need various kinds of support offered by different people. First, consider what you need from others. Is it information, tools or more time? Information can be found online, in a book, or by talking to someone with experience (professional or personal). Tools can be provided by one or more healthcare professionals depending on your needs. Time can be freed up by speaking to loved ones and asking for more help with household chores. Second, consider what support looks like to you. Is it motivation, accountability, or help to practice a new skill? Support needs can change with time and experience.

To reiterate, most of us fail to achieve our goals. Not because they aren’t important to us though. We need goals to point us in a direction. The purpose of building systems is to continue moving in the direction of our goals. It also becomes a process that supports the endless journey of continuous self-improvement.

Photo by Tabea Schimpf on Unsplash