I used to love the A-Team when I was a youngster.
I don’t know why. I mean, have you watched that show as an adult? Those guys have to be the worst mercenaries ever. What are they even good at? One of them is good looking. One of them is bat-shit crazy. One of them hates to fly, but loves jewelry. And one of them smokes cigars and makes plans that have no business coming together, but somehow do.
Hannibal was my favorite. Calm, cool, collected, and possessed of just enough magic to make any plan come together.
The unfortunate truth for those of us that don’t live in TV Land is that plans rarely come together on a wing, a prayer, and a Cuban Cigar. And, if you can’t hit the broad side of a barn with semi-automatic rifle fire, being a mercenary shouldn’t be in your life plan. Even if it worked out for Hannibal, Faceman, “BA” Baracus, and Murdock.
Most of us start our training plans with a healthy dose of motivation. “THIS IS MY YEAR!!”, we scream. And we really mean it. This time we really mean it.
Until we don’t.
Systems > Motivation
There is one basic problem with running on motivation:
- Motivation runs out.
- When your motivation runs out, you beat yourself up about it.
- Beating yourself up about it further stymies your motivation.
- Stuffing cookies in your face hole.
While your step 4 might be a little bit different, the process is the same the world over.
Everybody has days where they don’t want to go to the gym and train. Everybody has days where they want to abandon healthy eating. Everybody has days where they can’t quite seem to buckle down and do work. EVERYBODY. The people that (mostly) do it anyway have something greater than motivation on their side.
Those people have a system.
The saving grace of building a system is:
- Systems usually work even when you don’t want them too.
- When your motivation runs out, your system kicks in.
- You do the thing you don’t want to do or are unmotivated to do.
When you implement systems, plans come together even when you’re wearing a ridiculous swamp monster costume or your main asset is a pilot that should probably be in a mental institution.
Building a system means you have something working for you all the time. Motivation is great; motivation can work for you. But motivation only works for you until it doesn’t. Putting a system in place works for you all the time, meaning you can cover your ass when you’re feeling unmotivated.
Recently, I got to sit in on a talk given by Craig Ballantyne where he described the value of having a system versus having motivation.
Imagine two people heading out to a holiday party. Both of them are interested in losing fat, eating healthier, and avoiding the indulgences that usually come with the season. One of the partygoers is a vegan, the other one is not. The vegan has a system in place — of beliefs and prior behavior — while the non-vegan is likely relying on motivation to avoid the dessert buffet.
The first time that someone at the party offers the two of them cookies or egg nog or a big greasy cheeseburger, they both decline. Maybe they both decline the second time, too. But it’s likely that EVENTUALLY the non-vegan will find themselves succumbing to the temptation of the indulgent foods because they don’t have a system in place. Motivation runs out. Especially in the face of holiday cookies. (Russian tea cookies, anyone?)
Often times, when systems are in place, the thing that would derail you doesn’t even make it to you. In the case of a vegan, their friends and family learn that they have a system in place and ultimately stop offering non-vegan food. Or have a knock-down, drag-out discussion about it over the holiday table. Whichever.
Systems Become Habits
There comes a point at which the system that you’ve built become who you are.
You avoid eating animal products because of your belief system (<– system!) and now it’s easy to do, you’re not even interested in eating those foods (habit). You take vitamins everyday because you used to lay them out on the counter to remind yourself (system), but now it feels weird if you don’t (habit). You make it a point to train for at least 10 minutes when you’re feeling unmotivated (system), until training becomes something that you just do because you like the rush or you know you’ll feel great afterward (habit).
Humans are creatures of habit. If you can systemize a behavior then get it to evolve into a habit, 90% of the hard work is done for you.
Habits work because they’re (nearly) automatic. I have a habit of locking the backdoor when I come in to the house. I don’t even realize that I do it until my husband is pounding on the door yelling at me about locking him outside. Again. It’s so automated that it happens without conscious effort. In fact, if I want to leave the door unlocked after I come inside, I REALLY have to think about it. And it feels super awkward.
Create Your Systems
If you have a training goal you’re trying to reach — which you should, by the way — you’ll be more likely to reach it if you can build systems around it.
- Leave nothing to chance. Finishing your training or drinking enough water or remembering to eat lunch, won’t happen if you don’t plan for it. If those things were going to happen on their own, they already would have. And you wouldn’t be here. So make a plan for how you’re going to alert yourself to get it down.
- Schedules make the world go round. Seriously. The goal you’re trying to reach is important to you, right? Then make an appointment with it. Don’t give yourself a chance to weasel out of it, either. Make a date with the gym and don’t stand it up. Buy one of those time labeled water bottles. Set an alarm on your phone for lunch time that will flash you pictures of delicious food and make you want to eat.
- Hold your feet to the fire. Systems take time to build. And then they take longer to turn into habits. If you don’t put something in place to help you build the system, it won’t stick. If you run on motivation only, it won’t stick. If you let yourself slide “just this once” (which, we all know turns into two times which turns into four times), it won’t stick.
- Tell somebody you trust. Get yourself a co-conspirator. Mostly because having one, knowing that someone is going to be checking up on you, will help you hold your feet to the fire. It’s important that you really think about whom this person is because you want them to be a support, not a saboteur. You need them to hold you accountable, not let you get away with your usual bullshit.
- Learn to pick yourself back up. Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say. Well, it wasn’t destroyed in a day either. You didn’t reach your goal that day or you didn’t stick to your system? That sucks. Okay, wallowing is over. Time to pick it back up tomorrow.
Ultimately that’s what made the A-team brilliant. Each member had a very specific role, a system that they followed to aid the team. And (a number of) habits that they relied on to get the job done.
And really, isn’t that the best feeling in the world.
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