Systems vs Flexibility: Why Rigidity is The Enemy of Modern Success

Systems vs Flexibility

Don’t set goals, create systems. Systems trump flexibility. This is a popular idea amongst people who share advice online. 

I’ve written about it too. The idea is that you’re more consistent if you rely on a set of daily actions/habits that you execute without much thought instead of working towards goals. 

I recently read The Road Less Stupid by the business strategist Keith J. Cunningham. In the book, he has a chapter called “Systems vs Flexibility.”

He provides a counterargument to the whole idea that you should always rely on systems. Cunningham writes:

“Systems are an amazing tool that worked incredibly well 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. Systems are exceptionally useful when the work being performed is repetitive (think assembly lines and flipping hamburgers) and doesn’t involve customer interaction, or when the environment is totally stable.”

Cunningham’s main criticism is that systems give you a false sense of security. If you execute a set of tasks every day you feel like you’re making progress. But that’s not always true.

In defense of systems

What I like about having a system is the clarity. For example, here’s a goal:

  • Get a 10% raise

If you translate that goal into a system, it could be something like this:

  • Show up earlier to work and stay later. Improve my key skills for 30 minutes a day. Record my achievements and the value I offer to my boss/clients every day.

The goal is an outcome you would love to have. The system is an actionable plan that you can execute every day. The latter is within your control.

This is why I like systems.

In defense of flexibility

The problem with systems is that you risk binding yourself to your system. After all, it’s what you control. And if you’re a control freak, you can go nuts about your system. 

You’ll try to optimize every single aspect. So maybe you started off trying to get a raise; created a system and started executing.

But maybe your life changes or the economy changes and you shouldn’t be executing that system. You might need a new goal in your life. Or a new system. Probably both.

As Cunningham says:

“When the environment changes, which it seems to be doing with ever-greater frequency and severity, the old way of doing things is a killer . . . literally. If you are in a business that is not experiencing radical, mind-numbing change, you are in a parallel universe with which I am not familiar.”

In today’s world, you need to be adaptable. You can’t be rigid. There’s no such thing as set and forget. 

That’s even true for systems you create to improve your health. You might create a workout system that requires daily exercise. What will you do when your life situation changes or you’re sick? You must adapt all the time. This is the nature of life.

When your system fails you

“If systems were the key to success, the federal government of the United States, United Airlines, and Obamacare would be the most revered institutions on the planet.”

Keith J. Cunningham

A few months ago I injured myself because I relied too much on my workout system. I was running three times a week and lifting weights three times. Six days a week in total.

It worked really well for months and I felt stronger every week. I wanted to improve my strength and stamina. And my system was working very well. 

But after a few months, I started to feel some pain here and there. My lower back was a bit stiff. So I thought, “I’m going to stick to my system, but I will just exert myself a bit less.” So I didn’t work out that hard. But I kept going.

One day I was trying to put on my shoes and the moment I rounded my back to tie my laces I felt a sting in my lower back. I instantly knew something was wrong.

I injured my back pretty badly. Thank you, my system. You helped me and then you hurt me.

Set goals, create systems, and stay flexible

The more rigid you are, the more you risk breaking things. That’s true for your career, relationships, body, and mental health.

I’ve always been a flexible thinker. I have zero attachment to ideas and beliefs. That’s because I’m a pragmatist at heart. I wrote about my personal philosophy in my book, Think Straight

This strategy has generally made me flexible. I’m never afraid to make a change.

But I still get stuck inside my systems, whether it’s for work or in my personal life. If you can relate to this, I recommend taking a step back from your existing systems, routines, or habits occasionally. 

See it as a way to improve your flexibility and lower your rigidity.

Look at it this way. When you want to improve your body, you need to focus on strength, stamina, and flexibility. Without one of the three aspects, your body will not be balanced.

In life, it’s the same thing. We need balance to succeed and thrive in today’s world. It’s not only about one thing. I noticed for the past few years that many people want to work less. They just want to be happy and have no stress.

I think that’s a mistake. We need balance. Too much rest makes you weak. Too much work makes you burn out

How do you know when you need to work and when you need to rest? By being flexible. 

You must stay detached. Never get too fixated on a particular system or way of doing things. Constantly measure yourself, your career, or your business.

At the same time, also look at the environment. If you need to adjust anything, adjust. Don’t be that rigid person who always does things a certain way just because you’ve been doing it for a long time.

Never let any action or strategy become part of your identity. That way, you can enjoy the benefits of both goal setting and using systems. Remember, they are not mutually exclusive.

You can do it all. You set goals and create flexible systems. To me, that’s the real key to success and happiness in this age.

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