by Donna Birk
Every new bit of information I learn helps me be more successful in what I aim towards. Having a good, solid understanding of how I need to get there and what influences that, is critical, in my view, to being effective. That’s where the whole concept of life or success “systems” comes in. When you understand the components of your system, you have an enormous advantage in being able to drive it with intention and purpose.
“But I don’t have a system,” you might be thinking. Whether or not you have intentionally developed an overall plan for how you will live your life and what you want to achieve, you are operating within a system. Your history, past experiences, habits you’ve formed, and influencing factors have all worked together, with or without any active decisions on your part, to form your individual system for getting through life. Understanding this, along with identifying and defining the pieces of your system, is the first step in really taking charge of your life, driving it, making decisions and taking action with focused intention, living life with purpose and on purpose.
There are any number of examples of what a “system” includes. The most common is illustrated as a pyramid, with the bottom foundation including what your values are, that is followed by long range goals, then short term goals, then daily tasks at the top. You may be familiar with a variation of this basic model. Most models, like this one, are designed to be utilized as a tool for planning and determining your aspirations and goals. That makes sense, right? Well, it does, but it also leaves out critical information - what does your current system look like? When you work towards a well-thought out plan, you are starting from somewhere, not from scratch. What you are actually doing is changing your system, not creating it.
Though these models include the same basic components I would suggest in a life system, I also believe they are missing a huge, huge element. That element is about influencing factors. Influencing factors can be internal or external and can make or break your ability to live life as you need and want to. Internal influencing factors include things like your personality traits, habits, perceptions, and motivation. External influencing factors include things like circumstances, environmental factors, other people’s values, opinions, demands, expectations, and cultural norms and standards. These are all factors that will impact your plan, either positively or negatively, and those forces may be what keep you on track or prevent you from following through on anything.
My proposal for a life system includes the following components:
Foundational principles - what you believe in, stand for, who you are
Plans - what you decide or choose
Actions - what you actually do
Influencing Factors - what impacts or influences you
Rather than envisioning this as a pyramid, I see these components as much more fluid. Any change in one can impact another. They are connected in a dynamic, not static way. Let’s take a look at each of these components separately, then examine the relationship among all of them.
Foundational principles define who you are, how you will live your life, and what is important to you. Your foundational principles are your rock - they are steady, consistent, and generally unchanging. They include a wide range of factors which are at the core of your being. Your history, past experiences, values, moral views, beliefs, your passions, your purpose in life, what you see as your life’s mission, your vision for your future, your needs as an individual human being, your priorities, etc. fall within this component. The key here is to identify all of the principles or truths in your life that define you.
Now, this is not something you are going to do overnight. It might be something you never really finalize completely. Make it a goal over the next 6 months to a year to build this part of your system. Write a definition of this component on a large piece of paper and post it on your wall. Each time you identify a related factor, principle, or value, write it on the sheet. It can be one word, a short phrase or a paragraph. When you read an article or book with a description or principle that rings true to you, make a copy of it and paste it to your sheet or highlight it until you have a chance to add it.
Don’t rush with this one, it is the most critical to building your individualized system that will be meaningful to you in your life. If you don’t get this one right on, ignore it, or neglect to identify your foundational principles, you will generally not lead a satisfying, happy life. If you find you are not generally leading a happy, satisfying life, this is the first component on which you’ll want to focus. Although this is the one component that will remain unchanging, it might take a good amount of time to thoroughly define it for yourself. Plant a seed in the back of your mind to help you notice, pay attention to, and be alert to signs that will help you identify and define your foundational principles.
Once you’ve identified the bulk of your foundational principles, take the time to consider which are the highest priorities. It goes without saying that all of your foundational principles have significant value to you, but it is important to have a good idea about which are higher priorities than others. There are many times in life where we need to make decisions between two or more factors, foundational principles, that are important to us,. When you identify the level of priority for different principles up-front, the answer is clear to you when you need it.
Once you have nailed down any of your foundational principles, you’ll want to think about how you will realize and live out those principles. This component includes goals, strategies, the roles you play in your life, the decisions and choices you make.
It is much better to make your decisions and choices with intention. If you face circumstances and ignore an opportunity to determine your response or action, however, a decision will come to you by default. You’ll still be left there to deal with any fallout, and you are still accountable. Do you “take the bull by the horns” to make your decisions? I hope so, because this is the only way to assure the reasons behind your decisions come straight from your foundational principles.
What are the types of decisions you face on a regular basis? Do you have goals for the next month, year, five years? What roles do you fulfill in life? Have you determined which strategies work best for you? The answers to these questions will help you define this portion of your system. Look first at what is happening now. Then evaluate what is working well and is consistent with your foundational principles vs. what is not working well and is contrary to or not supportive of your foundational principles. Your task is to weed out the goals, plans, and strategies that are working against your foundational principles and replace them with goals, plans, and strategies that support and are consistent with your foundational principles.
Here’s a quick example: Let’s say you are working at a collection agency. Since you haven’t been satisfied with your life lately, you’ve spent time defining your foundational values. One of the values you’ve defined is treating all others with respect. You have recognized, however, that in your work role you are doing things that are contrary to that - calling people at all times of the day and night, pressuring them about what they owe, interrupting them at their workplace, etc. You need to look at changing what your role is with regard to work - the strategies employed at your place of work are completely contrary to your foundational values. It doesn’t represent who you are or how you want to live your life. You need to bring your plans into balance with your foundational principles.
It might appear that actions are just a part of the decisions and choices you make. After all, an action does not occur unless a decision to take that action has first been made. That’s true enough. There is enough space, however, between the decision and the action to effect a change in what is actually done. Actions (including reactions) are also the pieces of your system that vary the most - on a daily basis. You may have set goals and strategies early on in the year, but by April or May have already gotten off track. You may stay completely on track with your goals, but still have other actions you take in your life which are seemingly unrelated to any of your goals. That is why you need to pay attention to your actions in relation to your plans as well as to your foundational principles.
The wide range of factors that impact or influence your actions, plans, and foundational values is a huge factor in how well you are able to implement your life system. As noted previously, there are two categories of influencing factors, internal and external.
Internal influencing factors lie within you. They include things such as your personality, your motivation, your habits, your energy level, your attitude, your perceptions, your level of commitment, your preferences. Each of these internal factors can impact whether you follow-though on something or have the ability to take a certain action. How many of us have started a diet only to give up after a few weeks? Was it lack of motivation, commitment, a bad attitude? More likely than not, it was an internal factor that influenced you to give up. The good news about internal influencing factors, however, is that you have power over them.
The key to keeping your internal influencing factors in check is knowing yourself and using that knowledge to make changes. Let’s take just one of these factors and look at it: personality. When you know your personality attributes or “type,” you can better understand why certain things might be harder for you than for others. If, for example, you are an introvert, you might find it difficult or even impossible to call someone you don’t know, to negotiate, to say no. When you know this information, you can work on minimizing the negative aspects and maximizing the positive aspects. It is also useful when you are planning so you can structure strategies and tasks to minimize any negative impact internal influencing factors may have. Potential solutions might be to take assertiveness training or ask for help with one of your strategies.
External influencing factors are within your surroundings or environment. They include things such as other people’s opinions or values, demands from others, situational circumstances, interruptions, events that occur outside of your control, environmental factors, any impact your connections with others might contribute, obligations and responsibilities, societal norms, cultural standards, laws, rules, expectations.
You have less control over external influencing factors than you do with those that are internal. You do have the ability to maximize or minimize their impact, however. Here are some strategies for minimizing the negative impact of external influencing factors: