Are Systems More Important than Goals?

checklist of habitsBy Matt Penney

I was recently reading James Clears’ Atomic Habits. It’s a follow-up book to one of my favorite reads, The Power of Habit, which declares that 40 percent of your decisions are not deliberately chosen but instead are habits. If almost half of all actions are not contemplated, what does that mean for our own personal growth and for the trajectory of our parking operation?

The paradigm-breaking concept in Atomic Habits is that systems are more important than goals. In a world so saturated in goal setting and goal achievement, this concept sounds almost naïve. Of particular interest was the book’s highlighting the negative aspects of the pursuit of goals:

  • The quick frustration with lack of progress or a missed goal (like New Year’s resolutions).
  • The fixation on measurable metrics that can’t incorporate a bigger more complex picture (as seen in public education mandated testing).
  • Cutting corners to achieve the goal but at an overall detriment to an organization (remember Enron).
  • The potential listlessness after a goal has been missed or even achieved (think gaining weight back after a period of weight loss).

It’s not so much that Clear advocates systems without goals, but more an emphasis on a system of habits rather than the goal. He suggests that if two or three habits are established/refined, the overall desired outcome could be achieved with success greater than set in a goal.

Baylor Parking Services followed this habit-first emphasis with surprising success. Baylor clears a little more than 2,200 parking spaces for football game day use. We wanted to physically tow as few cars as possible but didn’t set a goal to define a successful outcome. Instead, our department focused on communicating with each vehicle owner. This involved a system (habits) of emails and phone calls (two systemic steps). The end results have been far better than expected with only a handful of vehicles towed before game days. On one occasion, we did not have to tow a single vehicle.

In this scenario, it appears Clear may be on to something. If habits really do make up 40 percent of our actions each day, this has a significant effect on us personally and on our organizations. Are our customers really choosing where/how they park? Or are they following an automatic/unthinking pathway created in their brain? What about our employees and the way they act/react?

Atomic Habits outlined basic rules for molding habits. If Clear is right, these habit/system strategies may be more productive than goal setting.

Matt Penney is director of parking and transportation services at Baylor University.