For many people, the first step towards achieving something is to set a goal; a tangible finish line for an often intangible desire. We tag an achievement onto a timeframe (retiring by age 40, getting a new product to market within a year, running next year’s New York marathon, or catching a wave at Pipeline this winter) and let fear of failure be our driver. There is a compelling argument however that systems and habits are far better mechanisms for achieving, exceeding and sustaining our aims than simple, finite goals. This applies to many endeavors, including surfing.
“Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.”
Octavia E. Butler, American fiction writer
By placing all of your focus on a goal, there is a very great risk that you will become unhappy, anxious and feel inadequate until you have succeeded in achieving your goal. Any and all of these feelings can cause a person to stop doing something because they are simply not enjoying it, or to fail to start because the task is too intimidating. A simple, small, repeatable system offers achievable attainment in bite-size chunks. This doesn’t sounds as though it would have the “punch the air in elation” sense of achievement attached to it, but we humans have been proven to be incredibly bad at working out what makes us happy. Better to win the war one battle at a time. This is particularly important when a goal puts us under pressure to have control over something that we can’t possibly have any control over. To use competitive surfing as an example, an athlete can have done everything possible within their means but they cannot control the waves in a heat, or the preparation, form and ability of the surfer that they come up against. For a competitive surfer, systems that optimise for the best possible outcome are far better than goals, because of the added psychological benefit of having relinquished any misplaced sense of control over factors outside of their influence.
Goals also often result in a “yo-yo” effect, where upon reaching a goal all of the hard work tails off until another goal needs to be set. Dieting is a classic example, with many people putting themselves through strict diet regimes to reach a target weight only to put weight back on a short time after hitting their goal and relaxing the regime. A better methodology, but one that perhaps doesn’t yield results as quickly as some would like, is to find a new and sustainable diet and system of exercise that can be maintained over many months and years without it even feeling like “a diet”.
Goals are all well and good, but once set, turning all of your focus onto the system is a better bet for the long game. And, systems can actually result in us overshooting our goals; if your goal is to consistently catch and ride across green waves by next summer but you don’t live by the coast and can’t surf very often, then your system might be setting aside one weekend a month for a trip to the coast or a surf trip. If another weekend plan falls through on one or two occasions and you have spare weekends then you can get to the beach and get a few extra days surfing in, and perhaps improve beyond your original goal.
If your goal is to go on a surf trip to Hawaii this year then your system might be to set some money aside each month towards your flight and accommodation. After your trip to Hawaii, why stop saving? Just keep putting that money aside and maybe next year you could go to Indonesia.
In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg states that habits make up 40% of our waking hours, and that once set in place (after about 30 days of regular practice) it is easier to fulfil a habit than not. If you have habits, systems and routines at work or at home to make life easier, optimise productivity or meet a need, then this use of systems can be extended to surfing.
“If you go out for a surf but the conditions aren’t great, then if you have placed all of your importance on the results of that surf or on goals that you have or have not achieved, then you end up on an emotional roller-coaster of surfing which is just exhausting and demoralising. If you can say that my goal here is not to get barrelled today, but is instead to surf everyday for the next forty years (or some other system of surfing on an ongoing basis) then you’ll become a much better surfer because you’ll be surfing so much.”
Ru Hill, Surf Simply
Surfing is a complex activity that utilises many different skills and requires a great depth of understanding. Once you’ve been barrelled once, that is far from the end of the learning process and even the world’s best surfers continue to learn and to test and refine different skills.
By putting in place sustainable systems that don’t require too much willpower, you’re far more likely to achieve and exceed any short term goals that you might set yourself, and increase your odds of happiness in the long term. Maybe that will manifest itself as doing a daily stretching routine before breakfast to improve and maintain flexibility; maybe it will be setting aside one weekend each month to head to the coast; maybe it will be setting your alarm clock an hour earlier each working day to sneak in a quick power-hour on your way in. Whatever it end up being, the chances are that surfing more regularly and for longer over the course of your life will mean that you get more good waves than if you’re just chasing that one fleeting barrel or trying to surf a board that’s too small for you in order to tick a box.