Before you get your hopes up, this is not a nerdy article about the systems infrastructure of Meta, the data harvesting and privacy-invasive conglomerate. Here are the definitions I'm referring to:
meta: referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential
system: a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method
In his article about goals and systems(opens in new tab), James Clear suggests:
Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.
What he means by that, with an example, is this:
If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.
I completely agree with everything in the article. You should read it. But I think there's something more. Systems by themselves work great, but if they're poorly designed, you'd still hit plateaus. You also need a system for improving your systems. A higher-order system. A metasystem.
What is a metasystem?
Although "metasystem" sounds fancy, it really boils down to just thinking. Or more accurately, remembering to think. If goals ask "where do I want to go" and systems ask "how do I get there," then metasystems ask "is there a better way" and "do I still even want to get there?"
Let's say your goal is to be a dancer and your system is to go to dance classes twice a week. You'll be seeing progress, but that routine might slowly develop into nothing more than a habit that you don't really think about. A system that has lost its purpose. You invest time, but nothing much changes.
I know that to be true because I've lived it. I had been b-boying(opens in new tab) for over 10 years, regularly attending classes two times a week, and at certain periods even three. Although I've learned some complex moves, I'd still be terrified to enter a battle(opens in new tab) and show them off. On the other hand, I know b-boys out there who have managed to reach a much more advanced level than me and in just a couple of years.
If I was mindful about this, I would regularly ask myself:
What did I accomplish this week? Did it move me closer to my goal? If not, then…
What can I change before, during, or after my practice sessions? Maybe I'm being lazy.
What if I go to other schools and teachers? Different points of view could surely help.
What if I mix different types of dance? Maybe that'll make me a better dancer overall.
Do I really want to be a b-boy at all? Perhaps I just do it out of habit.
These interrogatory questions and their honest answers would lead to even more questions and more useful answers. This feedback loop of questioning and answering is what I call a metasystem.
Honesty is the determining factor
The efficacy of your metasystem is limited by your tolerance for your own bullshit.
If you're not honest with yourself and you don't point out your own flaws, you get nowhere. However, solely pointing out your flaws just leaves you miserable, which doesn't get you anywhere either. You then need to think about ways (systems) to improve on these flaws.
But your inner dialogue must not be laced with emotion, be it negative or positive. It has to be purely neutral and objective. It just needs to be sincere.
If you're too negative about yourself, you'll ruin your day by binging YouTube or Netflix, devouring the entire fridge, and wishing you'd die. Doesn't really get you anywhere.
If you're too positive about yourself, you'll be blinded to your shortcomings and drive others away because you think you're the king of the world, when in fact you're an incompetent loser. Doesn't really get you anywhere either.
You need teamwork between your past, present, and future self. There's no one to impress and no one to feel sorry for you. Nobody to lie to. Except yourself. And how could that be possibly helpful in any way?
In every answer, there's the underlying question of "am I being honest?" Make sure you're not too positive and evasive. Sit down and do the work. Make sure you're also not too negative and judgemental either. Get up and see how hard can it be.
This applies equally both to trivial, day-to-day decisions, and also to grand or difficult questions like "why do I live in this country," "why do I work at this company," "do I want kids?"
Lying to yourself is a sure way to lose your days in misery and keep on having to push that rock up that hill.
Efficiency is wealth
To be rich is to be efficient, for time is the only true currency we have on this earth, and efficiency gives you more of it. But I don't mean this in the workaholic way of "optimizing" "work". You can be efficient in all aspects of life.
You could be efficient even with something like partying. If you like having fun, but don't like having your next day completely wasted, then maybe…
You could make sure you have medications and great food at home to help you with the eventual hangover.
You could avoid drinks and substances that make you feel (or will make you feel) like a disorientated sack of rocks.
You could leave before the crippling exhaustion and existential crises knock on the door. Would such an experience really be a pleasant one anymore?
You could think of low-priority things you've been putting off forever that you could do the next day, even while feeling a bit tired.
Sure, what's listed above is difficult, especially for your drunken lizard brain, but that doesn't change the fact that it would be better for you overall. Perhaps there's a way to make it easier in advance? There surely has to be something. Exactly this line of thinking is what I'm talking about.
But this again depends on your honesty and how well you get along with your past and future self.
How do you implement a metasystem?
As metasystems are just thinking, you only need a place and time to think… and the willingness to do so.
If you've just finished work, think about what you did at work today and whether you were productive, while commuting back home.
If you've just finished a workout, think about whether you pushed yourself hard enough, while changing your clothes.
If you've just finished a lesson, think about what you've just learned and whether you've learned anything at all. Write it down.
Most of the time, even this simple system of remembering to think about something after doing it turns out pretty difficult. Especially when you're rushed to move on to the next thing or you have your phone to distract you with useless nonsense.
For this reason, you could implement a system for your metasystem. You could set a reminder every evening to make you think about your day. How was it? Was it good? Why? Was it bad? Why? Did you think about things or were you mindless?
My metasystem is to think about my day while having dinner alone at home, phone away, windows closed. Pure silence with the smell of delicious food and plans to improve. It's a good combination.
Goals define your destination, systems define how you get there, and metasystems make you regularly think of more efficient routes. Metasystems improve your other systems, and by that extension — themselves as well. They turn your progress from linear to exponential. Or, put in other words:
Goals are the desire to save up money
Systems are the flat amount you keep investing regularly
Metasystems are the compounding interest
The starting questions for a metasystem are:
Why do I want to do this?
How badly do I want to do this?
How much time am I willing to allocate for this?
Can I finish this or enjoy it with less waste of time and energy?
These questions will make you think of better ways to go about your life and have more time for the wonders of it, provided that you're honest. And if you're not honest… well, find a few spare minutes at the end of your day and start there.
Fun fact: I thought of this article exactly while following my metasystem of having a quiet dinner. I was just thinking about thinking (fun fact, that's called recursion(opens in new tab)) and asking myself how and why one would cultivate the habit of thinking.
Fun fact: Mentioning recursion as a fun fact while talking about a fun fact is not recursive. However, saying "fun fact: fun facts are fun" is recursive. Mind exploded? Welcome to thinking about thinking.
P.S. Sorry for making you hate the word "think."