10 key steps to having a successful system that actually works

Nobody’s life goes quite the way they expect.

Mine sure hasn’t!

We live in a dramatic universe.

But there are systems all of us have: routines, principles and rules for life.

This could be anything as simple as committing to one day a week in which you only serve others through volunteering or having career goals that you follow through a set schedule and milestones that you work towards.

Life can be a beautiful tapestry.

But what separates successful systems from failed and disappointing systems?

I’ll point you to self-development experts and discuss my own experience here to help shed light on the issue.

In life people will make all sorts of vague statements, but the truth is that some systems work and some don’t.

Here are the 10 key steps that set successful systems apart from those that lead to frustration and failure.

What are successful systems?

First, let me explain what I mean by “successful systems.”

Does it mean being popular and well-liked, finding the perfect life partner, becoming wealthy, inner peace and fulfillment or something else entirely?

Is there an effective way to find your purpose in life or are we all part of a guessing game?

The truth is that success means different things to different people.

And that’s perfectly OK.

But there are common themes in successful systems that separate life plans that work from life plans that bite the dust.

The most important thing is to look at your approach to life in the long-term. Momentary happiness and sadness come and go.

But deeper fulfillment and inner peace can last your whole life on a deeper level.

I’m not going to tell you what you should believe or do in your life. It’s absolutely essential that you think for yourself.

But what I will do is share with you 10 tips that have worked for me when it comes to successful systems and what makes them tick.

Off we go.

1) Make appropriate plans

Champion boxer Mike Tyson had a saying which I just love. He said:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

So true.

That’s why you don’t just need a plan.

You also need a backup plan (which I’ll get to in the next tip).

First make your main plan. This is your roadmap to happiness.

Start by defining what happiness and success means to you. It could be one main accomplishment or several goals.

Then write down the steps you need to take to achieve happiness.

When listing your goals make sure to be SMART about it.

In other words, ensure that your goals are:

  • Specific: dates, locations, times, benchmarks, specifics.
  • Measurable: data, quantity, deadlines, firm definitions.
  • Attainable: possible, achievable within the timeframe you’ve selected.
  • Relevant: choose goals that actually link up to your overall objective.
  • Time-Based: put a deadline on your goals and include monthly or even weekly milestones.

Try to write specific details for each of these SMART categories.

Put them on your phone or in a place that’s easy for you to see like stuck on your fridge or on a post-it note on your office wall.

2) Expect the unexpected

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Like I said, you need to be ready to expect the unexpected.

After you’ve written down your goals write down five things which could go wrong or throw your goals off course and write a specific, detailed fallback plan if that happens.

For example, “I get sick and can’t meet my deadline.” Fallback plan: I push the deadline forward by the amount of days I was sick.

Another example: “I lose my job and can’t focus on my bigger goal due to looking for work.” Fallback plan: I look for a job that also helps me achieve my larger goal of happiness.

When you get “punched in the face” as Tyson puts it, then you’ll have a comeback just waiting in store.

The road to your dreams is often full of many obstacles and dead-ends.

But just when you think you’re done and there’s nowhere left to go you see a new alleyway that connects right back up the straight and narrow path.


When you prepare for the unexpected then you’re mentally and emotionally ready for the curveballs that life, God and the universe are going to throw your way.

Think about it like you’re driving and you have various alternate routes for if something changes.

You may not get punched in the face, but you might have a health challenge or even change your goal.

And that’s fine, in fact being a dynamic person is amazing and powerful!

But make sure you’ve got some preparation for the unexpected even if it ends up coming from inside yourself.

This will put you in the best position possible to have successful systems for pursuing your dreams.

Even if your first plan goes a little bit off course you might find you reach an objective even more amazing than you ever imagined.

As country singer Brad Paisley puts it in his song “Find Yourself:”

“Sometimes when you lose your way it’s really just as well/

‘Cause you find yourself/

That’s when you find yourself.”

3) Rank your goals

In addition to having fallback plans you should prioritize your roadmap.

Think of it like renowned psychologist Abraham’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are certain things you need to get covered before anything else even becomes possible.

You can’t make great strides in medical research if you don’t have enough money for food.

And you can’t find love if your basic housing needs are still up in the air.

However, all your milestone goals should be in service of your main objective.

For this reason: rank your goals in order of importance.

Put your main objective at the very top and then list all the necessary steps that you must do in order to work toward it.

Everything which is not a “must do” goes under a separate “optional category.”

Stay mission-focused, soldier!

All of us only have so much time and you should make sure you prioritize what needs to come first and be very clear on why you’re doing it.

What are you working toward?

Is your main priority to open a shrimping business in Mexico or to become a champion bodybuilder?

Put it at the top and check off the steps to get there.

The Eisenhower Matrix can be very helpful for making a list. Stay on mission and focus.

You only have so much time and a limited amount of energy and resources, but if you do it right you can succeed beyond your wildest dreams!

Successful systems proceed step by step.

4) Strong habits build strong people

If you take a look at the most successful people, organizations, and businesses, they have one thing in common.

Their successful systems are all built on routines and habits.

Strong habits build strong people.

Think about it:

If you have an amazing day at the gym and feel every muscle in your body has been thoroughly worked out and then leave and eat the perfect meal of protein with just the right proportion of carbs you’re likely to feel great.

But if you follow that up the next two weeks by eating Burger King three times per day and giving up on working out it’s not going to do anything other than be a nice memory.

To make it effective you need to make it habit.

This is the same thing when it comes to any of the successful systems you see around you.

They’re all built on commitment and the power of habit.

Here are some top ways to make sure your habits stick:

  • Don’t procrastinate. Get it done and do it the best you can!
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Your Circadian rhythm is key and if you respect it then it will respect you, giving
  • Work hard and play hard. I know it can be difficult in our world of social media, cellphones and distraction, but separate work from play. You’re either working or you’re chilling!
  • Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes asking for help can be the biggest power move you make. Create a habit of asking at least one person for help each week. You will grow immensely.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical and mental health are deeply linked. Take care of your body and make it a habit. You’ll feel much better, believe me.

If you are interested in learning more about the power of habits take a read of the book Atomic Habits by James Clear.

As Clear writes:

“You do not rise to the level of your goal. Instead, you fall to the level of your systems.”

To build successful systems you need to build successful habits. These are your rock-solid foundation. 

5) Mistakes make the man – (and the woman)

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Nobody is perfect.

Even me, I admit it.

Obviously, you should do your best in life. Be honest, hard-working, and dedicated.

But you’re still going to make mistakes and have situations come up that hurt you or set back your long-term plans.

In our success-obsessed world, it’s tempting to see mistakes as something to push down and forget about.

This is a big mistake.

Mistakes can be your greatest teacher. Even situations in which you made mistakes in responding to something that wasn’t your fault can show you how your own responses – and fallback plans – succeed or fail.

I can say that for myself I’ve learned more from my failures than my success.

There are times that it’s been painful, but I will say that it’s been worth it.

Some of the greatest winners in life got there by making mistakes and failing over and over. In some cases, you’re doing everything right but you just need persistence.

As legendary basketball superstar Michael Jordan said: “I have failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

Slam dunk.

6) Reevaluate your plan on a regular basis

As mistakes, disappointments and roadblocks occur you’re going to feel frustrated.

You may need to take a day or two out and have a beer.

But you are also presented with an excellent opportunity when disaster strikes:

The chance to reevaluate and adjust your plan.

If your goal is to graduate medical school or start a new restaurant and you just hit a snag now’s the time to reevaluate. Maybe you need to adjust the time of day that you study hardest or change the kind of food your restaurant is going to serve or the neighborhood where you want to open up.

This is a great and proactive way to solve challenges and feel capable about addressing the frustrations that inevitably crop up, even in successful systems.

The power of your system lies in its dynamism.

You reflect, adapt and take action as necessary with very little down time. Your fallback plans click into place almost automatically without weeks of sleeplessness or agonizing, and you reevaluate your priorities on a regular basis to ensure that your mission is still on track and still what you want to aim towards.

Be honest with yourself in your evaluation. Remember to be SMART when you reevaluate as well.

7) Look at the habits of other successful people

Every person is different.

We all breathe air, drink and eat, but our minds, emotions, motivations and perceptions differ. This is a beautiful thing, but it also means that success can look different depending on who you are and what you want.

The most successful systems are built on observation and modeling after other successful people who have achieved something like what you want to achieve.

If your number one priority is to marry and have a happy and healthy family then look at the habits of friends or relatives who are married with a happy and healthy family and do your best to emulate some of these habits.

If your top goal is to become a tech entrepreneur then study the life of someone you greatly admire – be it Steve Jobs or Elon Musk – and look at what habits they recommended on a regular basis that helped propel them to greatness.

As you look further into the habits and routines of winners you will notice common trends.

Their successful systems may look very unique from the outside but they’re almost all built on core habits that all highly successful individuals practice in some form.

Core habits of highly successful individuals

Here are core habits that almost all highly successful individuals stick by:

  • Setting high goals that are still achievable
  • Being open and grateful for help along the way
  • Taking advantage of luck and the right timing
  • Moving forward even in times of frustration and disappointment
  • Using imagination and creativity to work towards goals
  • Visualizing success as a stepping stone and process rather than end state
  • Practicing physically and emotionally healthy habits with passion and dedication
  • Finding ways to add value to the lives of others instead of just seeking to extract value from life

There is always something you can be doing to improve.

Sometimes that can even be relaxing and learning to truly be in the moment by rebooting your respiratory system.

By looking up to the core habits of highly successful individuals you will always be on the right track.

It’s not about how far you get, it’s about how much passion you put in.

8) Own your successes and failures

Part of building truly successful systems is owning your successes and failures.

Brutal honesty is the name of the game here.

As I wrote, mistakes can be valuable learning opportunities, but it doesn’t mean you should deny that they were mistakes.

If you market a new product that flops badly and it turns out you completely misinterpreted the market and went about your launch all wrong this isn’t a “forget about it” moment.

This is a failure. Own it and reevaluate using the SMART system. Maybe you want to readjust your priorities or your approach.

It’s the same with success. Don’t overdo modesty.

If you just reconciled with your ex-girlfriend and found that you’ve had a communication breakthrough that’s refreshing and leading one step further toward your goal of a long-term, stable relationship that is cause for celebration.

Own your success. At least for a day, you are a winner!

Ego can be a problem – especially spiritual ego when it comes to self-development – but being overly self-effacing can also be a real downer.

Owning your successes and failures makes you a stronger person. Period.

You will no longer be looking to the outside world to validate or excuse you. You will love and be honest with yourself.

Taking responsibility for yourself – even if things outside your control influence or cause your success and failure – is a major life hack.

9) Successful systems embrace change

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Successful systems ride the wave.

When change comes – as it always does – successful systems thrive on the change instead of going under.

That’s because you have a fallback plan and are constantly being honest with yourself as well as reevaluating on a regular basis.

Even the wildest change or a complete shutdown of your entire primary goal doesn’t make you give up. Instead, you adjust your sails and fare forth into new winds.

When you make changes to your system you also have patience and commitment: improvement takes time and results don’t always show up overnight.

Adapting successful systems to change

Accepting changes in your system can be a challenge. You may even believe it’s game over and want to throw in the towel. Here are some tips for how to effectively adapt your system to new changes:

  • Get used to saying and hearing “I don’t know.” Don’t let uncertainty make you buckle.
  • Never be ashamed to ask for help or admit you’re lost. Admitting you need help and guidance is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Ask for help from those around you and implement their advice
  • Keep the momentum up if you have made one successful change, as more could be required
  • Model the change you want to see in your successful system
  • Make changes that cater to your strengths and improve your weaknesses

If you can put these changes into practice, you will place yourself in a position to succeed.

10) Invest in strong relationships

There is a saying that it’s not what you know but who you know.

I’ll be honest:

What you know does matter, but who you know is definitely even more crucial.

As you learn and improve yourself and your skills on the journey toward achieving your objective there is nothing more valuable than relationships.

An investment in people and relationships is one of the smartest decisions you’ll ever make.

Human beings are tribal animals and we thrive and grow in the company of others, supporting and mutually inspiring each other.

There is no way to predict the exponential power of human networking in your person or professional life, and all successful systems I’ve studied have relationships at their core.

Of course, the very first relationship is the relationship with yourself, and time alone and solitude can be powerful and precious.

But your relationship with other people is also key. Even very solitary icons of history always understood the value and necessity of including and relating to the people around them.

Some of the most common examples include:

  • Family: Think of family as your home team. Treat your family with the most consideration and love possible and know that you can always rely on them when times get tough.
  • Friends: Your friends will be there to laugh and cry with you. Their experiences and positive and negative qualities are a celebration and challenge that makes you a stronger, wiser person.
  • Colleagues: Your colleagues are with you on your work mission. Even if your work is only to pay the bills, the dignity of work and valuing the company of those you labor with is a key part of building successful systems of integrity and consistency.
  • Teachers and mentors: Those who help open our minds and expand our horizons are goldmines. Teachers and mentors aren’t always who we expect, either. I had a powerful emotional learning experience listening to a shabbily-dressed street busker in Nashville sit down and play a song for me years ago at a bus stop.

One issue that people sometimes bring up to me about focusing on relationships is the following:

What’s the point of putting time and energy in relationships (work, personal, or other) when it’s so easy to get burned, betrayed or disappointed?

The answer is that even those relationships which end up burning you are not in vain.

They will teach you incredible lessons and be potential paths for strengthening the love and honesty you have with yourself.

What separates successful systems from unsuccessful systems?

So, what makes successful systems work better than others?

You may hear a lot of opinions out there but the answer is actually quite simple.

What separates successful systems from unsuccessful systems is consistency and congruence.

Here’s what I mean:

By consistency, I mean developing and honing the kind of core habits that lead to success and accomplishment.

By congruence, I mean that your habits and the steps of your action plan are in congruence – alignment – with your priorities, your own values, and your skills.

Successful systems are not just about hard work.

They’re about clarity.

Knowing what you want, what you’re good at, and how to get there – and then doing it every day consistently – is the key to winning at life.

Remember that you don’t have to do everything alone.

Life is a team sport, and reaching out for help and guidance is valuable in and of itself because of the trust and relationships it builds.

The best thing about successful systems is they are built on imperfection. You don’t need to be perfect or flawless: you just need to take action and have clarity and you will make progress.

What does success mean to you?

What is your vision and your goal?

Drop a comment below and let me know!

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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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