Provision #499: S.M.A.R.T. SYSTEMS

Laser Provision

It’s not enough to have S.M.A.R.T. goals. That can still take a lot of will-power, discipline, and work. We also have to undergird our S.M.A.R.T. goals with S.M.A.R.T. systems. By setting up as many things as possible to run without us, in accord with our values and purposes, we’re more likely to achieve and to maintain our goals over the long term. If your New Year’s Resolutions are beginning to slip or fade from view, then perhaps you should read on in order to make your systems Specific,Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

LifeTrek Provision

After sending out last week’s Provision, I came up with a new acronym with which to contrast S.M.A.R.T. goals, habits, stuff, and now systems. The opposite of S.M.A.R.T. things • Specific,Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely things • which move us forward and assist us to realize our resolutions is D.U.M.B. things • Dysfunctional, Uninspiring, Misfit, and Burdensome things • which hold us back and make it harder for dreams to come true.

How would you describe the things in your life? Are they S.M.A.R.T. or D.U.M.B.? The point of this series is to help us get smart. We don’t want everything to rely on will-power and self-discipline, which for most people are neither very powerful nor very dependable. We set out with the best of intentions, only to wear down in a matter of weeks. If that is happening to you, if your New Year’s Resolutions are beginning to slip or fade from view, then perhaps it’s time to look at your support strategies. Perhaps it’s time to paint S.M.A.R.T. systems into the picture of how you follow through on things and get things done.

In the past two weeks, I have written about the importance of S.M.A.R.T. habits Click and S.M.A.R.T. stuff Click. In their own ways, both habits and stuff are systems that either support or hinder our progress. Habits are systems of routine behavior that become so familiar and ingrained as to be virtually automatic. Making my morning fruit smoothie Click is one such habit for me. I know the drill, the what, when, where, how, and why of my breakfast routine. It never becomes boring, because I enjoy both making and drinking the smoothie. The fact that it both tastes good and is good for me seals the deal. This is one habit, like brushing my teeth, that’s here to stay.

And it doesn’t take much work. That’s what makes it a S.M.A.R.T. habit • I don’t have to force myself to do anything or even think about it ahead of time. Most of the ingredients can be purchased in bulk quantities and stored for long periods of time. I keep about a month’s supply on hand, with preset shipping instructions so that inventories are replenished automatically. Only the fresh pineapple and banana need to be purchased at local stores, as part of our weekly shopping routine.

Do you see how effortless this has become? We know what we want • so there’s no decisions to make • and we set up systems so that things come to us with a minimum of human intervention. S.M.A.R.T. systems will beat S.M.A.R.T. goals every time.

Probably the most famous S.M.A.R.T. system is the plan made popular by David Bach in his book,The Automatic Millionaire. With a title like that, you may think this is another fraudulent and specious get-rich-quick scheme. But nothing could be further from the truth. Bach recommends automatic, “set-it-and-forget-it” savings and investment plans that will add up, over the course of a lifetime, to a seven-figure retirement.

Here is what Bach calls the philosophy behind The Automatic Millionaire:

  • You don’t have to make a lot of money to be rich.
  • You don’t need discipline.
  • You don’t need to be “your own boss.” (Yes, you can still get rich being an employee.)
  • By using what Bach calls The Latte Factor, you can build a fortune on a few dollars a day.
  • The rich get rich (and stay that way) because they pay themselves first.
  • Homeowners get rich; renters get poor.
  • Above all, you need an “automatic system” so that you can’t fail.

If you read no further in this Provision, Bach’s seven principles already capture everything we need to know about S.M.A.R.T. systems. They don’t require a lot of money, discipline, effort, or gumption. They are S.M.A.R.T. precisely because they handle the details for us, once we set them up. Bach describes the process in these terms:

“What it all boils down to is this: if your financial plan is not automatic, you will fail! An investment plan that requires you to be disciplined and stick to a budget and write checks manually every couple of weeks simply will not work. You have a busy life. You don’t have time to sit down every few weeks and figure out how to save and whom to send checks to.” This just doesn’t work. “Yet this is what most Americans are trying to do. It is a recipe for frustration and failure.”

“What do I mean by a plan that is automatic? I mean a plan that, once you’ve set it up, allows you to go about your life and not spend a lot of time thinking • or, worse, worrying • about your money. You know why this matters? Because ultimately what is missing in our lives today … is a life! Make your financial plan automatic and one of the most powerful things you will get out of it is worry-free time • which ultimately means getting back more of your life.”


You can read the details of Bach’s plan by visiting his website, at But you already get the idea. Decide how much is enough for retirement. Set a figure. Then work backwards and calculate how much you would have to put away out of every paycheck to end up with that amount, including a reasonable annual return on your investment (that is, factoring in what Albert Einstein called the most powerful force in the universe • compound interest). Once you know the figure, arrange to have that amount automatically deducted out of your paycheck and deposited into your retirement fund. Pay yourself first • usually about 10% • then live and give on the rest.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? In fact, S.M.A.R.T. systems always appear disarmingly simple. That’s what makes them S.M.A.R.T.! They take the effort out of reaching our goals. As Bach writes, it’s far easier to figure out how to live on the rest (like skipping that expensive cup of coffee each morning) than to figure out how to live on a budget (watching what we spend in order to have enough left over to save.) The latter is a formula for disaster; the former is a formula for effortless success.

The more S.M.A.R.T. systems we can introduce in our lives, the better our lives will be. Here are some examples that come from my own life. My sister-in-law has been a blessing in many ways, but I cannot thank her enough for introducing me to a S.M.A.R.T. system for dealing with the inevitable paper statements, invoices, receipts, and bills that get stuffed in pockets and arrive in the mail daily.

For years I filed these items in folders labeled by vendor or type. I had folders for the gas bill, the mortgage payment, bank statements, and every every other receipt that came in the door. If I did not have a folder, then the bill went into a to-be-filed pile which would build up and contribute to some bills not being paid on time. Enter a S.M.A.R.T. system. My sister-in-law’s process, which I have effortlessly and successfully followed for years, files all this paperwork by year and month. At the beginning of every year, it’s out with the old and in with the new.

In my case, I like to save things for four years • in case disputes, questions, or audits arise. After four years, however, they all get discarded. The process is disarmingly simple. It takes less than an hour to throw out the oldest year and to recycle the folders for the current year. The system guarantees that everything always fits in the same filing cabinet. I know exactly when to throw things away, and nothing accumulates forever. With less than an hour of effort, I end up with 12 months of ease.

Another S.M.A.R.T. system is online banking and electronic bill pay. For most of my life, long before there was electronic banking technology, I wrote paper checks and reconciled my bank statements by hand. No more. Whatever can be automated has been automated. I literally do nothing on a monthly basis for routine bills, like utilities, to get paid. Even the bills I still authorize are paid electronically. The interface with my accounting software (Quicken for personal, QuickBooks for LifeTrek) means that I only have to touch things once. Enter it in the ledger, synchronize electronically, and it’s done.

Paychecks are the same way. Enter, click, done. All reporting, filing, and hassles are handled by others. So too with most other financial affairs, including bank reconciliations. Enter, click, done. I would never want to go back to a D.U.M.B. system, because of the time and support staff required to keep such systems alive.

My daughter-in-law recently introduced another S.M.A.R.T. system into my life. As an avid and longtime reader of LifeTrek Provisions, she knows that our blog has been poorly maintained Click. She also knows the kinds of things that we are focusing on from week to week. She has therefore offered to become our virtual blogger. Instead of adding blog updates to my own to-do list, I have discharged that responsibility to someone I trust. When she finds appropriate links, she adds them to the blog. I, in turn, get automatically notified by the blog of her posts, enabling me to do a quick scan for consistency, integrity, and quality.

Such assistants, whether virtual or real, are great examples of S.M.A.R.T. systems. The more you can delegate and share responsibility with other people, the more you can get done in the world and still have a life. That, as David Bach has already noted, is the real tour de force of S.M.A.R.T. systems: they make possible a healthy rhythm between work and rest. By eliminating the “should” from getting things done, they free people up to do what they love and to love what they do.

Coach Phil Humbert describes S.M.A.R.T. systems as “personal ecosystems.” Here is what he has to say about them:

The fact is, that too many people are trying to create beauty while surrounded by chaos. They are trying to achieve wonderful goals, but their energy and focus are on running errands or “swatting mosquitoes.” It’s very hard to achieve great things when you’re swimming up-stream all the time!

To create the life you truly want, you need systems that automatically carry you down-stream toward your ultimate goals. Design your office, your home, your schedule and your relationships so they “conspire” to help you get there! Talk with loved ones so they actively support you! Eliminate clutter and replace it with equipment, furnishings and tools that make you smile, that energize you, and keep you focused. Design a schedule that includes time for your most important daily priorities. 

I trust you get the idea. It’s not enough to have S.M.A.R.T. goals. We need S.M.A.R.T. systems to undergird the process of reaching and maintaining our goals. When that happens, there’s no end to the progress we can make.

Coaching Inquiries: What are the systems like in your life? Do they make it easier or harder for you to move forward? How could you make your systems smarter? How could you put more things into a set-it-and-forget-it mode? How could you stop working so hard and worrying so much? Who could assist you to audit your systems and collaborate on designing new ones?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

You make an amazing job!! I think I am becoming a better human being, right here in Argentina, thanks to your Provisions. Thaaaaank yooouuuu LifeTrek Team !!!!!!!!

Thanks, for your continually fresh and helpful coaching.

I really appreciated your Provisions on the topic of setting and achieving S.M.A.R.T. goals. However, I was a bit concerned about the example you gave of the person who sets a goal to remove all grain, dairy, and processed food products from his or her home. Although I understand the health benefits of setting such a goal, I was concerned by the mental picture you offered of the person throwing away all of the unwanted food.

How about an alternate picture of throwing away the perishable items, but setting the non-perishables aside to donate to a local food pantry or homeless shelter? I realize that you may not believe these foods are appropriate for anyone to consume, but those who are fighting to survive on the street, or those who have dedicated their lives to helping them, might disagree.

From my perspective, simply throwing away food that might be used to feed the hungry is poor stewardship. I believe that those of us who have been blessed with the privilege of being able to choose exactly what we eat have an obligation to give of our surplus to those who are not so fortunate. (Ed. Note: I stand corrected. The archive edition, Click, has been modified in accord with your suggestion. Thanks!) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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