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Forget about goals: How being focused on the diaper-free goal can hinder your EC progress (part 1 of Atomic Habits + EC)

Translations of this post: Italian

how to botch potty learning & EC

Teeny, tiny changes can massively impact your baby's potty habits and also affect your long-term outcome with elimination communication and potty training.

(Like, will you fail or will you succeed?)

Today we are going to take a look at Atomic Habits, a book by James Clear, and how James’ theories apply to elimination communication and potty learning.

I'm very much looking forward to this short series on the podcast, where we explore little things that I've learned while reading James' book.

How focusing on goals can cause us to fail

So, the first thing I want to talk about today is on page 23 of his book. When doing EC, we have a lot of goals inside our hearts and heads that we don't really share with other people, like:

"I want my child to be out of diapers by 12 months like Andrea's was (or 9 months, or 17 months).”

We have graduation goals, we have age goals, we have timelines in our heads. But sometimes our goals take the front seat and can actually sabotage us.

I'm really curious about what it is that causes some people to slide off the EC wagon and end up having to potty train later...and what it is that enables other people to enjoy the success of EC being completely effortless, like most of my children have been. (All of them have been pretty seamless in completing.)

In the beginning of James' book, he talks about how what we're focusing on is the wrong thing. Not that we're wrong in what we're trying to achieve, but that we are focusing on the wrong thing.

So today, we're going to talk about his section called, “Forget about goals and focus on systems instead.” I want to start out by defining atomic habits:

“a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of a system of growth” (page 27).

Atomic habits are not just any old habits. If they're little, they don't necessarily count as atomic habits. Atomic habits are little habits that are part of a larger system. They are the building blocks of remarkable results.

And the way that I teach EC in my free easy start guide, or in my book, or all over this podcast and blog, is to give you guys little bitty building blocks, things that you can do that will give you a lot of results.

Again, we have goals of graduation and everything, and a diaper-free baby. Back in the day, I would always say:

"Hey, EC is about communication, not completion. If you focus on completion, you're probably going to cause undue pressure on your baby, and it's probably going to backfire, causing potty pauses, etc.”

So I do agree with that, but I also think we need to acknowledge (and I say this in my book over and over again) that we do have an end result and desire, and we do deserve to have completion.

We deserve to say, "Okay, it's time for me, the parent, to stop putting this child in diapers."

Yes, there is an end goal and we are aware of it...but during the process of doing EC, well before you're at that goal of "Hey, at 14 months I want to be out of diapers," we don't want to focus on that outcome.

We need to focus on the process, not the outcome

So just like with reading: we teach our kids the alphabet, and eventually they learn the song, and eventually it all comes out in the same order. And then eventually they start to recognize words and sounds on the page. And the end goal is: we want fluent readers.

But during “learning the ABC song,” we aren't hyper-focusing on “you're going to be a fluent reader because of this song.”

No, we're enjoying singing the song with our children.

So that's the gist of it.

Over the next few episodes, we'll dig into atomic habits, the specific little tiny things we can do to make EC and potty learning easier in our households.

Today, let's discuss...

Focusing on the system, not on the goal.

This is a real big mindset shift with starting any kind of EC or potty learning with your child. Whether you've been listening to this podcast for a while now, maybe you're already in the thick of it, or maybe you're wanting to wrap it up - this applies to every stage of EC and potty training.

James says, “Forget about goals, focus on the systems instead.” He says that “the prevailing wisdom in our culture is to set specific actionable goals.”

You've heard it a million times. I came from Toyota, that was my first job out of school. They taught me to make S.M.A.R.T. goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

That's our focus as a culture: goals!

James began to realize that his results, whether he failed or succeeded, had very little to do with the goals that he set and nearly everything to do with the systems that he followed.

He defines goals as the results that you want to achieve and systems as the processes that lead to those results. 

So an example is, if you're a coach, your goal might be to win a game. Your system is the way you pick your players, you manage your other coaches, and you practice with your team.

With EC or potty training, the goal is - the results are - we want diaper-free children or babies.

The system is this process that leads to this result of diaper freedom: doing day-to-day EC.

Let's focus just on EC with the next few parts here.

We have the four easy catches: waking up, the pottytunity when they're pooping, at every diaper change, and transition times.

We have day-to-day EC where we're aware of the four roads to potty time, which are the baby's signals, the baby's natural timing, transition times, and your own intuition.

You see there are all these little things that are part of the process of doing day to day EC and pottying your baby.

(And these can all be broken down into tiny little atomic habits that we'll talk about over the next few episodes.)

So that's the system. The system is doing day-to-day EC.

The goal is I want a diaper-free child.

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed and achieve that goal?

I say, absolutely yes.

This is the way that I've done EC. I only focus on the system, and yeah, I might have it in my mind that, around walking, we're going to stop using diapers.

An example: Twyla has only taken four steps in the last six weeks and that's all she's doing. So, I don't feel like it's time, but I know that that's part of the process. But I don't have this hard end-date in mind.

I completely ignore my goals, and I focus only on my systems with all my kids. And I have still succeeded with them being diaper-free, at an age between 9 and 17 months, which works for us.

James agrees (I think you would) as well. He gives us again the analogy of sports. “The goal of any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals, focus on your system instead.

He also goes on to say that “goals are really great for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

What parents who are failing at EC are missing

A lot of you who have stopped doing EC, or feel like you're wanting to stop, or you're just kind of stunted right now - you're not making progress with EC. Yes, you have a good goal, you have good direction, but you don't have a really good system underneath you for making that progress. I think you'd agree.

James says, “A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.”

So next we're going to go through the four problems that he says come along with focusing on goals instead of the whole process.

When we spend too much time thinking about “I'm going to be diaper-free at 14 months,” we do not spend enough time designing, “How are we going to get there? What are we going to do today to make this happen? What is our process?”

Problem #1: Winners and losers all have the same goals.

The first problem with being goal-oriented is that winners and losers all have the same goals. The person who falls off the EC wagon and the person who succeeds...maybe both of their goals are to be diaper-free between 12 and 18 months.

The difference is, the one who implements a system of continuous small improvements will achieve success.

For example, one person is winging it off of information they found for free off the internet. The other person is invested in my book and my minicourses and is totally educated about EC.

This person, the second person with a system, will be more likely to achieve their goal (because in my books I teach about these continuous little small steps, things that you can do along the way).

The book, my EC system, also includes access to support from a community and failsafes - if this doesn't work, try this.

And it sets a really good foundation for a focused process. This is a process, "Hey, be prepared. EC is a process, and this is what it could look like.”

This solid foundation creates resiliency and helps parents stay the course.

And I think James is saying the same thing, like, Yeah, people who win and people who lose have the same goals, but the ones with a system are the ones that come out ahead.

Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change

The second problem with being goal-oriented, he says, is “achieving a goal is only a momentary change.” I love this one.

When you solve problems at their result level, like “we've reached our goal,” you only solve them temporarily.

In order to improve for good, for the long haul, you need to solve problems at the systems level.

So, we've got a problem and we fix one thing, but the whole thing is broken because we don't know what we're doing.

Or we say “hey, we're diaper free; yay, we've reached our goals.” We never really set a foundation or a system to back ourselves up, or we don't have any community or people to ask for advice. And after that diaper freedom happens, we may have a huge increase in accidents and don't know what to do.

If this is you, it's not your fault. It's because you lack a system to catch you when you fall.

Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness

The third problem with being goal-oriented is that goals restrict your happiness. You guys, I love this one so much. How many of you have said:

“Once I reach my goal, then I'll be happy. Once I lose 20 pounds, then I'll be happy. Once I write an article that gets posted on Huffington Post, I'm going to be successful.” (Whatever it is for you.)

The problem with a goals-first mentality is you're totally putting happiness off until the next milestone instead of living in happiness.

Goals make an either-or conflict. Either you achieve your goal and are successful, or you fail and you're a disappointment. It's black and white.

It's unlikely that your actual path with EC will match the exact journey that you had in mind when you set out. And James says it makes no sense to restrict your happiness to just one scenario when there are so many paths to success. This is so true with EC.

A systems-first mentality provides the antidote - when you fall in love with the process rather than the product.

Doing EC day-to-day is what we need to love, rather than falling in love with the goal of “I'm going to be diaper-free at 14 months.”

You don't have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. “You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”

Which, in EC terms, means you can be satisfied anytime you have an awareness of doing EC in your house. Even if you're currently feeling like a failure, it's okay.

A system can be successful in so many different forms, not just the one you first envision.

So how do we apply this to EC?

If your EC journey does not look like Andrea Olson's, or yours doesn't look like you thought it would, that's okay. A system is a lot more lenient than just having a hard and fast goal. Your journey can and will differ, and will look beautifully different from mine and others. 

Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress

And then lastly today, our fourth problem with being goal-oriented about EC and anything in life, goals are at odds with long-term progress. I am just going to read you two paragraphs from his book, as animated as I can (on the podcast, that is!). And then I'm going to chime in about how this applies to EC. And I hope that this gives you a little bit of a paradigm shift today. That's my hope.

Okay, so James writes:

"Finally, a goal-oriented mindset can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them."

Kind of like with EC, right?

“When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.”

Like if you're potty training an older child, you reach that goal and then everything falls apart because you're no longer motivated for this bigger picture thing. You revert to using diapers and try again later.

Now for the second paragraph:

"The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. It's the process. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking, goal free. It's not about a single accomplishment,” and EC isn't either. “It's about this cycle of endless and continuous improvement and refinement. Ultimately, it's your commitment to the process that will determine your progress."

This process of EC includes building a deep connection with your baby. We’re building this beautiful two-way communication. It's learning your baby on all the levels, including potty needs. It's building trust. The process of day-to-day habits includes EC, but is so much more!

We're not doing a thing. EC isn't just a thing. This is a way of life, a way of being, and it is a long-term plan. You are teaching good hygiene skills from as early as birth to 18 months. That's what EC is all about.

Where is the progress...and what is the problem?

I think that it's important to know that, when we are goal-oriented, we're not looking at the big picture. When we are focused on loving the process, even loving the ugly and challenging parts of EC, that's where things become a lot more joyful.

And actually, that's where we see progress with EC (or potty training, alike.).

So to conclude, if you're having trouble with EC or potty training, the problem isn't you. The problem is your system.

I would like to invite you, if you don't have it already, to get my free easy start guide for EC, or my free 3-day potty training primer and to begin to get a system under your belt, so that you will stop having problems with EC or potty training. If you want to take it to another level, get one of my books.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals,” James says, “you fall to the level of your system.”

So basically that means: if you don't know what you're doing, you're going to fall further...and many people give up and fail. If this is you, you need to have something really certain and a good foundation, not just wing it.

When the process sucks

Again, atomic habits are regular bits of a practice or routine that are not only small and easy to do, but are also the source of incredible power, a component of the system of growth.

So in the following episodes on this podcast - I'm so excited - we will apply more of the stuff from Atomic Habits, this book by James Clear, to EC and potty training - including which atomic habits specifically will help us commit to a system of potty use that will bring us and our babies joy - and make this easier - and finishable.

If the process sucks, why would you want to keep doing it?

Why would you want to keep doing EC if it's terrible every single day?

Elimination communication can become a drag when you're focused on the goal, not the process. And that's where we need to love the process and not be focused on completion every single day. 

Two small examples of other atomic habits in my life

  1. My new habit of going to the gym three days a week is not “go to the gym every morning, three days a week.” It is “put on your gym shoes and your clothes and get in the car.” That is the atomic habit that I've cultivated for making gym-time a reality.
  2. For doing yoga in my living room, I do not say “I'm going to do yoga in my living room twice a week.” I say “I'm going to get my mat out and unroll it onto the floor and open my computer.” That is the atomic habit that allows the habit of “consistent yoga” to happen. 

So, yeah! We will be looking at the atomic habits (like the ones above), the tiny little things you can do to improve your ECing, over the next episode or two. I'm not sure yet how many episodes we'll do with this, but I want to give you some really specific takeaways.

For today, the big takeaway is:

If you're having trouble with EC, the problem isn't you. The problem is your system.

You're focusing on the end goal and not the process, so stop that right now.

If you have any questions for me about today's episode, just leave them below and I would love to talk to you in the comments.

Meanwhile, definitely subscribe on iTunes and leave a review if you feel like you want other people to learn about elimination communication over here on iTunes. And thank you so much for being here. I'm Andrea Olson, and this has been the Go Diaper Free Podcast at I'll see you next time.

Are you focusing on the goal or the process? Please share your ah-hah moments with us below!


PS - here’s the video version of this episode in case you prefer to YouTube it. ;)

Andrea Olson

About Andrea Olson

I'm Andrea and I spend most of my time with my 6 children (all under 12 yo) and the rest of my time teaching other new parents how to do Elimination Communication with their 0-18 month babies. I love what I do and try to make a difference in one baby or parent's life every single day. (And I love, love, love, mango gelato.)


  1. Avatar Hannah L on December 17, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    Great post! I’m a reader (rather than a listener/watcher) and I enjoyed the new reading layout. I’m especially looking forward to the next episodes about applying atomic habits to EC. I have a five month old and am currently planning to start ECing part-time when he is a decent sitter (also have older boy and feel I don’t want to spend time holding baby over potty, would like to be able to just sit him on it so I can have free hands, older boy tends to act out when he sees my hands are occupied!).

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on December 30, 2019 at 8:40 pm

      Hi Hannah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Many people choose to wait until baby can sit independently, it does make it a little easier with a rambunctious sibling in the house! You can also get older brother involved in baby’s potty routine. Bringing the potty, “reading” books, singing, etc. xx Andrea

  2. Avatar Diana on December 18, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Great post! This made my day, reducing my stress over my potty training of 18 month old son. At first I set a goal that he should be potty trained as early as possible. Yeah, I should’ve enjoyed our potty learning moment, that we were building a better communication through it. Plus, we just started late EC since 3 months ago. My son only gives signal when he’s about to poo but not with the pee, so I’ve been struggling with his signaling for pee. Is it OK if the goal is “my son is able to give signal when he’s about to pee” no matter what age he is?
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to joining your coach training program next month so I can use the knowledge to my potty learning journey with my son and spread the knowledge to many parents in Indonesia!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on December 30, 2019 at 8:44 pm

      Thanks Diana! I am so glad it helped reduce your stress. The communication will come, just keep modeling the signal you want to see/hear. Yay! I can’t wait to see you in class!! You are going to have a lot of experience to share with others. xx Andrea

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