Systems vs Goals: Why You Need Systems, Not Goals

Goals are a trap. In your life, you want systems. Not goals.

I know. That’s probably the opposite of what you’ve been reading throughout your life.

After all, from an early age. We are thought to set goals.

  • Where to go to school.
  • Which books to read.
  • What company to work for.

But here’s a fun challenge. Imagine your life when all of your goals are met.

  • Say you do end up in the school you wanted to.
  • Say you do read the books you wanted to.
  • Say you do get a job at the company you dreamed about.

What will happen next?

  • Setting a goal to enter a specific college doesn’t mean that you’ll learn something nor make you a learner.
  • Setting a goal to read a few books won’t mean that you’ll understand what’s inside nor make you a reader.
  • Setting a goal to get a particular job will unlikely keep you satisfied for the rest of your adult life.

The paradox of goal-setting is that when we reach our goals. While we can experience joy. That’s something temporary. We’re back to not knowing what to do with our lives.

In contrast, a system will help you improve daily. It will focus you on who you want to be as a person every day. Not who you want to become some future day.

What Is The Difference Between A Goal And A System?

Goals are merely a representation of the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes, the daily habits, that will lead to those results.

  • Goals help you set direction, but they are nothing on their own. They are focused on a future state.
  • Systems are about the things you need to do daily, that will make you the person you want to be. They are focused on the present.

Scott Adams, the author who first introduced me to the importance of systems vs goals. Offers the following on the topic from his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

“Consider Olympic athletes. When one Olympian wins a gold medal, or multiple gold medals, it’s a headline story. But for every medalist there are thousands who had the goal of being on that podium and failed. Those people had goals and not systems.” Scott Adams

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits says this on the topic:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear

And to make the case even stronger on why systems are better than goals. Here’s a simple systems vs goals example:

You set a goal to lose 30 pounds by the end of the year.

Initially, your motivation is sky-high. You go to the gym with a big smile and a bag full of motivation. With time, your stamina gets lower and lower. You keep going but you don’t push yourself that much.

Despite the odds, let’s imagine that you do end up 30 pounds lighter by the end of the year. You’re ecstatic. But most importantly, you feel relieved. You boldly cross off your goal from your notebook and enthusiastically share this with your friends on social media.

What will happen next?

Well, if your goal was simply to lose weight this one time. You eventually have to set the goal again. Because, you never bothered to convince yourself that being in good shape should be part of your daily life. Not a singular goal. (That’s why I said that asking: How Many Days Does It Take to Form a Habit is a wrong approach.)

effort-when-you-focus-on-goals
What happens when you set a goal to lose weight? You stop exercising when you reach your goal and you gain weight again.

Conversely, if you focus on the system of working out daily. In your mind, you don’t have an end date. You’ve permanently implemented working out in your daily life.

effort-when-you-focus-on-systems
What happens when you set a system to maintain your weight? You daily exercise and you are always in shape.

That’s why I define systems vs goals in the following way:

Goals are good intentions with an end date whereas systems are daily actions without an ending.

What Is The Problem With Goals?

Our results have little to do with what goals we set and everything to do with the systems we follow.

You can set the most ambitious goal in your life and still fail. Mostly because you didn’t design a good daily routine.

But that’s only part of the problem.

Goals immediately set you in a state of defeat.

The underlying concept when you set a goal is that you’re a failure until you reach your goal.

For instance, if I set a goal to read 100 books this year. I’ll feel worthless if I don’t achieve it.

If I set a goal to start a small business and earn $5000 a month. I’ll curse every day until I reach that number.

Here’s Scott Adams again on the topic:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.” Scott Adams

setting-goals-vs-setting-systems
When you set a goal. You are happy only when you achieve your goal. When you set daily systems. You are happy every time you apply your system.

Despite feeling like a failure, there are a couple of other common problems that arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals:

  • Goals focus you on the wrong things: Say you do read 100 books – if that’s your goal. That doesn’t make you a continuous learner. You can still lag behind your peers. Adding more volume to your reading funnel doesn’t guarantee smartness. Your goal with books shouldn’t necessarily involve reading more. But learning, understanding, and applying more.
  • Everybody can set goals: There is no barrier when setting a goal. It’s free. And interestingly, winners and losers have the same goals. Everybody sets a goal to lose weight at the beginning of the year – few end up thinner.
  • Achieving a goal is temporary: Having a goal to purchase a brand new car is not uncommon. Every breathing person on the planet wants to show off. But say you do get a car. For how long do you think you’ll be happy? Months? Probably. Years? I doubt it. If deep down, you believe that items should fix your mood, you’ll never attain joy. Happiness will be ever fleeting.

What are goals good for?

Yes, goals are not completely useless.

These are the main advantages of setting goals:

  1. Direction: Goals are good for setting direction in your life. You can boldly acclaim that you’ll become a writer. By doing so, you’re no longer directionless. You have the base to set daily systems.
  2. Decision-making: Goals help you filter incoming information and make decisions. For instance, if you have to pick between jobs, you’ll choose the one that contributes to your goal – a.k.a., the person you want to be. Or, if you’re wondering what to read. You can focus on the material that will get you closer to your goal.

A goal can point the way, but a system does the heavy lifting.

Why Are Systems Better Than Goals?

“Yes, but I have daily goals and I keep a to-do list,” you might say.

A simple twist we all do in relation to goals is to set daily goals.

Not write a book.

But have a goal to write daily.

While this is better. It still lacks resilience.

A daily goal answers what to do. But fails to answer when and how exactly to do it.

That’s mainly why systems are better than goals.

Saying that I want to write daily is easy.

Actually writing daily is hard.

You need to design a system and take into account unusual circumstances.

For instance, I write every morning between 05:00 and 08:00 AM for a simple reason: There are fewer things that can go wrong. Fewer things that can disturb my morning writing session.

  • It’s quiet.
  • No one to call or message me.
  • My wife and kid are sleeping.
  • My mind is pure. Unviolated from the outside noise – e.g., emails, demands from others, pop-up messages on websites…

If I had the daily goal to write daily but if I didn’t specify a particular time and place to write. I would never be able to publish 150 book summaries and over 300 articles.

And to go a step further. Specifying time and place is still not enough.

You need to think in advance about what can go wrong and prepare for these things.

How Do You Create a System Instead of Goals?

If you’re looking to substantially increase your chances of winning in life. And by winning, here I mean experiencing more pleasant sensations over negative ones. You need to design your life around the things you want to do. Not let things you don’t want to do consume your time.

The exercise requires a bit of going out of your comfort zone and a sip of planning.

So, to create a system based on the person you want to be or become. You need to answer the following five questions:

  1. What?
  2. Why?
  3. When?
  4. What’s needed in advance?
  5. Can I keep doing it daily?

Here’s an example with my daily habit of writing:

What?

  • Write.

Why?

  • I’m/want to become a writer.

When?

  • Between 05:00 and 08:00 AM.

What’s needed in advance?

  • Two alarms to wake me up.
  • Mat and dumbbells are positioned so I can have a quick workout session before writing.
  • The coffee machine is clean and ready.
  • Writing section prepared – laptop, notebook, headphones.
  • A clear idea of what I will write about.

Can I keep doing it daily?

  • Yes, I only have to ensure that I’ll be in bed on time and also take one or two naps during the day.

Instead of doing all of the above, I could have said that I want to become a writer. That my goal is to become a writer and after that try to find time to write.

But where will this lead me?

Most probably not becoming an ink slinger.

Conversely, when you set a daily system. You create the infrastructure for the desired habit.

All of the above questions are equally important.

Let’s go through them real quick:

Answering “What?” clearly defines what you’re going to do.

Addressing “Why?” is about the person you want to become.

When you define “When?”, it’s no longer a vague claim. You’ve scheduled the activity.

Considering “What’s needed in advance?” sets the scene. This is something I’ve stolen from cooks. In particular, the famous mise en place technique. It’s a culinary phrase that means “putting in place”. In other words, you are organizing and arranging the ingredients needed for the dish you are going to prepare.

Similarly, before going to bed. I’m organizing my writing corner in the evening in order to remove obstacles that can prevent me from writing in the morning. This way, I am predisposed to succeed.

And the part: “Can I keep doing it daily?”, ensures that you can keep doing this activity over a long period of time.

The last section is something I see as an error quite often.

People deciding to lose weight set nearly impossible daily regimes. No wonder why they quickly return to their usual lifestyle.

I’ve done this myself numerous times.

The most recent example is with my newsletter: The Study Newsletter.

At first, I was sending out weekly emails. Eventually, I realized that this is not sustainable if I want to publish more articles on my site. So, instead of quitting. I simply iterated. I asked, “How can I publish more articles while keeping my newsletter running?” The answer led to a simple rearrangement. So, I now send my newsletter twice a month instead of every week.

When creating a system, you need to find balance.

This question will guide you: “What’s the bare minimum I can do daily that can have a meaningful result?”

Obviously, writing 2 sentences per day won’t make me a writer. But 500 words? Much better.

I maintain the same approach in relation to a list of good habits: investing, my reading habits, and exercising, to mention a few.

For instance, I’ve come to terms that I’m not going to become ultra muscular. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t work out daily.

I do. I’m workout out for at least 20 minutes every day. It doesn’t sound like much. But this simple habit keeps me in good shape.

What Makes a Good System?

Hopefully, by now, you’re convinced why you need systems not goals.

Building systems and implementing them in your daily life will not only help you reach success once. They will position you in an always-wining state.

And what makes a good daily system?

Very simple: One that runs daily.

That’s what we are doing with the above questions.

We are preventing failure. Preventing the system from malfunctioning.

When you are creating your system don’t assume you’ll want to do what you’re planning to do. Assume the opposite – assume you won’t want to do what you’ve planned.

Saying that you want to block an hour to write if you want to become a writer is not enough.

Blocking an hour is something small. Seems easy and repeatable. But it’s not resilient.

You need to ask yourself: What can sabotage my system?

In my case, the first thing that can prevent me from writing is not getting up. Alarms do help. But they can be easily dismissed. What really gets me up is my desire to be a writer. And in addition, something much smaller – the preparation. When I don’t want to get up. I tell myself, “Dude, you’ve prepared everything for this morning. Your keyboard is waiting for you. Get up!”

Secondly, cleaning my coffee machine and all the other activities are all things that will slow me down if I do them in the morning. Besides, preparing my coffee machine is undoubtedly not one of my favorite morning activities. That’s why I do this tedious chore the night before. This way, when I get up, I simply have to press a button to have a nice cup of espresso. I remove all obstacles for my sleepy morning self.

A third thing is not being clear on what to write about. Mornings are not so good for making decisions. A least for me. That’s why I decide in advance what will be the agenda for the morning. I ensure that I have a topic to write about plus some notes to guide me. If I don’t have this ready, I usually waste the morning.

Other blockers might include checking social media – thankfully, I quit this corner of the internet a while back. And focusing on being perfect instead of making progress.

Here I mean that I write first, and then I edit. I don’t stress so much about getting it all right. I can have a lot of grammar mistakes and unlogical sentences in the first draft. The idea is to have an outline ready. To let my idea flow. I worry about mistakes later.

After this quick detour, let’s use the above framework to create a system for working out:

What?

  • Exercise.

Why?

  • To feel comfortable in my own skin.

When?

  • Right after work.

What’s needed in advance?

  • Clothes are ready in my backpack and the backpack is in my car.
  • Avoid heavy meals at least an hour before going to the gym.
  • Schedule an appointment with my workout buddy.

Can I keep doing it daily?

  • The gym is on my way home. In case I don’t have enough time to go to the gym. I have all the equipment I need in my house to do a quick workout.

One additional thing that can reinforce your system is to use the self-control technique called temptation bundling.

Using the example mentioned above, this will mean the following: You allow yourself to listen to your favorite podcast or play an audiobook only when you are exercising. This way, you will further motivate yourself to perform your system because it comes with extra perks – you do something enjoyable.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are many different definitions of a system and a variety of resources that tackle the topic of systems vs goals.

The technicalities are not that important.

The main thing that should concern you is the following:

“What type of person do I want to be/become?”

The answer to this question will transform what was initially a goal into daily, repeatable processes – i.e., identity-based habits.

Additionally, once you know what type of person you want to become. Cultivating daily systems will be much easier – plus, you will finally cross the Plateau of Latent Potential.

After all, if you want to be a healthy person, you’ll dodge unhealthy activities.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s going to be a walk-in-the-park easy. And that you won’t detour into a route full of “cholesterol-heavy” meals occasionally. We are all humans and all screw up from time to time. But at least you’ll know where to return to.

Furthermore, the thing that is way more important. The concept that systems are better than goals will alter your thinking.

It will focus you on continuous improvement. Not on one-time successes.

We set goals to win one time. But we set systems for the purpose of continuing to win.

Do yourself a favor:

Join The Study Newsletter: A laid back newsletter about very serious ideas from even more serious books – and not only. Great for lifelong learners, creators, & wanderers alike.

Share with others: