I’ve been looking at this a bit lately, and I think I finally get why systems are ultimately more successful than goals.
We’ve all set goals. And we’ve all failed at them.
Working toward a big goal means you have an end target. Lose 10 pounds, write a book in six months, run a marathon. All worthy goals, but the problem is you just have that one measure of success. The success happens once, right at the end of all your efforts.
It’s too easy to give up, because until you reach that end goal you’re not getting the intrinsic reward of success.
Contrast that with a system. You might decide in order to lose weight you’ll eat at least five serves of vegetables a day. To write a book, your system might include writing 500 words every day for six months. Or to run that marathon, you download a training plan and decide you’ll do the prescribed workout every morning at six before work.
When you have a system, you succeed every time you adhere to it. Every day that you eat five serves of vegetables, write 500 words, or follow your training plan, you succeed.
And success feels good. Which motivates you to continue.
In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says “Goals are for losers.” He goes on to explain:
“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 intend to do.”
I love a good system, and every time I work my system instead of aiming for some future goal I get a lot more done. Adams’s explanation for why is the best I’ve ever read.
It just makes sense, right?
Let’s look a little closer at the goal of writing a book in six months.
It’s not a bad goal. Definitely doable. You set to work on day one, doing your research, maybe jotting down some notes. You’re doing it. Day two, some more notes, maybe even some decent words. Great!
Day three is a shit-fight at work, and you don’t manage to get around to your book project. Not to worry, you’ve got six months. You’ll get back on track tomorrow.
But tomorrow the shit-fight carries over, and then the next day you’re just too damn tired, and before you know it you’re a month in and you’ve barely looked at that book project again.
You resolve to get back on track, and for a few more days you work on the book project. But that goal of a finished book seems so far away, and it’s hard to regain the enthusiasm you had at the start.
Besides those first couple of days, did you ever feel good about the project? How easy would it be to just give up now?
We’ve all been there.
Contrast that with a systems approach. You still have the same goal — write a book in six months. But this time, you have a system. You focus on the process.
You recognise how often work can turn into a shit-fight, and you either schedule your writing time for before work, or you factor enough off days into your schedule that it doesn’t matter. Or maybe you do both. Then you reward yourself with a tick in a box or a mark on the calendar every day when your writing is done.
Whatever you decide your system is, you work it. You write every morning for an hour, or until you reach a pre-determined word count. Or maybe your system is to just do something every day. Whatever it is, you do what you intended to do, and you mark off your success. Your system is working. You feel great, excited to do it all again the next day.
Even when that inevitable shit-fight occurs at work, it doesn’t matter. You’ve already done your writing, or you’ve factored in enough days off to compensate. It doesn’t derail you. Indeed, it has a positive effect. You’re still getting it done, because your system is working.
As Adams says:
“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.”
Your personal energy. That’s it in a nutshell, I reckon. We humans are capable of so much more than we think we are.
So coming back to the original question, do we have to have goals?
I think goals are still important, but not as important as the systems we put in place to harness our personal energy and achieve them.
Goals are nice to have, but if you want to get stuff done, systems are essential.