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Systems vs Goals

Trong Nguyen
June 3rd, 2021

I’m always failed at exercising regularly. It usually starts with passion, the first week is awesome and motivated. But the next week, it becomes less and less. I set my goal to exercise at least 5 times a week, then decrease to 4 times, then 3 times,… Then no exercise.

I always try to find the reason why I often failed to exercise. One of the reasons I found is about my personality. I’m the kind of person who usually gets bored after a period of doing something. Not only for exercising, but for all of my hobbies.

Another reason is that I’m not persistent enough. And persistence is hard.

Neither of those two reasons helps solve my problem. They are just facts, not actionable items. But I found an answer in the book ‘How to fail at almost everything and still win big’ by Scott Adam: Building systems instead of goals.

Why systems versus goals?

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life is to set specific, actionable goals. But Scott Adam realized that his results had very little to do with the goals he set and nearly everything to do with the systems he followed. Here’s one real-world example from this book: blogging.

When he first started blogging, his future wife often asked about what his goal was. The blogging seemed to double his workload while promising a 5% higher income. His rationale:

Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of his system involves practicing regularly. He didn’t know what he was practicing for.

The second part of his blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. He wrote on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of his blog posts, they asked him to write some guest features. Thanks to all of his writing practice, the guest articles were highly popular. From there, he attracted the attention of book publishers and turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests.

So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but he didn’t know in advance what path it would take. His blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.

Problems with goals

Winners and losers have the same goals.

Every candidate wants to get the job. Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Winners and losers have the same goal, then goals can’t differentiate the winners from the losers. The difference was only when they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that they achieved a different outcome.

Goals restrict your happiness.

James Clear mentioned in his post:

‘The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.’

I’ve slipped into this trap so many times. When I worked on big projects, my happiness depended upon the outcome, when the projects launched and brought good results. But most of them are failed with negative results. So I labeled myself as a loser or an ordinary designer.

Now I have learned that if I fall in love with the process rather than the outcome, I don’t have to wait to permit myself to be happy. I can be satisfied any time my system is running.

Goals are at odds with long-term progress.

Finally, a goal-oriented mindset can create a ‘yo-yo’ effect. Many runners work hard for months, they get a gold medal and they feel terrific. But as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training, they lost the thing that gave them purpose and direction.

‘The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.’

– James Clear

So are goals completely useless?

Of course not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

Let’s see some examples of system-versus-goals model. In the world of dieting, losing 20kg is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but being active daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

Hi, I'm Trong, product designer living in Singapore. I write to practice, and write to find ideas. Nice to meet you!
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