Goals vs Systems

Goals reduce your current happiness. When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”

That’s a quote from an article on Entrepreneur.com, which was first published at JamesClear.com. It was inspired by an article on The Wall Street Journal, which was adapted from the book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” which I have not read. But I was introduced to this concept by a certain Master Programmer, and now I will extend this short chain of article references with my own amateur blag post.

The idea is simple, but takes some courage to embrace. Setting goals puts you in a situation where you are currently failing until you finally reach that goal.When you reach your goal, you become successful–for an instant. Suddenly you find yourself without the driving force that led you there. You can either stop moving forward, rest on your laurels until it stops being satisfying, or make a higher goal and re-enter the cycle of “pre-success failure,” as the article puts it.

Instead, the article seems to propose a better way to get things done: put systems in place that will not only take you to your goals, but also motivate you both before and after. Make your goals, develop systems that will take you to those goals, then put the goals out of mind and focus on your system as you live each day. Every time you follow your system, you are succeeding. Perhaps “system” is just another word for “habit,” and we have been hearing about the habits of successful people and the power of habit for a while. In a physics metaphor, goals give you direction and systems give you velocity. This all reminds me of GTD, which focuses heavily on the Next Action. Goals are un-doable by nature; action is necessary for progress, and systems make you take action.

Let’s apply this new method to my own organizational life. I think my current system (sadly abandoned in 2014) attempted to implement systems by defining more and more granular goals until they became tiny actionable items on a to-do list. But in my system I had to create the Next Action as I went along. I reviewed my actions daily and judged whether they led me to my goals. This created cognitive overhead and stress. Instead, systems should generate the Next Action, either by repetition (if you want to write a novel, write 1,667 words every day for a month) or by following a predefined set of steps (if you want to get fit, follow a fitness program).

To me, this idea took courage to embrace because it comes with an identity-damaging admission that my goal-oriented systems were a bad idea (well, not exactly bad, but not viable as a long-term strategy). It was identity-damaging because I took such pride in my systems, my thorough thinking and planning, and how these things aided the image of willpower that I wanted to portray. Well, it’s good to bring my hidden arrogance to light so I can change it.

I’ll try to implement systems for the goals I’ve been failing to obtain and see if I can realize the dual benefits of satisfaction and attainment.