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Systemic Greatness Part 1: Stop Setting Goals! Create Systems

Goals vs. Systems

I have always been a very goal-oriented person. Up until recently, I looked at this as a positive character trait. I could clearly articulate goals I wanted to achieve and was typically able to work towards them until I succeeded. But more often than not, reaching my goals left me with a very, “Meh…what’s next?” feeling.

Whether it’s the money I have in my bank account, the grades I receive in school, or the contests I enter and win, reaching goals always leaves me a little deflated. In fact, I hardly even acknowledge my goals once I’ve reached them. I’ve reached my savings goal? Alright, time to double it.

There’s hardly a moment of celebration or satisfaction. If there is, it’s limited. I won that speech contest or received a business award. Great. What’s next?

The Problem With Goals

The problem with aiming for goals is that it forces you to exist in a state of failure until the goal is reached. Achieving the goal is winning, not achieving the goal is failing.

James Clear, author of The New York Times’ bestselling book, “Atomic Habits,” talks about setting systems versus  goals. 

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”

Let’s use this blog as an example. If my goal is to reach 1,000 monthly subscribers, my system might include creating consistent writing habits, engaging with my audience, and collaborating with other writers.

Goals aren’t inherently useless, as they often point one in the right direction. If I set a goal around my blog, it indicates to me that my blog is important to pursue—whether because it brings me joy, money, or something else. However, if my sole focus is reaching 1,000 monthly subscribers, I’d feel a sense of discouragement until I reached that number. Additionally, if I did reach that number, I would immediately up the ante and aim for 2,000 monthly subscribers.

However, if I focused on my system, I would experience consistent satisfaction knowing I am making progress and moving in the right direction.

“The Score Takes Care Of Itself”

James Clear uses sports as an example. The goal of a sports coach is to win games. The system may be regular training, recruiting good players, and strategic planning.

“The goal in 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. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, ‘The score takes care of itself.’”

It’s also important to note that winners and losers have the same goal. No team goes into the Super Bowl with the goal of losing. Likewise, if your goal is to start a multi-million dollar business, join the club. A lot of entrepreneurs want the same. But a goal isn’t enough, and it certainly isn’t what differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful. Rather, it’s the system of dedication, strategic planning, and hard work that differentiates those who win from those who lose.

Results Aren’t The Problem

Clear also points out that we often fall into the habit of believing our results are the problem rather than our systems. He uses the example of a dirty room. Cleaning our room might be the goal. We may eventually work up the motivation to declutter and vacuum, but if our underlying systems of hoarding and uncleanliness aren’t addressed, the result of a clean room is only temporary. 

The same may be true for a business. You may get up the motivation to spend an afternoon making cold calls, but if you don’t have a system in place to consistently pursue leads, your results will be short lived.

“We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”

Goals Limit

Goals in and of themselves limit long-term progress. You may limit your caloric intake to lose 10 pounds, but then what? You stop restricting and gain back the weight. Rather, if you focused on your system (a balanced diet, joyful movement, etc.) you’d find that your results would come and last.

Likewise, goals limit happiness. Many people have the “if and when” attitude. “If I could just make $100,000 a year…” or “When I reach one million followers…” The problem is that this mindset puts off happiness until a later date. Even when you do reach one goal, you’ll immediately create another. Conversely, a system allows you consistent happiness because you enjoy the process. 

“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”

“There Are Many Paths To Success”

Additionally, a goal limits you to only one version of success. If your goal is to reach 1,000 subscribers, you will either reach your goal and feel like a success, or fail to reach your goal and feel like a disappointment. Clear calls this the “either-or” conflict. Goal setting fails to take into account other versions of success. Maybe you don’t reach 1,000 subscribers, but your blog is read by a literary agent and you get a book deal. Isn’t that also a version of success? 

“It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success.”

With this new mindset, I’ve started focusing more on my systems rather than my goals. I’ll outline a few systems I’ve created in a later blog post if you need some inspiration. But for now, take some time to consider a few of your goals. Rather than looking at your goals as an end-all, think of them as a direction like the magnetic needle on a compass. Your goals are indicators of what’s important to you—now create systems around those points of interest. Focus on implementing these systems into your life and experiment with putting aside the milestones and scoreboard for the time being. Focus on the system and watch progress happen.

All quotes come from James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” Buy the book here. 

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