Systems Work Better Than Goals

Conventional wisdom will tell you to set your goals, and you’ll be bombarded with endless advice on how to set better goals. SMART goals, for example. Or realistic, manageable, not-too-big-or-too-ambitious-goals.
For most people, this is how they approach their habits and changes for their entire life. They set their goals and do their best. Sometimes we hit our goals, but mostly we don’t. Most people never mature to realize that their results have very little, if anything, to do with their goals. Most people never realize their results have everything to do with systems they created and followed due to aiming at their goals.

Goals Are Not Useless

Goals are not useless, and they’re not bad. They’re vitally important, and they’re something I push a lot. They set the aim. That sets the direction and focus. All things will move towards the goal if we pay attention. It provides clarity. It specifies an outcome that we desire and creates a mirror image (if we are not afraid of the contrast that hides in fog) that specifies the terms of our failure. But we run into problems when we focus too much time, energy, or attention on the goals and not enough on the systems.
We focus so much on goal setting because we are bombarded by the noise created for and by the winners that wash out the reality of the losers. Everyone in the race has the exact same goal. Everyone in the race wants to win. But only one person will succeed; the rest will come up short. We celebrate the winners who pride themselves on “I set my mind to one thing, one goal, and I chased it down and refused to quit, and now I am a champion!” Without being aware, we assume that the losers did not have the exact same goal or the exact same desire to accomplish the goal. Winners and losers have the exact same goal, but why are so few successful at achieving the goal?


Likely because the achievers had systems in place, simple and repeatable actions, things to practice and fail at over and over again until they improved enough to progress to the next challenge, which led to consistent progress until they reached their goal. The non-achievers likely did not have as effective systems, or any systems at all, that produced the same result. While the example of a race may not make the former statement always true, as there can only be one winner and many of the runner-ups had effective systems in place, the statement is always true of goals directly related to self-competition and self-improvement.
Specifically, with things like fat loss or improved health, those who successfully lose body fat and keep it off long-term, and improve their health and quality of life, have developed systems to maintain that while those who are not successful do not have fully developed and organized systems.

Goal Achievement is Just A Snapshot in Time

Goal achievement itself is only a snapshot in time. It is not a real destination but a passing moment that becomes surprisingly fleeting when it has been our singular aim for long periods of time. We don’t need a comparable example here because the aim of fat loss and transformation is powerful and obvious enough. Yes, aiming to lose one hundred or more pounds is admirable, and achieving it is a worthy endeavor and transformative in more ways than merely physical. But accomplishing that goal will lose its magic quickly when the reality of the next phase of life falls on our shoulders.
Yes, losing 100 pounds was amazing, but now we have to maintain this for the rest of our life. How can we maintain this and continue to make progress while also enjoying the benefits of the transformation? A hard pill to swallow for many people who are successful in losing weight but fail in the maintaining the results phase is that it is five or ten times more difficult to maintain weight loss than it is to lose it in the first place. The gravity of that fact is felt entirely by those who struggle with the challenge of losing it in the first place.

Goals Set the Aim, Systems Create Progress

The placement of a goal sets the aim. But the focus on the goal rather than the systems that create progress long-term ultimately restrict our happiness on the journey. That unhappiness, or putting off truly being joyful, leads more people to failure than most other variables. The subconscious assumption of most of our goals is, “once I get to this point, then I will be happy.” Which then echos back, “I can’t be happy until then.” Whether we realize that or not, that feedback loop is destructive. Even if we managed to willpower our way through that level of negativity, it would still suffocate much of the joy of the moment of achievement when we finally arrive and realize that not as much about us internally has changed as we thought it would.
You’re still exactly who you were a day, week, month, year, or ten years before that moment. The change comes from the systems, progress, and process of becoming. The change rarely comes from the arrival. As we have all heard before, it is about the journey, not the destination.
The goals also create a pass-fail feedback system. I either accomplish the goal, making me a success, or I do not accomplish it, making me a failure. The metric and value of progress get lost in the fixation of the result. “I am not a success until I achieve my goal, and then I can be happy.” That means your a failure every step of the way until you arrive (if you arrive) at the result and experience a less-than euphoric experience we are hoping for.

Goals Can Be At-Odds with Long-Term Progress

Goals themselves can become an at-odds position against long-term progress. How many of us have set out to do a half-marathon run or a six-week fitness challenge in the past? How many people, once crossing the finish line, completely give up their training? A shockingly overwhelming percentage. When the end of the challenge has been your focus and motivation, what is left to power you further into your training and progress once you’ve crossed the finish line? What is more, what happens when we make sacrifices in the short term to power us through that finish line that makes it more difficult for us to sustain our efforts in the future?
If we hit the gym six days per week and eat nothing but chicken and broccoli for six weeks, the odds of us binging on junk and taking a long time off from the gym increase exponentially. The odds of us hating being in the gym, and being sore, increase dramatically. The odds of us hating the taste of bland chicken and broccoli for the rest of our lives because we forced ourselves to eat it non-stop for six weeks become almost a certainty. I know that one from experience.
Goal setting sets an aim for us to overcome a challenge. This is us trying to win the game, whatever our game is. But, it is not about winning or losing; it’s about the way you play the game. The wisdom embedded in the soul of this statement worth many times the effort required in drawing it out. Goal setting is about winning (or losing) the game. But, once the game is over, then what?

Systems Improve Odds Over Time

Building systems increase our odds of winning the game of the current goal we have set and increase the odds of us continuing to play and the odds of us winning all future games. One of the most important goals to never forget is that we want to continue to play the game, game after game after game, for as long as possible. And we want to play them in a way that is enjoyable for us and for those we play with.
Systems progress us forward in the direction toward our goals. Systems break things down into actionable chunks. A good system allows us to practice and fail without being disastrous in a repeatable way that does not deteriorate across many repetitions over a long time. Put into a high-value question, when it comes to setting habits and behaviors to help you accomplish your goals (or creating a system), try asking, “Can I continue to repeat this behavior over and over again, thousands of time, for years and years and years, and continue to improve upon it, while making more enjoyable instead of less so?”

The Goal is the End Result

Goals are the end result. When you solve problems on the level of results or outputs, you only solve them temporarily.
Systems solve problems over the long term. They solve complex problems at their root causes, not just symptoms of problems.
Systems allow for progress and improvement forever. The constraints of a specific goal do not limit them.
Systems increase the odds of you inevitably accomplishing your current goal while also increasing the odds that you will accomplish future goals.
This is a classic example of learning to love and trust the process. People who are systems-focused typically love acting out the process at the moment, while goal-focused individuals are usually in a hurry to achieve and looking for shortcuts to speed up the process, even knowing they’re sacrificing their own long-term success plans.
Set your goals. Make them crystal clear. Make them ambitious and scary. Then put them away and set all of your energy on the systems that will allow you to accomplish those goals and more. Then learn to measure the effectiveness of your systems and start celebrating every successfully executed step of the system you created. Do not be so result-focused that you cannot see the efficacy and value of the operating systems producing the results.