There's two ways you can approach achieving something:
Goals, and systems.
A goal is a specific objective you achieve (or don’t) at some point in the future.
A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of success in the long run.
If you’re waiting to achieve it at some point in the future, it’s a goal.
If you do it every day, it’s a system.
All my life I was told about the importance of having goals. It wasn’t until I read Scott Adams’ 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal that I even heard about the value of having a system.
In this post I’m going to go through some of the benefits of having systems instead of goals.
Postponing Happiness vs Winning Every Day
'Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present.' - Jim Rohn
Have you ever set a goal and thought:
‘Ill be happy when I achieve _______’
Goals-orientated people convince themselves that when they achieve a certain outcome in the future, it’ll make them happy.
They spend all of their time until then postponing their happiness, in a state of ‘pre-success’ failure. If they don’t achieve it, they feel terrible. If they do, it feels great, for a while. But eventually that fades, and their only option is to set a new goal and begin the process again.
It turns out you can flip the whole thing around by asking a simple question.
Why set a goal in the first place?
You can find out why you really want to do something when you ask ‘why’ enough.
For example, let’s say your goal is to be a millionaire. Your answers might look something like this:
Why? So I can have financial freedom
Why? So I don’t have to work for someone else and can spend my time doing what I want.
Why? So I can feel good – most of the time.
If you drill down on almost any goal, there’s a good chance you will end up with an answer similar to this. So if the real reason you are doing something is to feel good, why not make it easier to achieve this on a day to day basis, and create that ‘winning feeling’ in the process?
This is what systems-orientated people excel at.
System-orientated people engage in behaviours every day that more than likely, over the long run, will lead to success. They feel good about themselves every time they take action and do what they intended to do.
A goals-orientated person would set a goal to write a novel by 31st December, and spend each moment until that point feeling like they ‘hadn’t made it yet.’ A systems person would commit to writing 500 words every day, and feel like they’re winning every time they do it.
A goal is to be fluent in Spanish. A system is to get 50 points on Duolingo every day. A goal is to read a book. A system is to read 30 minutes before bed at night.
The difference is subtle, but it’s important. A goal is something you achieve in the future. A system is something you actually do every day.
Goals Blind You, Systems Give You Options
'In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.' - Charles Darwin
We’re encouraged to have specific, long-term goals.
In interviews, we’re asked – what’s your 5-year plan? Where do you see yourself this time in three years? We’re supposed to have it all worked out.
I don’t, and I’m glad I don’t.
The danger of a far-off specific goal is that it can blind you to other opportunities that show up along the way.
Did you know that Coca-Cola started as a pharmaceutical company? Tiffany & Co - the famous jeweller, started as a stationary store. Nokia began as a paper mill, and Raytheon -the manufacturer of the first missile guidance system, began in business by making fridges.
If these companies had rigidly stuck to a specific objective, they would have missed out on all of the options that showed up along the way, and got them to where they are today.
When you have a system, you can do things every day that will increase your odds of success, even if you don’t know exactly where it is you want to end up.
For example, this week I had planned to write a blog post on the War of Art by Steven Pressfield. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t fun to write about.
If I had a specific goal, my only option would be to write about the ideas in that book.
Instead, my system was to write 30 minutes every day and just let my mind go where it wanted. As I wrote about the value of showing up every day, I began to think of Scott Adams’ Systems article and Nassim Taleb’s ideas in antifragile.
The system gave me options, and I took them. Because of this, the blog post changed into something else completely and I really enjoyed writing it.
Fearing Failure vs Embracing Failure
“I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” – Thomas Edison
Goals-orientated people’s main priority is achievement.
They view failure as something to be avoided, and shy away from challenging projects. When they make mistakes, they sweep them under the carpet, blame someone else or even cover them up completely.
As a result, they learn nothing from failure and often keep repeating the same mistakes.
Systems orientated people view failure a different way.
Their main priority is learning.
They actually seek out challenges there’s a good chance they’ll fail at, because they know they’ll develop new skills, build connections and learn something useful in the process.
In the worst-case scenario, they still gain.
If they fail, they can analyse exactly what went wrong, take the lessons and apply them to their next project. Along with the lessons, they also picked up new skills, connections and valuable self-knowledge on the way.
When you're systems-minded you can remove the fear of failure, and know that whatever the outcome, you're still moving in the right direction.
The worst thing about far-off future goals is that you can spend a long time feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere.
This can be frustrating, and can drive you out of the game entirely.
Systems are the solution.
With a system you can feel like you're winning every day, take opportunities as they show up and be in a state of constant growth.