Why Systems Trump Goals

My boss once led a manager’s meeting in which he explained the true meaning of project management. Project management does not involve showing up to work, drafting out a to-do list, and then methodically checking tasks off as complete. Rather, a true project manager views every chore in their life, from their daily commute to grocery shopping as a project to be handled as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Those with a propensity toward viewing their life as a series of mini-projects test different paths to work and leave their home at the exact minute that allows them to hit every green light. Project managers build grocery lists by category so that they can weave effortlessly up and down aisles without any backtracking.

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

–Scott Adams

We’ve all heard about our friends’ goal to lose ten pounds, to meet the love of their life, and to stop smoking. The problem with goals is that one of two things happen. Either the goal is such a far deviation from our current norm that we self-sabotage or give up, or we reach the set goal and then revert back to our old habits because there is no longer a bigger vision to drive progress.

Systems, on the other hand, offer us a larger vision for our future. Instead of trying losing a few pounds for your wedding, you might commit to permanently eliminating soda from your diet and replacing with with a healthier option like water or unsweetened tea. Rather than tackling an overwhelming project at work right away, you might spend a full week determining all requirements, all steps involved, and all resource available; with this information, you can set out a plan and work backwards to set daily milestones.

As a personal example, I dream of one day becoming a published author. Rather than haphazardly launching myself into the overwhelming goal of writing a best-selling book, I have committed to writing at least 1,000 words per day in my journal or on my blog. This easily achievable daily habit motivates me to sit down each day and write, even if it’s just a “two crappy pages,” as author Tim Ferriss aims for. Some days, I feel wildly inspired and far exceed my target, but on days where my muse has gone missing I can still make progress.

In modern society, setting goals is often touted as instrumental in success. However, I would argue that if you were to forget about your goals and focus instead on your system, you would still find success. By showing up each day to practice, you will inevitably, and unintentionally, hit some key benchmarks.

“Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.”

–Albert Einstein

So, let’s dig a bit deeper into the science: why do systems trump goals?

Goals can reduce your current level of happiness. Goals typically involve changing current circumstances, which is like telling yourself that you’re not good enough now, but will be when you reach your goal.

If your goal is to lose weight, it’s because you believe you’re too heavy. And if your goal is to get watch less television, perhaps you’re beating yourself up for thinking you’re wasting too much time.

The solution here is to focus on a process, rather than a goal. Goals can create unnecessary stress through unmet expectation, so the alternative is to commit to daily progress. Set a schedule, stick to that schedule, and celebrate your decision to stick to your commitment. Focusing on the practice allows you to enjoy the activity and improve your skill simultaneously.

Goals don’t always support long-term progress. When all of your hard work is focused on a specific goal, there may no longer be a strong motivation to keep working once that goal has been achieved.

If your goal is to complete a marathon, it may be easy to work toward that goal. However, you might stop training once the race is done if you don’t have a larger reason, such as sustaining good health. I’ve personally experienced this with working out, going from training daily for a few months and then taking an extended break from exercise altogether. This “yo-yo effect” with goals is not conductive to long-term positive change.

The alternative is to release the need for immediate results and, instead, focus on overall progress. Instead of scheduling individual daily workouts, you might commit to moving your body for 30 minutes per day, whether that’s lifting weights, a lunchtime walk, yoga, or a run. A goal-based mentality pressures you to finish every workout, and makes you feel like a failure when you miss the mark. However, systems-based thinking is about sticking to the process, rather than a larger objective.

Goals are detrimental because they suggest that you can control things beyond your control. When we set goals, they are often highly specific and involve plans on what we will achieve and when we will achieve it. We attempt to predict progress even though we can’t anticipate the unique circumstances or situations that may arise along the way.

The solution here is to build feedback looks. Adhering to a system involves making observations and tracking critical metrics. Though these numbers are not meant to serve a larger goal, they offer an opportunity to observe whether we are making positive progress, back-sliding, or reaching a plateau. Based on this feedback, we can adjust our daily habits.

Though goals have their place and can be useful, I’ve found that goals are best for planning your progress whereas systems are good for actually making progress. Goals can support short-term progress, but a well-designed system and committing to the process will help you win in life. So, begin viewing every project, task, and aspiration as an opportunity to implement a new system and inject your life with increased efficiency and new opportunities for long-term progress.

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