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Systems vs. Goals

Currently, I’m reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, which is a great book by Scott Adams (the creator of the comic strip Dilbert). Adams describes the failures and successes of his life in hilarious fashion (as one would expect from a cartoonist). One of the most interesting thoughts that he covers in the book is regarding the idea of having systems versus having goals:

For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals. When goal-oriented people succeed in big ways, it makes news, and it makes an interesting story. That gives you a distorted view of how often goal-driven people succeed.

Coming from a background in personal training, I have a bit of experience helping individuals set goals, and I always find the Christmas holidays to be a frustrating time of year. Everyone is gearing up for their big New Year’s resolution where they finally lose the weight they’ve been meaning to lose for the past few years. As someone that has helped numerous individuals navigate the weight loss adventure (and boy, it’s an adventure alright), it’s tough knowing that the overwhelming majority of New Year’s resolutions are going to fall flat just a few weeks into the new year. One thing I always try to ask both of myself and of others when setting a goal (whether fitness related or not) is “how?”. Losing a ton of weight sounds great, but how exactly are you going to accomplish that feat? Similarly, goals like eating healthier, saving money, reading more, or learning Spanish are equally as neat to dream about. But, often, we get too focused on the grandeur of our inevitable success that we forget to lay out a concrete plan. For weight loss clients, I tried to steer them clear of just focusing on how much weight they want to lose. Instead, we implemented systems that would feed into our ultimate goal. For example, with the ultimate goal of losing weight, the system might look like this:

  • Come to the gym four days a week
  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Substitute all beverages with water

In my mind, the main difference between a goal and a system is this: a system is reproducible. With clearly defined steps, you can achieve a similar outcome (or close enough) as someone else.

Suddenly, the goal of losing weight is broken down into easily trackable habits. This makes it easy on the client as it helps to clearly define what needs to be done. But, it makes the feat repeatable. Often times when individuals achieve a particular goal, they have little to attribute their success to other than “luck” or “it just worked out”. By defining the steps and mapping out a system, it’s easy to point to the road map and say “this is how we get there”.

I’m looking to set some goals in 2014. Here are two examples, and how I’ve laid out a system for each to help me be successful:

Read 36+ books (broken down into three a month)

  • Read for at least 30 minutes a day
  • Buy/borrow/locate the three books I plan on reading on the 1st of every month
  • Keep a running list to help me stay accountable (will be published here)

Have a suggestion? Shoot it my way on Twitter.

Learn HTML/CSS and redesign my own site

  • Do a Codecademy lesson each day of the work week. Each session will be broken down like this:
    • Review notes from previous session
    • Do current lesson
    • Break something on my site using what I’ve learned
  • Use a test site to help build a new child theme for Genesis (loosely based off this, this, and this)

Systems aren’t foolproof, but they certainly help. As the new year approaches and we all look to improve ourselves over the next 365 days, it’s important to ask the “how” for each item on our list (and the “why” but that’s another topic). Figure out exactly what you want to accomplish and then set-up a system to help you get there.

Read more:

The Resolution Guide for Everything Else (Non-Fitness Related)
My tips on correcting the other 99% of your life that isn’t fitness related since there are far too many blog posts about health resolutions on January 1st.

Goals vs. Systems
Scott wrote a blog post on the Dilbert blog covering a few more of his thoughts on the topic.

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