The Benefits of Systems Over Goals

I gleaned many of these insights from Atomic Habits by James Clear.  It’s a short read sardine-packed with golden behavior change wisdom.

As 2019 dawns, the leaf-littered ground makes way for snow, and I slowly grow more layers of clothing until I resemble a waddling Michelin man, I imagine millions of people enacting New Year’s resolutions.

“This year I will lose 20 lbs.”

“This year I will quit smoking.”

“This year I will grow my YouTube channel to 10,000 subscribers.”

“This year I will earn that raise.”

Millions of people set wonderful goals for the coming year.  This is admirable and a wonderful first step toward self-improvement.  If we have no goals, we have no direction. Is our ship sailing towards India, Africa, or Antarctica?  Why?

However, many self-help books sell people short by espousing effective goals as the key to success.  To be sure, goals to allow us to foresee the path to success.  We can make stretch goals and SMART goals. We can atomize our big goals into small goals.  We can set prompt, yet manageable deadlines and even hang self-imposed penalties for failure over our head.

Hold our heads to the proverbial fire, if you will.

But goals merely map our path to success.  They do nothing to help us walk that path.

Every Olympian shows up with the goal of a gold medal.  Every NFL team starts the season with the goal of a Super Bowl.  Every company opens the year with the goal of profits and growth.  Yet few reach those goals. Therefore, goals cannot be the deciding factor of success.

Relying on goals to achieve self-improvement is like relying on map reading to reach our destination.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is useful to know where we are going and why.  But most of us are not cartographers.  To most of us, a map is merely an orientational tool.

This is where systems come into play.

It felt great to ring in the New Year with a sunrise hike.  Just like it feels good when our systems work for us.

While goals describe what we want to accomplish, systems describe what we will do on a regular basis to attain said accomplishments.  So while goals serve as the individual turns of our GPS, systems are the engine that moves the car.

For example, let’s say a person wishes to lose 25 pounds in 2019.  This is a great measurable goal.

The question now becomes “How?”

How will we lose this weight?

“Well, we can start by cooking more meals at home.”

How many meals?

“All of them!”

Come on, now.  Be realistic.

“How about 7?”

“That’s a start.  What else can we do?”

“We can go to the gym three days per week.”

What else?

“We can walk for ten minutes after each meal.”


“We can swap out two desserts for two pieces of fresh fruit per week.”

Now we’re cooking with gas!

As systems take shape, we soon learn that our larger goals require a volume of smaller, iterative tasks.  Growth, change, and success all depend on small efforts performed on a regular basis.

Goals are what we want.  Systems are what we do.

Shifting our focus from goals to systems have several distinct benefits for our personal effectiveness and well-being.

For example, systems (like love) are always with you.

For one, focusing on systems makes us happier and more self-compassionate.  Goals often contain a disheartening all-or-nothing element. You either lose 20 pounds or you don’t.  You either score 1500 on the SAT or you don’t. You either hit your sales targets or you don’t. Not only does missing our goals weigh down our mood, but reaching our goals only lifts our mood for a short time.

However, systems do not demand such perfection.  We do not have to cast 100% of our behavioral votes for ideal behaviors.  We simply need to cast a majority. As long as we are performing more desirable behaviors than undesirable behaviors on a regular basis, we can take comfort in the fact that we are making progress.

Moreover, while goal failures carry the baggage of wasted efforts, single system failures do not.  If we break our diet today, we can re-adhere tomorrow if we so choose. If we miss the gym today, tomorrow presents another opportunity.  As a result, while missing goals represents failure, deviating from our system feels like a temporary setback.

Just like snow is only a temporary feature of life in Namak.

In addition, focusing on systems can produce much more sustainable well-being than goal fixation.  Philosophers and scientists alike profess that happiness is found in the journey, not in the destination.  Rather than waiting for some happiness payoff in achieving our goal (a payoff that often proves underwhelming), we can choose to appreciate a productive day.  We can find joy in each positive step forward rather than relying on accomplishments to give us fulfillment.

Pursuing goals and changing habits are about far more than production and accomplishment.  It is also about creeping ever-nearer towards our ideal self.

Becoming our best self is worth more than one Nobel prize, 10 Oscars, 100,000 Instagram followers, or 10 million dollars.  Though fear not.  Self-congruity and accomplishment often go hand-in-hand.


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