I love setting goals.
Unfortunately, my goals don't always love me back.
Fortunately James Clear, an entrepreneur and guy who thinks a lot about goals, habits, and success, has a much better approach to achieving almost any goal--and it's an approach anyone can use.
We all have things that we want to achieve in our lives--building a successful business, getting into better shape, raising a wonderful family. For most of us, the path to achieving those things starts with setting a specific and actionable goal. Until recently, that's how I approached my life. I would set goals for clients I wanted to land, for classes I took, and for weights that I wanted to lift in the gym.
What I'm starting to realize, however, is that when it comes to actually getting things done and making progress in the areas that are important to you, there is a much better way to do things.
It all comes down to the difference between goals and systems.
Let me explain.
The Difference Between Goals and Systems
What's the difference between goals and systems?
- If you're an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a successful business. Your system is your processes for sales, marketing, fulfillment, operations, etc.
- If you're a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
- If you're a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule you follow each week.
- If you're a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
Now for the really interesting question:
If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your systems, would you still get results?
For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?
I think you would.
For example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I've written this year. In the past 12 months, I've written more than 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so this year I've written enough to fill two books.
That's a huge a surprise, since I never set a goal for my writing. I didn't measure my progress in relation to a benchmark. I never set a word-count goal for any particular article. I never said, "I want to write two books this year."
What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. After sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work, and in the end enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.
Let's talk about three more reasons why you should focus on systems instead of goals.
1. Goals reduce your current happiness.
When you're working toward a goal, you're essentially saying, "I'm not good enough yet... but I will be when I reach my goal."
The problem with this mindset is that you're teaching yourself to always put off happiness and success until the next milestone is achieved. "Once I reach my goal, I'll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, I'll be successful."
Solution: Commit to a process, not a goal.
Choosing a goal puts a huge burden on your shoulders. Can you imagine if I had made it my goal to write two books this year? Just writing that sentence stresses me out.
But we do this to ourselves all the time. We put unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule instead of worrying about big, life-changing goals.
When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.
You might think your goal will keep you motivated over the long term, but that's not always true.
Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon, and now that they have achieved it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them.
When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?
That can create a type of yo-yo effect where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one, a cycle that makes it difficult to build on your progress for the long term.
Solution: Give up the need for immediate results.
I was training at the gym last week and was doing my second-to-last set of clean and jerks when I felt a small twinge in my leg. It wasn't painful and wasn't an injury; it was just a sign of fatigue at the end of my workout.
For a minute or two, I thought about doing my final set. Then I reminded myself that I plan to do this for the rest of my life and decided to call it a day.
In a situation like the one above, a goal-based mentality will tell you to finish the workout so you reach your goal. (After all, if you set a goal and don't reach it, you feel like a failure.)
But with a systems-based mentality, I had no trouble moving on. Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number--it's about sticking to the process and not missing workouts. I know that if I never miss a workout, then I will lift bigger weights in the long run.
And that's why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process.
In the end, process always wins.
3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.
You can't predict the future. (I know, shocking.) But every time we set a goal, we try to do it.
We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there. We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way.
Solution: Build smart feedback loops.
Each Friday, I spend 15 minutes filling out a small spreadsheet with the most critical metrics for my business. For example, in one column, I calculate the conversion rate for the percentage of website visitors who join my free email newsletter. I rarely think about this number, but checking that column every week provides a feedback loop that tells me if I'm doing the right things. When that number drops, I know that I need to focus more on sending high-quality traffic to my site.
Feedback loops are important for building good systems, because they allow you to track many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what will happen with all of them.
Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.
Fall in Love With Systems
None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I've found that goals are good for planning your progress, while systems are good for actually making progress.
Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win.
Having a system is what matters, because committing to the process is what makes the difference.
More on goals and productivity:
The Process for Achieving Any Intimidating Goal
Jeff Haden, contributing editor at Inc., explains how you can tackle long-term goals by building and sticking with a smart process.