Posted On: Thursday, 18 June 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Most self help gurus seem to give a lot of stress on the idea of setting Goals. The basic premise behind the argument being that if you don't know where you want to get to, how can you get there.

Most real life productivity however, doesn't work on goals. For instance, you don't wake up every morning and get ready to go to office because you want to go on that world tour with your family ten years from today.

You don't push yourself out of the bed because you want to live in billion dollar home twenty years from now. We get up and go to work because we have internalized a system; we know working makes us feel better about our selves, pays us and eventually moves us forward emotionally, psychologically and financially. Your holiday plans 10 years from now is a goal; your getting up every morning and showing up is a system.

While in some short term cases goals might be good; in more cases than not (particularly long term) goals are in-fact counter productive. Try to think of your salary and payouts every time you sit down to write code and I'll be surprised if you can get anything done.

A few years ago, in a small startup a couple of colleagues and I started out with a new client who would remind us before every sprint rollout, that if he slipped out timelines we would not get paid. That's when we realized how counterproductive your goals can become for you; especially if you are thinking about them all the time. To do awesome work you need a system that literally protects your daily work from the stress of your goals.

In his excellent, witty and well written book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams talks about the downsides of setting goals:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.

In his book Scott draws a very interesting distinction between a goal and a system:

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.

Language is messy, and I know some of you are thinking that exercising every day sounds like a goal. The common definition of goals would certainly allow that interpretation. For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.

Needless to say that Scott, is a promoter of systems over goals and has very compelling reasons for promoting the idea of using systems over goals in your life. In his book he argues that virtually every success stories around the globe has a system supporting it; not a goal. Scott explains:

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. It’s apparent that his system for success involved studying hard, getting extraordinary grades, going to a top college—in his case Harvard—and developing a skill set with technology that virtually guaranteed riches in today’s world. As it turns out, his riches came quickly through the explosive growth of Facebook. But had that not worked out, he would likely be a millionaire through some other start-up or just by being a highly paid technical genius for an existing corporation. Zuckerberg’s system (or what I infer was his system) was almost guaranteed to work, but no one could have imagined at the time how well.

Warren Buffett’s system for investing involves buying undervalued companies and holding them forever, or at least until something major changes. That system (which I have grossly oversimplified) has been a winner for decades. Compare that with individual investors who buy a stock because they expect it to go up 20 percent in the coming year; that’s a goal, not a system. And not surprisingly, individual investors generally experience worse returns than the market average.

According to Scott, For something to be a system it needs to follow three simple criteria:

  1. You do that thing every day; so much so that it is internalized.
  2. It is carefully thought so that a reasonable person expects it to work more often than not - e.g. Working out daily is a system; buying a lottery ticket every day isn't.
  3. The system will generally take you forward and even though the velocity of the move can be drastically affected by luck; you generally keep moving forward while following a system; even without a lot of luck.

I've personally never liked the idea of setting goals; and in world where every business book out there seems to echo the same goal stereotypes, the idea of building systems over goals in nothing less than a breath of fresh air.

So the next time you are setting a goal for yourself try to replace that with a system. Who know, with a little bit of luck thrown in the mix you might go way beyond your goals; and even if you don't, you will be actually much more relaxed and much less stressed out compared to the sword of meeting goals within specific timelines pointed at you all the time.

Comment Section

Comments are closed.