Making Actual Progress: Goals vs. Systems

Goals are great. They focus your attention, raise your motivation and help you organize your time. Whenever I wanted to achieve something, I would write down a clear, actionable, measurable goal and commit to it.

At first, the sheer enthusiasm kept my energy high and I would blast through the action aligned with my new goal. But eventually, when the ol’ self discipline should take over, I got sidetracked. Other obligations popped up and I would postpone working on my goal until I eventually gave up and started eating Nutella with a spoon. Sound familiar?

When you set a goal, you put feeling happy and accomplished in an imaginary point in the future. That reduces the value and beauty of the present moment, getting you attached to a specific outcome that might not happen. It can cause a lot of stress when things start falling apart. And let’s say you do achieve your goal. After a while the sweet taste of victory will pass and you’ll need a new goal. So your happiness is again pushed forward into the future, out of your reach. Tim Urban wrote a great piece on why it’s important to focus on having a vibrant and rich today, instead of an imaginary someday.

This is where systems come into play. Goals are great when you need clarity and want to plan your progress. But when it comes to actually making progress, systems reign supreme.

Here’s an example of the difference between a system and a goal:

  • “Write 500 words every day” instead of “Write a book by the end of the year”
  • “Exercise for 20 minutes every other day” instead of “Lose 10 kg by July 1st”
  • “Meditate for 2 minutes every morning” instead of “Kill everyone and throw myself off a bridge”

Whenever I focused on a system, it perpetuated until I realized I’ve made significant progress, or accomplished what I wanted and just stopped. By ignoring the goal I was much more relaxed and felt grateful for succeeding every day. Systems are better suited for long term progress. If I fail to meditate that day, it’s no big deal, I’ll continue tomorrow. If I had a huge goal, for example to meditate 10 hours in the next 30 days, missing a day would set me back. I’d get frustrated and try to do a lot more every day until I eventually burned out.

Also, I find it useful to establish a feedback loop to keep me in check. Having a calendar and crossing off boxes every time I do my task is a feedback loop. A spreadsheet that I update every week with my progress is also a feedback loop. My girlfriend yelling at me for leaving sweaty gym clothes out (again) is also a feedback loop. That one helped establish a system of cleanliness. 😛

There are exceptions, of course. But if you don’t have a singular focus and drive for something you want to achieve, it’s safer to set up a system to continually upgrade your skills and abilities. It also keeps you relaxed and open to various opportunities that you might miss if you’re too focused on a single achievement.

Use goals to aim, but systems to fire.

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