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You’ve probably heard that being a goal-oriented person is a good thing. It’s a sure-fire way to success, people say, the mark of a real go-getter! This isn’t always the case, though. In the real world, it’s smarter, more efficient, and more effective to set systems rather than goals.

Goals can give us a satisfying sense of purpose, but they aren’t the best way to live a happy or successful life. Creating systems, on the other hand, provides a solid, dependable, and more realistic way to get where you want to go. Best of all, there’s no rollercoaster of emotions to contend with, just persistent progress in the directions you want to grow.

Goals are for Losers

From the moment you commit to a goal, you set yourself up for failure. With a goal as your main focus, only one of two things can happen: you achieve it, or you don’t.

The downside of failing seems pretty obvious, but even succeeding isn’t all sunshine and picnics. The feeling of euphoria you get from accomplishing a goal is short-lived. When it wears off, all you can do is scramble to find another goal to dedicate yourself to. It’s a bit like chasing an adrenaline high, only we’re told this is what we’re supposed to do to become successful.

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams flat-out states that goals are for losers. “People who use systems do better,” he says, “goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.” In other words, you spend your life knowing you’re not currently achieving your goal, worrying that you might not reach it. You feel like a loser 99.99% of the time.

Living a goal-oriented life means falling into the psychological trap called the arrival fallacy. You think that if only you can accomplish this certain thing, then you’ll be happy. As soon as you reach that destination, though, you realize this happiness is only temporary, prompting you to search for a new goal and repeat the process all over again.

School Enforces that Goal-Oriented Mindset

When you’re in school, every class and every study session is focused on one thing: your final grade. You read textbooks, write papers, and sweat over quizzes so you can get good marks at the end of the semester or earn your degree. Nobody seems to care about what you’re learning or how much it enriches your life, only that you pass your exams.

What do you do when you finish with school? You seek other goals to accomplish, such as getting another degree or joining a prestigious business. You ignore the harmful effects of the achievement-oriented mindset and continue that fruitless quest for another goal you can achieve.

Set Systems Rather Than Goals - mindset

School might keep you tied up in goal-focused thinking, but that doesn’t mean you have to do the same in your own life. As soon as you start thinking in systems, you’ll realize just how powerful of a shift it can be.

Importance of Setting Systems Rather than Goals

You can escape the endless treadmill of goal-chasing by changing your area of focus. Don’t think of the achievement as a reward you’re fighting for. Instead, look at the process you’re using to get there.

Systems are anything you do on a regular basis, including habits and daily routines. They’re repeatable, often effortlessly so, and they increase your happiness, health, and well-being over time. This could be anything from getting up at a certain time each morning to preparing your meals in advance so you always have something healthy to eat.

With systems you focus on the input once, then let it become second nature. You can evaluate the effectiveness of your system at any time and make adjustments, but otherwise it’s very much a “set it and forget it” situation.

As author James Clear remarks, focusing on the practice instead of the performance or achievement means you can enjoy the present moment while improving yourself at the same time. In fact, if you ignored your goals and just focused on the system, chances are you would achieve the same results, only you would do it without falling into the arrival fallacy or living life feeling like an eternal loser.

Systems in Our Lives

The idea of having strict routines kind of bores me. For this reason, I was initially skeptical about setting systems rather than goals. I do like efficiency, though, and I’m a big fan of small actions that have large impacts. Over the years, consciously creating better systems and improving on my daily habits has been incredibly rewarding.

Exercise is one of my favorite examples. I made it a point to go to the gym three times a week, no exceptions. I genuinely enjoyed it, but over time I realized I was focusing on that arbitrary number and not on myself. What if I could handle four workouts a week? What if I was sick and had to skip one? No, stick to the goal no matter what. Otherwise I’ll be a failure.

Instead of an attendance goal, I eventually switched my mindset to “be active every day.” What kind of active? Doesn’t matter, really. Whatever I’m in the mood for, and whatever I know will bring me benefits. It requires practically no willpower to go for a walk, even when I’m feeling groggy. I actually find that I’m more active following this system than when I was when chasing my workout goals.

Systems can be used in all areas of life, including relationships. Just a few quick examples of common goals and their associated symptoms:

  • Becoming a millionaire is a goal. Automatically moving a percentage of your income into a savings account each month is a system.
  • Having a solid relationship is a goal. Good communication practices with your significant other (or with your parents) is a system.
  • Writing a novel is a goal. Sitting down and writing anything for half an hour every day is a system.
  • Beating Tiger Woods at golf is a goal. Weekly games of golf combined with coaching sessions is a system.

How to Create a System That Will Help You With Any Goal

Building your own system isn’t complicated. As long as it’s easily repeatable and produces the results that you’re looking for, you’re doing it right.

First, decide what you want your system to do. This means choosing a goal, of course, but the important difference is that you don’t focus on the goal – you set it aside and think about your system instead.

I found it helpful to supplement this step by making sure my goal is specific, easy to measure, relevant to my life and interests, and is actually achievable.

Next, think about everyday routines you could set up that would push you towards that goal. When my goal was to write another novel, I decided that an hour of writing short stories every day would get me there. I was right, and the habit of writing every day has stuck with me ever since.

Now, put your system into practice. Don’t worry if you struggle a bit at first, because building new routines can take time. Your attention should not be on the goal but on the process you engage in every day. Reflect on how you feel working with this system, then see where it gets you after a month, or two months, or six. Then, adjust the system if necessary.

Over time you will see just how simple but effective habits like these are. Not only will you achieve the goals you had in mind, but you’ll avoid the “loser” mindset and find a wealth of additional benefits along the way.

Systems Lead to Success

We’ve fallen in love with goals as targets to aim ourselves at. We feel good when we hit them, and we get to share our success with others when we do. That success is unsatisfying and short-term, though. It’s like eating sweets for dinner instead of a well-balanced meal: it’s great in the moment, but over time, it’s not the best way to live.

Goals can be useful, provided they don’t become the focus of our lives. Building good systems, testing them, and refining them is the key to getting ourselves where we want to be. And we don’t even have to ride the rollercoaster of emotions or feel like a perpetual loser to get there.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.


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