Do you prefer winning once in a while or winning every day? That’s a difference between having a goal and having a system.
“. . . as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways. To put it bluntly, goals are for losers.” ~ Scott Adams
Goals vs. Systems
Goals are for losers? That’s a pretty odd statement for me to endorse as someone who spends his working time helping and encouraging people to set and achieve goals. However, after reading this in How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big by Scott Adams, best-selling author and the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, I have to say he has a good point.
As Adams points out, if you have a goal that you are working toward, you spend every moment up until you achieve the goal (if you ever do), feeling like you haven’t made it yet. “In other words,” says Adams, “goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.” And when you do achieve the goal (if you ever do), you celebrate in the moment but soon realize you no longer have the objective that was pulling you forward and giving you a sense of purpose.
But isn’t this just word play? Don’t most goal-oriented people use a system to reach their goals? And aren’t most systems comprised of a goal or goals?
Well, in a sense, yes. The big difference comes down to perspective (as do most things) – how you think about them.
Says Adams, “. . . thinking of goals and systems as different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at every turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their systems. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”
So from this perspective, a goal is a one-and-done, pass or fail endeavor while a system is a behavior that is repeated over and over and over, day after day after day. Of course there are steps you must take to reach your goal, but by Adams’ definition, the steps aren’t the goal – only the destination. However the steps could be your system.
“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. . . 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.”
Losing 10 pounds is a goal. You only win when the scale shows you are 10 pounds lighter than when you started. Adding more daily activity is a system. You win (and you feel increasingly more energetic) each day as you become more active.
Focus on the ball
Suppose your goal is to win a tennis championship. If you want to win a tennis championship, you have to win matches. If you want to win a match, you have to win sets. If you want to win a set, you have to win games. If you want to win a game, you have to win points. If you want to win a point, you have to return serves. If you want to return a serve, you have to anticipate where the ball will be, and go there. If you want to win a tennis championship, don’t worry about winning matches, sets, games or points. Concentrate, focus, and practice on being where the ball is going to be. That is your system.
Consider Nick Saban’s record as a head college football coach. He is tied with legendary coach “Bear” Bryant for the most championship wins. Saban and his teams follow what he calls “The Process.” Saban says, “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.” Execute the task at hand. That is a system.
Systems and mini-habits
Systems are an excellent partner for mini-habits — those tiny, too-small-to-fail habits that can add up to big improvements. You can take your system and turn the steps into mini-habits and eventually make the whole process automatic. That is powerful.
Here is a recap of the principles for creating mini-habits.
- Unhook motivation from action. Don’t depend on will power to make yourself work on your system. Instead of waiting till you’re motivated, start one small, easy activity and make it a habit.
- We form habits over time by repeatedly performing a behavior. Pick one small behavior and do it every day until it becomes a habit. Then pick another one. Repeat.
- Make your habit “too small to fail”, “stupid small”. Commit to do it every day. Consistency is key. If you can’t do it every day, make it smaller.
- These are the “rules” of mini habits: Don’t cheat. Celebrate when you succeed. Give yourself rewards. Stick with your routine. Step back and go smaller if it gets too hard. It’s OK to pick a smaller step . . . it’s not OK to miss a day.
- Enjoy the ease with which you complete your daily step. Once you get the hang of it, don’t set a bigger goal, just add reps – that is, repeat your new mini habit more times during the day.
1. Decide how you can turn your goal into a system. If your goal is to write a book, your system could be to write a specific number of words each day. If your goal is to compete in a triathlon, your system could be your daily work out. If your goal is to win a tennis championship, your system is to practice being where the ball is going to be.
2. Break your system down into steps that can be transformed into mini-habits. If you want to write 10,000 words each day, start with 50 words or some number that you will do every day. As the practice starts to become a habit, gradually increase the number of words. Do this slowly — consistency is key. Don’t set a number that looks good, but which you won’t do.
3. Start your 1st step. Today. Repeat tomorrow. And the next day. And the next . . .
Forget the gold — go for the daily win!
Are goals for losers? Obviously not in every case. People who reach their goals, especially in a big way — think gold medal winners at the Olympics — receive our acclaim and often our envy. Chances are, though, they have followed a system. And for every gold medal winner, there are many competitors who don’t win the gold. But if they have followed their system, they can still feel successful and good about themselves.
Remember Nick Saban and his 6 championship teams. Winning the championship was never their goal. Following the system, The Process, is what they focus on. When they follow The Process, they are successful. And that leads to championships.
Don’t focus on your goal, focus on your system. That is embracing the Excelerated Life!
Excelerated goal setting — planning and achieving BIG goals — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Adams, Scott. How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. New York: Penguin Books, 2013