Goals Are Not Enough To Get You What You Want

difference between goals and systems

Last week was interesting.

At the gym, I did a headstand without help. I also held my body in the plank position for over five minutes. At home, I wrote 3,200+ words for a project. Plus, I increased speed and improved clarity at playing the bass guitar.

All this was apart from my daily profession, consulting businesses for over ten hours a day.

The thing is, I didn’t set out to achieve any of this. Everything just fell in place. Would I have fared better if I had set specific goals?

No Goals for Goals

In 2001, Manchester United were in trouble in a game against Tottenham. They were 3 — 0 down at half time. During the break, their manager Alex Fergusson was realistic. He told the players they were in a royal mess. The tension in dressing room was thick enough for a knife to cut.

Then Fergusson said, “Score the next goal and let’s see where that takes us.”

Teddy Sheringham was then playing for Tottenham. He was a former Manchester United player. When they walked into the tunnel to take the pitch Sheringham was barking at his team-mates, “Don’t let them score early.”

Obviously he knew something the rest of the team didn’t. Because Manchester United did score one goal. That led to, as unbelievable as it sounds, four more.

Manchester United won the game 5 — 3, without setting an explicit goal to win.

The Difference Between Goals and Systems

A goal is an aim or a desired result; it’s an object of someone’s ambition or effort. A system is an organized set of procedures to do something.

If you’re dieting, losing weight is a goal. Your system is to eat right.

If you’re a financial investor, making money is a goal. Your system is to track your investments and hunt for better opportunities.

If you’re a professional, getting a pay hike is a goal. Your system is how you work and how you highlight your work to the right stakeholders.

If you’re a bibliophile, completing a book as soon as you can is a goal. Your system is reading a certain number of pages every day.

If you’re married or in a relationship, happiness is a goal. Your system is the steps you take each week to make the relationship work.

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve something in the future, it’s a goal. — Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

Most people ignore systems and chase goals. But most people also give up long before they get close to those goals.

Why Goals Are Clearly Not Enough

Why do people give up on goals? Why, when others talk to them about those goals, do they turn sour? There are many reasons, out of which I’ve listed three.

1. Goals make you anxious.

According to Scott Adams, you celebrate and feel terrific if you achieve a goal. That is until you realize you lost the thing which gave you purpose and direction. You now will feel empty and useless, enjoy the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failures if things don’t work out at worst.

Goals pressurize you. They can cause anxiety, which robs the fun of taking action because you enjoy it.

Imagine how the players of Manchester United would’ve felt if Sir Alex had said, “We have 45 minutes to score four goals. Make every bloody minute count!”

2. Goals make you want to control the outcome.

As mentioned above, a goal is a desired outcome or result. This means, each time you set a goal, you try to predict the future.

You try to plan where you’ll be and when you’ll make it there, explains James Clear. You try to predict the speed of progress, though you don’t know what situations will arise along the way.

How did you feel the last time you prayed for an outcome, but the opposite occurred? Now imagine feeling like that each time you set a goal and you don’t achieve it.

3. Goals (even the long-term ones) are short-sighted.

You might set a long-term goal today. But the goal is in line with your current abilities.

As you progress, you evolve. You recognize what works for you, and what doesn’t. You identify what you want to do, and what you can do without. But you didn’t include those aspects while setting a goal.

Setting a long-term goal makes you focus on the path ahead, without looking around. This means you could lose out on the potential to achieve more than you had set out to achieve in the first place.

Become a Systems Person Instead

Systems people face no such qualms.

They succeed each time they apply the system. They don’t have to fight discouragement at every turn. Instead they feel good each time they apply their system. The initial progress of systems-oriented people might appear slow, like they’re going nowhere. But over time, their progress is more rapid than goal-oriented people.

I’m not saying goals are useless. Goals can push you forward in the short-term. But it’s well-designed systems which enable you to progress and win consistently, per James Clear.

Here are four ways you can use systems to enjoy consistent progress.

1. Say “No” to Perfection

Real Artists Ship. — Steve Jobs

Don’t try to paint the Mona Lisa the first time you pick a brush. Don’t wait to make a painting until you’re capable of painting a masterpiece either. Trying to get everything right the first time round is a recipe for failure.

Instead, lower your standards. Make a test product or sketch and put it out there. Your creations don’t have to be the best. When you create something good by your current standards and share it, you push the boundaries and prepare yourself to grow.

After all, perfection is overrated.

2. Create More

A pottery teacher split her class into two halves. The first half, she instructed to spend the semester studying, planning, designing and creating the perfect pot. A competition at the end of the semester would decide whose pot was the best.

The second half, she instructed to make a lot of pots. She would grade them on the number of pots they finished. They also could enter their best pot in the competition.

Who made the best pots? Students from the first half? I thought so too. But all the best pots came from in from the second half. Practice led them to make substantially better pots than their strategizing peers.

When you channelize all your effort and attention on just one thing, you worry about the outcome and others’ responses. When you create more, you don’t have time to worry about the response, because you’ve already begun working on other things. This lets you stay calm, analyze your work objectively, and make improvements.

Keep the flow of constant creation churning. Spend time analyzing what you created, but don’t let it stop you from creating more.

do more to achieve your goals

3. Don’t Focus on the Outcome

I believe in the process more than the result. If you are properly prepared, physically and mentally, committed to the task and fully engaged in the moment, then most of the times the outcome is positive. — M.S. Dhoni

People often focus on the end result while working. The Bhagavad Gita advices otherwise. Do not let the fruit of purpose be your action, it says. Thus, you won’t ignore your duty.

Enjoy the journey more than the destination. The more you root yourself in the present moment, the better your journey. And when you enjoy the journey, you’re okay with the destination too. It won’t matter whether the destination was delightful or disappointing.

Forget about the end result and engross yourself in what you do. Fall in love with the process and the present moment. Let a larger force take care of the results for you.

4. Keep Learning

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners. — Benjamin R. Barber

Most people’s learning stops as soon as they get out of college. The truly remarkable people start learning AFTER they get out of college.

To have good ideas, you must consume good ideas, wrote Charles Chu. This consumption (tempered) of good ideas is what lifelong learning is.

Related: 8 Things About Lifelong Learning They Never Taught You At School

Don’t just consume ideas and forget about them. Read, deliberate, apply, and practice. Create feedback loops to track how you perform in different areas. Retain what works and discard what doesn’t. Give yourself five hours each week to learn and apply something new. If you can’t spare five hours for yourself, you can wave self improvement goodbye.

Investing in self is the best investment you can make.

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Summing Up

To become self reliant, dependable and autonomous is the dharma (duty) of every human being. To get there, start with small wins every day instead of waiting for that one big breakthrough.

Goals help keep the drive alive. But systems and processes will help you achieve those goals and more. It’s not the 100th punch that knocks a boxer out, but the 99 before it. It’s not one gush of water which makes a concrete wall collapse. It’s the consistent dripping of water which weakens the wall.

Lionel Messi became an overnight success after following systems rigorously for 17 years, 114 days. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, rarely counted among the best wicketkeepers, became the first wicketkeeper to complete 100 stumpings in One Day Internationals. Not because he set a goal to do so, but because he followed and refined his systems. The milestone and record were by-products, not an end in themselves.

I achieved what I did last week because I followed systems. Instead of setting goals, I was consistent at the gym and at writing, apart from my daily work. The result? Everyone felt pleased with the outcomes — my instructor, clients and myself.

Don’t set a goal to achieve something specific. Set a goal to become better than you were yesterday. Use systems to track whether you improved in key areas.

When you’ll prioritize systems, you’ll do much more than you would by setting goals. Plus you’ll experience happiness and peace of mind. Now won’t that be an achievement!


  1. Shailaja Vishwanath October 16, 2017
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  4. Sloane Carey October 19, 2017
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