A while back, I read this book (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big – Scott Adams) and in it I came across an idea that shifted the way I approach the pursuit of success. The idea is this – systems are better than goals.
As a person who is a bit more than a little interested in being successful, I am very familiar with the idea of goals. Any self-respecting personal development book would expound on the virtues of goal setting and plan making and list ten steps to general awesomeness. It seems reasonable enough, I mean, how can you hit a target if you don’t have one. If you want to be successful, find out what you want, set goals, make the appropriate plans, execute, achieve, rinse, repeat.
There are people (like Leo Babauta) who propose a goal less way of life as a pattern of living that focuses more on present inspiration, mindfulness and non-judgmental action. This framework lends itself to the whole idea of openness and raises some interesting questions, but that’s a topic for another post. Let’s assume that you agree that goals are essential for success.
The problems with goals are tri-pronged. The first problem is the prediction issue. The assumption when you make a goal is that you think you know (a) what you want and (b) you believe that getting what you want will make you happy.
The second problem is the usual unconscious assumption that the whole world will remain fairly static in the time it takes you to get there. Your mind also plots the clearest route imaginable to that result and decides that said route is the only way to get there.
The third is the implication of the goal itself. As long as you have not achieved it, you are a failure, or at best in a state of pre-success failure.
Now, studies have shown that we are bad at predicting what would make us happy, and general happiness doesn’t vary much after a certain level of material wealth.
So essentially, you can achieve your goal…and then find out that you actually hate it. This now raises other questions – what goals should I pick, what would make me happy, what are my values in life, what is the meaning of life and soon enough you are swirling down an existentialist whirlpool of questions and more questions.
You can obsessively chase goals and achievement as endorsements of your well being, self worth, and right to life, with the possibility of climbing up the wrong wall or wrecking everything else in your life just to get there.
Even if you bypass all that, what happens when you do achieve your goal? You celebrate, the feeling passes and now you need a new goal for life? No, you need a better reason/framework for living life than just chasing goals.
At this point, lets separate the whole concept of happiness from goal achieving. You can be as happy as you choose to be regardless of your circumstance. That is all a matter of perception and awareness. Goals in my opinion have a different use. You can have them to make sure you do live up to your potential, or as a benchmark to measure your efforts, your skill, your work…never you as a person.
And for this purpose, having a good system is better than having a great set of goals. A system is a web of daily (or at least weekly) actions, strategies and habits that create a desired effect. A goal is that desired effect. The pitfall with being too focused on the goal is being disconnected from the actual grit and grind it takes to get there. Being system focused roots you in the day to day and moves you towards your intended result.
Granted, you can argue that being system focused is really just another way of chasing goals. Yes it is, goals are important and useful. But when it comes to living well and living happy, being system focused has much more benefit than just being hyper focused on goals.
We set goals because we want certain results in our life, we want to feel a certain way, have certain things, do and become certain people. When you really break it down, do you want a million or do you want financial freedom/abundance? Do you want to get to a certain weight or do you want to be healthier and have more energy? Do you want to be CEO or do you want a position of responsibility and competency?
What if we designed systems into our daily lives that allowed us to increase the feelings/situations that we wanted and decreased those we don’t want. You want financial freedom? How about you put a system in place that allows you to use your money better. You want to be fit? How about you make it easier to eat better and incorporate some exercise into your daily routine. You want more opportunities? How about you put yourself out there more and interact with more people.
Its take a bit of a mental shift to implement this but if we focused more on systems than goals, I reckon we would probably get to our goals in no time, and be much happier getting there.