Your parents, teachers, friends, peers and anyone else with who you have talked about achieving something in the future probably advised you to set goals. If they really know their stuff they might have even advised you to set smart goals. To back this up, especially teachers like this one, they told you about the Harvard 1953 or Yale 1979 study. These studies showed that the 3% of the students who had written down their goals earned more than the other 97% combined. This is more enough reason to set goals, right? The surprising answer is no. Both famous studies actually never happened, despite the fact that they are often referenced and used in books. On top of that Scott Adams makes a compelling case for abandoning goals all together in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
It can be though sticking to a goal like going to the gym three times a week. After the initial motivation wears of you have to use your willpower to keep going. A great example of this is the ‘gym of failure’ in January. Because of New Years resolutions the motivation is high and the gym is full, but in February the gym is empty again – the only winner is the gym accountant. On the other hand, setting up a system like being active every day and learning about being healthy works a lot better. If you are active everyday to the degree you feel comfortable you will start to crave the daily exercise after a while, the people who exercise regularly know this. Over time you train your body to increase the level of exercise and as a result you will be fit.
Goals versus systems, lets look at some more examples.
Winning a match is a goal while practicing everyday is a system.
Bench-pressing 120 kilo is a goal whereas getting fit is a system.
Losing twenty kilo is a goal whilst eating healthy is a system.
Learning how to play the guitar is a goal while practicing the fundamentals every day is a system.
If you’re a writer writing a blog post is a goal whereas writing every day is a system.
Goals are for losers.
After you set a goal you feel a brief period of motivation, but once that is gone goals only give you pleasure when you achieve them. And even that gain in happiness is only temporarily because of hedonic adaptation; when we achieve our goals our expectations rise and we want more. Systems however give you little wins everyday as you slowly improve. Little wins increase your motivation making it easier to stick with the path you want to follow.
Goals also reduce your current happiness according to writer James Clear. When you set a goal you’re saying to yourself that you’re not good enough yet, but you will be when you reach your goal. This way you’re teaching yourself to put happiness off until your next goal is achieved.
Having a goal makes it more likely you miss the opportunities that come your way because your focus is so narrow. On the contrary, having a system doesn’t narrow your focus and allows you to capture the opportunities that improve you over time.
Buy a house and a nice car, once achieved, has nothing left to give you.
Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
To make a strong and efficient system Scott Adams suggests replacing willpower with knowledge.
Imagine you choose a system of healthy eating over a goal of losing 20 kilo with a diet. Choosing healthy raw nuts over the tastier, but not so healthy, processed nut bar will take willpower. Unfortunately for us willpower is a limited resource as described in the book The Willpower Instinct. Mark Zuckerberg saves willpower for important decisions by wearing the same t-shirt everyday and we should be saving this precious resource as well.
If you study healthy eating and know that raw nuts are a better snack than a nut bar choosing the healthier option will cost less willpower. By replacing willpower with knowledge you have more willpower left for other decisions.
If, on average, you choose the healthy option for 66 days you have created a habit. Creating habits in your system is what you’re really after. A habit does not require any willpower, in that sense it is good behaviour that you can have for ‘free’. Now you can use your willpower to improve yourself even further.
Should you completely stop setting goals? Well, setting a goal is always better than having no goal or system at all. If you know very clearly what you want, for example a specific job or result, a goal and focus might be good. But most people don’t know what they want to do in a couple years. James Clear says that goals are good for planning progress and systems are good for making progress.
In my opinion you shouldn’t confuse not setting goals with not needing a plan. Find out what is important to you and set up systems around it. For me health is my number one priority. My system to achieve good health is to study the topic and being active everyday. To improve my career in international business I know good communication skills and knowledge are important. My system is to write often and read books daily. If you commit to a system you will constantly improve, there is no end. This continuous improvement will add up and with all the opportunities that come along the way you increase your chances of success.