Goal setting is great in theory. Write down your goals, maybe write them down every day, carry them with you… And in a year nothing has changed. Let’s be honest… Most of the time goal setting simply is not enough to get things done.
Even when you break BIG goals down into little steps and then gradually work towards those goals, it still doesn’t work for many people.
If you are one of those people who can routinely achieve the goals you set, then congrats – you can stop reading right here. But if you’ve set goals – and set more goals – and set even MORE goals – and you STILL don’t have what you want…
…or maybe you don’t even like setting goals…
…then I’m going to propose you do something a little different.
Stop sweating the goals and instead focus on systems.
You thought I was going to say habits, right? Habits are good but they’re not always flexible enough to get you to where you want to go.
Here’s an example of the difference between a habit and a system. Let’s say you want to bench press 250 pounds. You can make it a habit to do weight lifting at 6am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But if you don’t have a system for increasing your reps and weights over time, you’ll never reach your goal.
Habits are repeatable actions you do without thinking, like going to the gym at a certain time on certain days. A system is a series of actions you take, like systematically increasing reps and weight to reach your goal. If you’re just lifting weight without a system to increase reps and weights, you’ll never improve.
Goals alone without systems can be detrimental and limiting. Princeton’s theology school did an experiment: Theology students were told to go to another building on campus and teach a class on The Good Samaritan. You’ll recall that the Samaritan story is about a man who was beaten and left by the side of the road. Others walked past him, but the Good Samaritan stopped and helped him.
Students were told to go teach the story of the Good Samaritan to another class. But they were also told they were late and must hurry. An actor was planted on their path, lying on the ground, hurt, moaning in pain and even screaming twice.
Every single theology student ran past the injured person to go teach the class on the Good Samaritan. One person even stepped over the person in pain to get to the class.
The goal was to get to the class and make the presentation on time and the students were blind to any other possibility. They were so focused on that goal that they missed the bigger picture and personal perspective to help the injured person. But if these students had a system by which they lived, that system would likely have prioritized living the story of the Good Samaritan rather than just teaching it.
If you have a goal to earn a million dollars a year, you might bend rules, break laws or even hurt people to achieve that goal. But if you have a system that says you make money by providing real value to others, then you’re going to stay on the right path.
I think of the difference between habits and systems like this:
A habit is, “I write every day from 8am to 10am.
A system is, “I work on writing a book every day from 8am to 10am for two months, at which time I’ve completed a book. For the next 3 weeks I market and promote the book during this time, and for the fourth week I do research and outline my next book during this time. And then I repeat the system.
This might be an oversimplification, but the point is the system has more flexibility than a habit, allowing you to adapt as you go. Figure out what you want to achieve and then create systems to get you there. Build flexibility into your system so that when something unexpected happens, you know how to get back on track.
Lastly, focus on your system (the process or journey) and not on the goal (your destination). When you give your attention to where you are now (the system) you’ll find you’re much happier in the moment than if you are continually wishing for the goal itself. You’ll be able to celebrate little victories every single day by using your systems, rather than putting happiness off until you finally reach your destination.
Plus when you do reach your destination, because you have systems in place, you also won’t experience the paradoxical and yet all too common experience of feeling empty or sad because you no longer have that big goal to look forward to.