Why Are Systems Better Than Setting Goals?


“A good system shortens the road to the goal.” ~Orison Swett Marden

The idea of having concrete, achievable goals is deeply ingrained in our culture. I will talk about goals in other posts, but you will never read anything from me that puts goals ahead of process and systems.

For the most part I live without specific, big picture, or even intermediate goals. It’s absolutely liberating, and contrary to what you might have been taught, it absolutely doesn’t mean you stop achieving things. In fact, you can achieve much more, faster and with less, when you focus on a system designed around delivering value, than you will ever be capable of if you focus on static goals.

Developing and perfecting a system will set you up for successes even if you don’t have a specific goal to shoot for. A goal is but a specific project, it may dictate the process, thereby limiting your resourcefulness and creativity and ability to deliver value quickly and continuously.

Consider this common belief: “You’ll never get anywhere unless you know where you’re going.” This seems so common sense, and yet it’s obviously not true if you stop to think about it. No one knows what the future holds, and often our greatest joys and successes in life happened because of random events, or where our proclivities led us.

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” – Zig Ziglar

Consider your work, if you’re involved in any kind of project planning, when was the last time you saw a project start and finish with the goal that was envisioned from the beginning? Hardly ever, and most projects fail because the assumptions were wrong, or the conditions changed, or the path you set out on, the people you started with, the resources you planned on, all turned out to be something different.

This is why most organizations are turning to a different way of doing things, or more agile process that is focused on delivering continuous value rather than shooting for something with unknown or unknowable value. The way companies are doing this is through developing systems and processes that are more flexible, more reactive to change…and change is the reason. That’s because change is the one constant we can all count on and change is the enemy of static goals.

I will often talk about developing habits. In fact the first several posts I wrote in this blog were about creating good habits, that this was the first and most important step to becoming good at anything, or achieving anything. Developing habits begets systems and skills. These are the machines within you that get things done, that achieve great things. Setting goals doesn’t do this.

When you set out on developing a system, or a skill or developing a series of habits, you are embarking on both a known direction but an unknown journey. However the better you get at developing the system, the more exciting and fruitful the journey is likely to become.

Scott Adams on Developing a System

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css=”.vc_custom_1552847530535{background-color: #f2eee6 !important;}”][vc_column][vc_column_text]Dilbert Blog: When I first started blogging, my future wife often asked about what my goal was. The blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make any real difference in my life. It seemed a silly use of time. I tried explaining that blogging was a system, not a goal. But I never did a good job of it. I’ll try again here.

Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicing on a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).

The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. I have my humorously self-deprecating voice, my angry voice, my thoughtful voice, my analytical voice, my half-crazy voice, my offensive voice, and so on. You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. Those articles weren’t big money-makers either, but it all fit within my system of public practice.

My writing for the Wall Street Journal, along with my public practice on this blog, attracted the attention of book publishers, and that attention turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests that are embarrassingly lucrative. So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]I must admit that I have had almost exactly the same experience as Scott with blogging, perhaps somewhat different endings. My experience led to lucrative and exciting jobs, such as the chief technologist of a fortune 50 company, and exciting opportunities to travel the around the world as a technology management consultant. And quite frankly I’m picking up that writing habit, my own system, with this blog, the “Dude from Earth,” to see where it takes me this time.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Your goals should be to have the system work for you instead of your working for the system! Be the hammer – not the nail! – E. Joseph Cossman

Systems versus Goals

Starting a blog is a lot of hard work, the goal in the past was to attract as many readers as possible and sell advertising. Today that’s an unrealistic goal, because advertising is so competitive you would need to be a top blog with millions of readers to make a small amount of ad revenue. A more realistic blog business model today is to write about a niche topic, and use it to develop a business model focused on a specific goal.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css=”.vc_custom_1552847530535{background-color: #f2eee6 !important;}”][vc_column][vc_column_text]Scott Adams continues: My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]There’s little doubt that some goals require dedication to that goal, for example becoming any type of professional that requires a certain level of education, training or certification, such as becoming a doctor, lawyer, or even a plumber. But even in these cases you can drastically increase the chances of you achieving those goals by developing systems around studying and research, and personal time management.

Your ability to achieve a goal is not determined by your desire for that goal. It is more dependent on the systems you put in place that make it possible for you to achieve the goal. And systems are adaptable, they can be applied to just about any goal. So, it stands to reason then that your focus should be on developing your systems more so than establishing goals. Mastery of systems will allow you to achieve goals, but that mastery will also open you up to potentially greater and more expansive opportunities.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

  • If you are a blogger, your goal might be to start a million dollar consulting service. Your system is to test your ideas with the readers of your blog, to build social capital and raise awareness of your idea, to run marketing campaigns or press releases.
  • If you are Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots football team, your goal is to win a 7th Super Bowl, but your system is, determining who to draft for the upcoming season, scouting other teams weaknesses, and developing your players to counteract the oppositions systems.
  • If you are a pool player your goal may be to win the next tournament. But your system is to get your stroke in line, and work on your weak shots. You’ll also want to be well rested and have the endurance to last a 3 day tournament, so you get plenty of rest and regularly do cardio leading up to the date of the tournament.
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Winners and losers have the same goals, but the ones with the superior system will win more often. In professional sports all the teams are comprised of elite athletes. The differences in their individual prowess can’t be measured by most accounts. And even if it could, it’s not a deterministic factor in who wins and who loses. The best prepared is the one that will win more often. The one with the better system.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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