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Creating a system versus setting a goal

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Creating a system versus setting a goal

Scott Miker

There is a major difference when you use the systems and habits approach to improve. Comparing it to the common practice of setting goals can highlight this difference.

The major difference is that the system attacks how you are going to improve. The goal is simply forecasting what level you hope to reach.

While goal setting might help to establish a general direction for your life, I prefer the vague goals that point to a direction to head instead of a specific objective to hit. This differs from most goal setting gurus who focus on setting very specific, measurable goals. Their idea is that if we are specific we know if we succeeded or not.

If we want to increase our net worth from $1 million to $10 million and only reach $9.5 million, goal setters have failed. While systems creators have succeeded because they created a system to move them towards a higher net worth. They likely put systems in place that can keep them moving forward and growing their net worth.

If we want to lose 50 lbs and only lose 47 lbs, the goal setters failed, while the systems creators have created new ways to lose weight that they can turn to and rely on going forward. This means that the 47 lb loss will likely be sustained by the system creator but will be gained back by the goal setter unless they set another goal right away to lose more weight.

In the book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, the author does a great job highlighting this difference. He says, “The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.”

He goes on to provide a nice, succinct definition of a system. He says, “A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”

Systems are used in many ways but mostly by creating them to help you succeed by detailing the steps to take. Then you focus on continuing to work the system. This allows you to keep aligning your actions with what you need to do in order to succeed.

Many first-time goal setters make a crucial mistake because they are never talked to about systems. So they set a goal that they randomly pick based on what they want. Then they assume effort and willpower will help them reach the goal.

But these things are not as strong as we think. Instead our habits slowly erode any motivation until we are back to following the systems and habits already created in our life. This causes people to miss their goals.

Those that are able to use effort and will to move them towards their objective tend to put all of their focus and energy towards the goal. They sacrifice other aspects (and people) around them for the goal. They work hard. They tend to be miserable until the goal is reached.

Then, when the goal is reached, they often fall back to old habits and lose the benefits of reaching the goal. Successful goal setters tend to have a list of things they have accomplished but always seem to be starting over. They tend to be miserable most of the time, unless they are at the finish line experiencing a win.

Systems creators are different. Systems creators tend to fall in love with the process. They may be taking the same actions and working just as hard but they quickly look to make these systems automatic and therefore pain-free.

I experienced this several times in my life. When I was going to school for my undergraduate degree I recall struggling at times with classes. I worked hard to get a passing grade and sacrificed a great deal to do so.

By the time I went for my MBA I developed great study habits and organizational systems to it was actually much easier and more enjoyable. Yet I was doing harder work, spending more time working on learning and applying the lessons, accomplishing a larger goal, and retaining much more information.

The systems made it so that I could accomplish much more without struggle and discomfort. The study habits made sure I kept up with the work and by being incredibly organized I could outline a project and do chunks of it each week instead of leaving it until the end.

I can’t emphasize this point enough. The systems creating approach allows us to grow and improve while being happy and content. We don’t become complacent. We don’t have to force ourselves to constantly do what we hate. We find better ways to do the things we need to in order to succeed.

So take note of the areas in your life that you want to improve. Instead of simply setting goals and then working to reach your goals, start to look for systematic ways to change what it is you are doing so that you find a better way. Then, work to make those behaviors a part of your normal actions and habits. As they become more and more automatic, they get easier, and you can add more to these processes. This is how you use systems to succeed instead of relying on constant goal setting and struggle.