Article of the Week

Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

BY James Clear | December 17, 2013|

What I'm starting to realize, however, is that when it comes to actually getting things done and making progress in the areas that are important to you, there is a much better way to do things.  It all comes down to the difference between goals and systems.  Let me explain.  What's the difference between goals and systems?We all have things that we want to achieve in our lives -- getting into the better shape, building a successful business, raising a wonderful family, writing a best-selling book, winning a championship, and so on.  And for most of us, the path to those things starts by setting a specific and actionable goal. At least, this is how I approached my life until recently. I would set goals for classes I took, for weights that I wanted to lift in the gym, and for clients I wanted in my business.

  • If you're a swimmer, your goal is a time. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you're a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you're a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.

Now for the really interesting questionIf you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would.  Let's talk about three more reasons why you should focus on systems instead of goals.

1. Goals reduce your current happiness.

When you're working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, "I'm not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal." The problem with this mindset is that you're teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. "Once I reach my goal, then I'll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I'll be successful."

SOLUTION: Commit to a process, not a goal.

Choosing a goal puts a huge burden on your shoulders. Can you imagine if I had made it my goal to write two books this year? Just writing that sentence stresses me out.  But we do this to ourselves all the time. We place unnecessary stress on ourselves. Instead, you can focus on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals.  When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.

2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.

You might think your goal will keep you motivated over the long-term, but that's not always true.  Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?

This can create a type of "yo-yo effect" where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This type of cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.  SOLUTION: Release the need for immediate results.

3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.

You can't predict the future. (I know, shocking.)  But every time we set a goal, we try to do it. We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there. We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way. SOLUTION: Build feedback loops.

Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything. Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.

Fall In Love with Systems - None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I've found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. In fact, I think I'm going to officially declare 2014 the "Year of the Sloth" so that everyone will be forced to slow down and make consistent, methodical progress rather than chasing goals for a few weeks and then flaming out.

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

What is your swimming process now? (a few suggestions)

  1. Do everything exactly right.  Become obsessed with counting repeats, executing drills, etc.
  2. Work every wall – EVERY wall.  Make it a mission, no lazy, illegal, or poor technique turns OR streamlines.
  3. Act everyday as if you were the leader of this team, as if the success and “character” of the team was solely up to you
  4. Train like a warrior. Push limits.  Inspire and motive others.  “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”
  5. Touch one person with compassion, empathy, and support – EVERY day.  Care more.  Be a great teammate.

Can this be what consumes you? Your process?