Systems vs goals

It’s THAT time of the year again. Annual reviews, goal setting, new year resolutions: it’s planning-porn all over the web.

Are you in planning mode, too?

Yearly planning is a tiresome decision making marathon. You squeeze your neurons to predict a future. But you never have enough information. It’s a losing game.

Given the emergency situation I decided to shake things up a little. This issue is a little different from usual. Let me know how you like it.

Goals are not enough

I stopped setting goals a while ago. I save time, energy and anxiety this way.

And no, I don’t run without direction like a headless chicken. 😅

I have dreams. I have values. I feel a mission.

I don’t set precise goals such as: “I want to make 100k by dec 31st”.

I make progress through systems, not goals. Systems (someone calls them processes) are actions I repeat regularly that guarantee a small continuous improvement, of my results and my skills.

Here are some examples of systems:

  • writing 500 words daily,
  • cold-emailing 10 prospects daily,
  • reading daily and collecting notes from the best books,
  • working out 3 days per week,
  • keeping a decision journal.

Recurring tasks (like writing this newsletter) are taken care of through systems.

One-off projects, short or long need planning, obviously. But my yearly plans always ended up in the trash. So know I go at most 6 months in the future, more probably only 3 months.

In a small business, nowadays, long term plans are useless. Things change too rapidly.

And no, I’m not referring to the pandemic. New opportunities open every day, acquisition channels dry out, new marketing platforms are born, clients come and go, you get to know better what you love or hate doing.

The problems with goals

I gave you the definition of systems and some examples. But how can goals be that bad? Everyone is betting on them.

Two advocates of systems are James Clear and Scott Adams. You can find their arguments here and here.

Winners and losers have the same goals

Only systems lead to success through continuous improvement. Think about the workout routine of an Olympian versus the one of an amateur runner.

Goals guarantee unhappiness

You are unhappy until you haven’t reached your goal. When you finally do, satisfaction quickly evaporates. Hedonic adaptation be damned!

Goals are at odds with long-term progress

They create the “yo-yo” effect typical of many diets. You give everything to reach the goal.

Then, satisfied, you relax and go back to your old habits.

Goals are blindfolds

Every step forward brings new possibilities into view. You improve skills, uncover passions, get to know new people.

When you are solely focused on a goal, you can’t see anything else. And even if you manage to, you can’t distract, you don’t have time, attention, or the energy for anything else.

Systems can fall short, too

Often contrarian views are taken to the extreme. Disgruntled goal setters jump onto new and promising productivity techniques. They want to get rid of the source of their unhappiness.

So, no more goals: from now on only systems.

But Nat Eliason argues:

We can’t discuss what it means to improve a system without some idea of what improvement means.

Aaand… welcome back goals!

Confused? Here’s some help: goals set the direction, systems are best for making progress. (You can read about it in James Clear’s article)

Or, put another way, consider goals as benchmarks for your systems.

To get the best of both worlds, follow these steps:

  • set your goal, not too distant in the future (a year is too much),
  • design a system (or several systems) to achieve it,
  • check that you are able to regularly carry on that system,
  • at the due date, see if the goal has been accomplished.

If you don’t reach your goal, either the goal or the system has to be changed. Make a small change and try again.

At the same time, if the system is unbearable, adapt it.


It’s hard to get rid of goals as we know them. But systems guarantee to accelerate your results.

Which system are you going to implement first?

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