Goals vs Systems

Books Comments

In the book How to fail at almost everything and still win big, Scott Adams talks about why Systems are better than Goals. Consider the example of losing weight, a goal-focused person would be thinking I need to lose 20 pounds in 5 months whereas a system-driven person would be saying I need to spend 30 minutes in the gym everyday. Although they seem quite related, the difference lies in where the focus is - goals focus on the end-result whereas systems focus on the process.

A goal is a specific objective that you achieve (or don’t) in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.

And this applies to most things that we do - in the world of running, running a half marathon under 2 hours is a goal, but running 3 miles twice a week is a system. In the world of skiing, skiing a black diamond trail comfortably is a goal, but skiing every weekend is a system.

Goals vs systems

Here’s why systems are better in most cases -

  1. State of Continuous Failure -

    Goals are harder to achieve and systems are easier to follow.

    In the example of losing 20 pounds, a system-driven person feels good every time he/she hits the gym whereas a goal-focused person exists in a state of nearly continuous failure till he/she reaches the goal. And if the goal is not met (for whatever reason), it feels like a failure. A couple of places where you can relate to this -

    New Year Resolutions - This is probably why most people fail at their new year resolutions or why few people are scared to set them :)

    Game of Cricket - In a 50-over cricket match, it is common knowledge that it’s always difficult to chase a score of 300 than to score 300 in the first innings. The batsmen in the first innings focus on the system - playing to the merit of the ball whereas the batsmen in the second innings are forced to chase a specific target/goal.

  2. Post Success - One can argue that we get a sense of achievement or extreme happiness when we reach a goal and this is lacking in a system-driven approach. It is true that we enjoy and feel terrific when we achieve a goal and most of us take a break from the hard-earned success. But the celebrations end when the spoils of success start to bore us or when we’ve realized that we’ve lost the thing that has given us a direction and purpose until now. While some people fail to come out of the spoils of success, the rest re-enter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure again (a lose-lose scenario)! A couple of places where I can relate to this -

    The Curse of Roger Federer - From the 2012 Australian Open until the 2014 Roland Garros, the 8 players who have defeated Roger Federer at GrandSlams have gone on to lose the very next match. Players tend to get complacent and fail to motivate themselves soon enough for the next match (usually in a couple of days) :)

    The IIT success - I’ve always wondered how someone after cracking the IIT entrance exam (one of the toughest exams for Undergrad education in India), perform so poorly in the first semester or in some cases, the entire 4 years of undergrad. I’m sure there are various reasons for failure but unable to reset their goals after tasting success is definitely one of them.

The ideal thing to do is to set a realistic goal and focus on the system (not thinking about the goal often) but I’ve seen very few people do this consistently. Elon Musk achieves his audacious 10-year goals but I believe people like him are the exception and not the norm. For the rest of us, as Scott Adams bluntly puts it, Goals are for losers.

Kaushik Rangadurai

Code. Learn. Explore

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