One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was a very simple but powerful idea from Scott Adams—the creator of the comic Dilbert—in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s just this: Lose the goals, build systems instead.
Most ambitious people are very goal focused. We set goals for everything from finishing a project, to losing 20 pounds, to completing P90X, to getting straight A’s to buying a home to whatever. But there’s a problem with this approach. As Adams notes,
“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of success until they bore you, or set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.” (Pg. 32)
And that’s if we hit our goals, often times we don’t and that just makes things all the worse.
A system, on the other hand, is more eternal and also more flexible. Here’s how Adams differentiates the two,
“The system-versus-goal 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.
“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.” (Pg. 33)
He then gives an example of one of his systems; He must go to the gym each day. Now notice, I didn’t say he must work out each day, he just must show up at the gym. If he can’t handle it that day, he can just leave. But usually, just walking in is enough.
As they say, putting on your shoes is the hardest part of a workout.
Since reading this, I’ve adopted this mindset. Sure, I still throw in some specific goals on top of these systems, but only if they are subordinate to and fit into the framework of the system.
For example, I was having the problem of eating out too much during the work week, and not eating healthy at that. Our busy lives make this temptation hard to beat, even if you have the goal to lose weight. So I made the simple system that I’m not allowed to eat out on my own or buy any food to eat right away (particularly from convenience stores). I can eat whatever I want, but it must be from the groceries I bought earlier unless it is a meal with friends or colleagues.
Then I try to buy healthy food when grocery shopping, which I generally don’t have a problem with.
This, along with adopting Adam’s workout system has dropped 16 pounds off me in the last five months.
On another note, I have a very hard time getting up in the morning. So I made the system that I have to take a shower before I can turn my alarm off and go back to bed. I can hit snooze again, but only after a shower. Usually, the shower, especially if you blast yourself with cold water for 5 to 10 seconds, will wake you up enough to not need any feel the need to hit the snooze again.
Another problem I have is surfing the Internet, reading random articles and listening to podcasts when I should be doing other things. Sometimes these articles accumulate on my phone and computer as the open tabs easily get into the double digits. So I made two systems: 1) No leaving any open tabs when I go to bed. I can either read the article or close the tab, but I must do one before calling it a night. And 2) No listening to podcasts unless I’m doing something else (like driving) or if I go out for a walk. That one’s new so we’ll see how it goes.
Then I just keep track of how many days I can hit all my systems in a row. If I miss a day, no big deal, I just start over and see how long I can go again.
The thing is that life can throw some curve balls at us. Sometimes major opportunities can come out of nowhere. You want to be able to turn on a dime. But goals keep us locked in on something that may no longer be the best path. They also leave a void when they’re completed or simply linger or create disappointment and frustration if they are not. And in the meantime, you live your entire life striving for something that is in the future and thereby fail to live in the here and now and actually enjoy the present.
Adams is right. “Goals are for losers.” Systems are the way to go!