Note to myself: Setting goals doesn’t work, set systems instead

Setting goals doesn't help

Setting goals does not work, it just produces frustration. Instead set systems in place in order to succeed.

Conventional wisdom states goal setting helps you stay focused, however if you don’t attain them you have failed. Scott Adams, cartoonist of the Dilbert comic strip and author of “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”, blew my mind when he proposed setting goals is futile, instead he is in favour of setting systems. With systems you aim to acquire the habit of cultivating skills rather than hunting down a specific goal. For example, people who want to become fit (or simply put want six-pack abs), shouldn’t just go to the gym and keep checking whether they are getting closer to that goal. Most people will get discouraged by not seeing a difference after 2, 3 or even 6 weeks and will ultimately give up altogether. Rather, try to cultivate the habit of working out regularly, ideally daily. The difference between systems and goals might be somewhat confusing at first. Scott Adams explains that if you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal but if you do something every day, it’s a system. He mentions that many human endeavours can be categorised into goal-oriented or system-oriented thinking. For example, losing 10kg is a goal, but working out every day is a system. Trying to get a promotion is a goal, but aiming to consistently deliver a little bit more than expected is a system.  Trying to ace a test is a goal, but devoting an extra hour in the morning before going to school on understanding the subject is a system. Trying to get a master’s degree or a PhD is a goal, but daily dedicating time on understanding and researching your topic of interest is a system.

In this way, you know what to do, just show up, do the workout and you’ve succeeded for the day. Perhaps after 6 weeks, you will not notice a difference in your body, however it is likely you will have acquired the habit of working out regularly. Eventually, you may add new exercises to the daily workout and who knows one day you’ll actually start to see a difference but remember that’s not the goal. Simply show up every day and follow the system you have set out. Just get started.

The exciting part of setting a system is that you don’t know where it may take you. Several months after diligently following the system, you might actually blow past your initial goal (that you didn’t set). And since you are following the system, you won’t look back and decide to slow down or stop because you reached your goal. The risks of setting a goal is that 1) you fail and get discouraged, 2) you hit the goal and you slow down or stop altogether and 3) you delay your happiness until you reach your goal. In contrast, pursuing your system every day, gives you the instant gratification that you are on the correct path. Let me give an example from my own experience. I believe in challenging myself and voluntarily making yourself suffer. Since I hated running, I decided to run each day, for 30 days, up to Primrose Hill and back which equates to around 5.5km. You could perceive completing a 30-day challenge as setting a goal, however I like to see it as “tricking the brain to start a system.” At the beginning I thought to myself “why am I doing this again?” and really disliked the activity. It was boring and it tired me out. However, after a few days of running I started to research literally “how to run”. I started listening to audiobooks about running and approximately midway the 30-day challenge I thought to myself “perhaps I should run a marathon?”. My initial plan was to just do this annoying 30-day challenge and then never look back on running again. Now 1 month after completing the challenge, I am still running regularly and I’m thinking to myself “why stop at a marathon, 50km sounds like a fun challenge”. I hope this illustrates, setting a goal from the get-go might limit yourself. Not in my wildest dreams, would I have set out to attempt a 50km run. I simply just started to run regularly and afterwards imagination took over. Don’t mistake me setting out to run 50k as my goal, it’s simply another step in the system I have set.

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