It’s that time of year again: the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new. It’s a time of renewed motivation, effort, and focus. It’s a time to reflect and review the past year and get excited about the possibilities of the upcoming year. For me it’s a time of learning and optimism. Last year I learned a very important lesson. It is that we often incorrectly focus on goals, to achieve our resolutions, instead of systems.

Goals are the end result. As such they’re important to set and be aware of, but they have little to do with the process of achieving them. Systems are the things that occur daily, weekly, and monthly, to get us to those goals.

As James Clear, author of the article that taught me this concept, puts it:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. 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.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Now for the really interesting question:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

The answer, for most things, is “YES.” If you watch the bowl games the next few days, pay attention to the interview of the coach of the team that’s loosing at half-time. You’ll hear them say “our team didn’t execute well,” or “our team didn’t cover well,” or “our defense didn’t stick to their assignments.” In other words, our team didn’t do the fundamentals well. Our team was too focused on the abstract concept of “the win” or being champions, or all the fun they’ve been having before the game. They weren’t playing focused, systematic football the way we practiced. Practice and execution are a few of the systems that get teams to the goals of big wins and championships. And you could probably toss the goals aside and focus purely on the systems, and still have the same, or possibly better results.

As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert put it:

Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don’t enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment – especially if you overdo it because you’re impatient to get results. When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself “too busy” to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don’t want to do it anymore. …

Compare [that] with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it – no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.

James Clear even goes as far as to spell out some specific problems with goals, that are remedied by just focusing on systems:

  1. Goals reduce your current happiness.
  2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.
  3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.

Rather than rehash his points here, I encourage you to read that excellent article. But I will give you the 3 corresponding points that fix those problems, when you focus on systems:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal – When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
  2. Release the need for immediate results – Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process….
  3. Build feedback loops – Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.

Finally, when you design your systems, make sure they’re behaviorally sound. What does that mean? It means they still work the next day or the next week, when your will-power has run out. You can read our New Year post from last year for more information.