Goals vs. Systems: The Best Goal Is to Have Great Systems

When it comes to systems versus goals, here's why the best goal is to have great systems, and how to start.


Key Points

  • Success is more likely if you focus less on your goals and more on the systems that get you there.
  • The best-designed systems follow best practices, include feedback mechanisms and steering, and use intrinsic motivation as fuel.
  • A goal’s probably not worth pursuing if it feels like too much work to design a system for getting there.

“Humans will always think in terms of goals. Our brains are wired that way. But goals make sense only if you also have a system that moves you in the right direction.”

Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

One summer, I had an ambitious goal: To be able to two-handed dunk on a regulation 10’ net from a standstill.

Something like this:

YouTube video

So, starting in June, I went to the Trimble park basketball courts a couple of times a week to practice my jumping. I also threw in sprints, strength training, plyometrics, and stretching.

I gave my goal all I had!

But by early August I could hardly two-handed dunk a tennis ball from a standstill. So I gave up.

Which is sad, because if I had known then what I know now, I might have succeeded. Now I’m 37. The gravitational force of reality has become too strong, so I’ve missed my chance.

My mistake is one everyone makes all the time in pursuing all types of goals:

  • to get fit,
  • to meet “the one,”
  • to be less stressed,
  • to find their dream career,
  • to earn financial freedom,
  • to become a hotdog-eating champion.

The mistake?

Trying too hard to rise to the level of my goal.

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits,

β€œWe don’t rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems.”

James Clear

So, for a much better chance of slam dunk success, work on your systems.

Soup Up Your Systems

Look at it this way:

  • A goal is some destination you hope to get to.
  • A system is the vehicle that gets you there.

Too often, as was the case for me and my dunk dream, we jump into whatever rickety, rusted, gas-guzzling tin can of a system we have handy and sputter toward some far-flung goal. But the tank-fulls of motivation we start with often aren’t enough to get us where we want to go.

We’d break down a lot less and make smoother progress if we channeled our early energy toward souping up our systems.

That means:

  • Thoughtful design. Research best practices, not only what you think you know or your friend told you to try.
  • Sustainable fuel sources coming from a purpose greater than “be able to brag that I can dunk flat-footed,” regular rewards for achieving “inch-pebbles” on the way to major milestones, and social support and accountability.
  • Gauges for measuring rates of progress rather than results. This is where goals come in. To paraphrase Nat Eliason’s argument in his post, Systems Without Goals is a Path to Mediocrity, you have no idea how well your systems are working without goals or targets to peg them against.
  • Mechanisms for inspecting and getting feedback on your systems’ performance.
  • Steering for veering in interesting directions rather than heading straight after some far-fetched goal.

But even a NASA-worthy system is no guarantee of success.

Odds are you could never dunk a basketball from a standstill no matter how well you train. And I still might not have succeeded within the over-ambitious 3.5-month window I gave myself that summer. Even so, we can achieve better results, have a better time along the way, and make it further in the long-run with more thought-through systems.

Sometimes, though, it’s not worth the effort.

If I had known back then to focus less on my goals and more on building better systems, I might not have bothered at all.


Because I’m not sure I ever wanted to do a two-handed, flat-footed dunk badly enough. I care much more about my long-term fitness goal of being an “Old-lympian.”

So that’s worth keeping in mind:

If a system feels like too much work to implement, that may be a sign your goal is not worth going after.

It’s only when you make the process your goal that the big dream can follow.

Oprah Winfrey

How to Improve at Installing Systems

Practice by setting mini goals and implementing simple systems to achieve them.

My favorite way of doing so?

Going after a 30-day challenge.

  • You can’t lose. If you fail, you can still earn a positive ROI by learning from your mistakes. And if you succeed, you develop the confidence to take on bigger challenges.
  • You can find company. 30-day challenges are short enough that you can usually find others to join you.
  • You can reapply existing systems. Like my “30-Day Challenge Anti-Failure System” or the tips in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.

Or go meta. Work on a system for organizing all the systems in your life. Doing so has been one of the biggest anti-regrets of my life. From my experience, it works best not to copy some productivity guru’s Notion templates, but to start super simple and evolve from there.

Silly Little 40-Second Summary

YouTube video

Thought Starters

  • πŸ‘¨β€πŸ­ What are your 15 projects? Brian Little’s research finds that we have, on average, 15 “personal projects” going on at once. These projects define who we are. What are yours? And what systems do you have for working on them?
  • πŸ€Ήβ€β™‚οΈ Skills over success. For example, rather than, “I want to meet someone special this year,” Mark Manson suggests, β€œI want to get better at connecting with others.”
  • πŸ’₯ Conflicting goals = unhappiness. For example, if you want to enjoy your vacation but also want to finish your manuscript, you’re putting yourself in an impossible situation. Angela Duckworth suggests minimizing such conflict by intentionally sequencing and giving yourself credit for doing the best you can.
About the author

πŸ‘‹ I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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