How Replacing Goals with Systems Can Make You Better at Almost Anything

Photo of Chris Meier

Chris Meier

May 13, 2014 • 13 min read

We are exposed to the concept of goals early in life, listening to our parents and their friends talk about New Year's resolutions from before we can pronounce the word, much less spell it.

And it is a somewhat foolish approach to goal setting that stays with us for much of our lives. Later in our lives we might be exposed to the mnemonic SMART, which attempts to redefine goals by introducing criteria:

We are exposed to the concept of goals early in life, listening to our parents and their friends talk about New Year's resolutions from before we can pronounce the word, much less spell it. And it is a somewhat foolish approach to goal setting that stays with us for much of our lives. Later in our lives we might be exposed to the mnemonic SMART, which attempts to redefine goals by introducing criteria:

  • Specific - What do you wish to improve/achieve
  • Measurable - How will you know if you are making progress
  • Achievable - It must be realistic and attainable
  • Relevant - It must be relevant to your career, or your personal life
  • Time-bound - There must be a target date for achieving the goal

But as Scott Adams observes:

“goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

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 your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.”

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

and employing SMART criteria does not change that. In the Harvard Business School working paper Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, the authors remind us that goals often result in in-attentional blindness. We become so focused on a specific goal that we don't notice other issues, and problems, that appear. And many times we don't even learn anything valuable by achieving the goal.

By way of example, think about one of the most common New Year's resolutions - weight-loss. What frequently follows is a poorly structured regimen of diets (or meal plans) and exercise, with little attention paid to any side-effects, and very little learned at the end. A far more practical system, not goal, would be to effect a lifestyle change; gradual changes to your eating habits and overall behaviour that result in weight-loss as a benefit, rather than as a goal.

While goals serve some purpose within the workplace, assuming they have been carefully considered and applied, they offer very little benefit to individuals. When it comes to your own personal life, and your career, systems are more practical and rewarding than goals.

How Systems Differ From Goals

We cannot talk about systems and goals without acknowledging that there are some similarities - the outcome or benefit of a system could be seen as a goal, and most people employ a system of sorts in their pursuit of a goal. However, the systems employed to achieve a goal are often temporary, and are either abandoned or forgotten as soon as the goal is reached. A true system is a change in lifestyle or behaviour that eventually becomes a habit.

“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.”

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

To avoid getting tied up by semantics we can look at systems as a process that leads to a habit.

The Use of Habit Forming Systems

Contrary to popular lore, habits are not formed in 21 days. The average number of days it takes to turn a behavior into a habit is closer to 66, as revealed by a University College London study, and discussed by Jeremy Dean in his book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick. The exact number varies according to the habit, with more challenging behaviors taking much longer to become habit forming.

One of the primary reasons for turning certain behaviors into habits is automaticity. Loosely defined, automaticity is the ability to do things, or complete certain tasks, without too much mental effort - think of walking, talking, reading, even driving a car. The entire process isn't completely automatic, but many of the associated actions are, and often there are multiple tasks being performed at the same time.

The use of habit forming systems, as opposed to goals, is best explained by way of an example:

My System to Becoming More Productive

One of my goals for this year is to become more productive, and stated simply as a goal it is rather vague. It is also quite a broad goal that, by implication, affects many aspects of my life, so repurposing it as a SMART goal is also tricky - it would end up being several different goals, each with their own measurement scale and time frame. This not only complicates the process, it also increases the chances for failure - fail to achieve one goal and your forward momentum falters.

Instead I have chosen to implement systems that, in isolation and collectively, improve my productivity:

  • I have determined that my most productive hours are between 8am and 12pm, so I now write between those hours. I am a freelancer, so I am able to be quite disciplined at avoiding unnecessary distractions during my writing block - minimal social media, email and phone calls during this time. Afternoons are reserved for all tasks that aren't directly related to writing - research for upcoming projects, admin, even personal errands.
  • My approach to research was not very systematic, so that too was changed to make it more efficient.
  • For email I have started using Boomerang in conjunction with Gmail, allowing me to write all my correspondence each afternoon, and schedule it to be sent the next morning or at some other time in the future.

It appears rigid, but in reality it isn't; the only task that has a set time is my writing, everything else is done according to the time needed to complete, and not all tasks are daily tasks. I don't have daily admin tasks, but research is a daily task so is always started immediately after lunch.

An added benefit of habit forming systems is that they usually have a built-in feedback loop, so I don't have to create an additional layer of measurements, nor am I faced with an ever diminishing time frame in which to achieve anything. At the end of the day I simply ask myself:

  • Did I write for 3-4 hours?
  • Did I do research for upcoming projects?
  • Is my admin and email correspondence up to date?

Feedback loops are an important part of goals and habit forming systems, but with goals the length of the feedback loop is usually measured in weeks and months. With habit forming systems they are, by necessity, much shorter and easier to evaluate, not forgetting that there are actually two feedback loops involved. The first is the daily feedback - did you accomplish your daily tasks connected to your system - and the second is the eventual attainment of a new habit, and any benefits attached to it.

Kaizen - Change for the Best

Kaizen, a Sino-Japanese word meaning "good change", has evolved into a philosophy of continuous improvement that in some ways resembles the practice of one percent improvement. A more technical expression would be "the aggregation of marginal gains", and it was an approach used by Dave Brailsford. Writing on his website, James Clear explains it as follows:

In 2010, Dave Brailsford faced a tough job.

No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, but as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), Brailsford was asked to change that.

His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires.

But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.

Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.

Kaizen, or marginal gains, is something that web and software developers are already exposed to, even if they don't use these terms. Versioning is a form of marginal gains, with each version (major or minor) including feature, speed, performance, or stability improvements. It also means that developers are even more acutely aware of the fact that continuous improvement is essential - any new feature that is added to an app affects overall speed and performance, requiring additional work to counter this.

In relation to systems, you can either follow your own process of marginal gains instead of a habit forming system, or in tandem to one. In relation to my writing, I am first trying to make daily writing (at set times) a habit, without any target number of words connected to it. Once I have established daily writing as a habit, I will then introduce a process of marginal gains by first identifying my average output, and then attempting to increase that each day, in small increments.

Long-Terms Gains, Not Short-Term Wins

Both habit forming systems and improvement through marginal gains can be applied to almost any aspect of our lives we would like to improve - personally and within a work environment.

  • Start by evaluating your current situation, and deciding what you would like to change or improve.
  • Once you have decided, you move on to establishing what is needed in order to effect change or improvement. As a developer you may want to become more proficient in certain coding languages or frameworks, so you could start by identifying what is preventing you from being better skilled, and then seeing how this can be changed or improved.
  • Only after you have identified what is needed can you start working out what systems to put in place that will ultimately bring about change, or lead to improvement. These can be habit forming systems, a process of marginal gains, or a combination of the two. Habit forming systems should, ideally, focus on things you do (or can do) daily since you are looking for frequent repetitions of the same behaviour. It is more difficult to form a habit around something you only do periodically.
  • Don’t try to implement everything at once - you may find that in order to change one thing, you first need to change something else. Find the connections and start with the easy behaviours first, using any early gains as motivation for the tougher ones.
  • Determine what the feedback loops are, before finally implementing your new processes. If you need some sort of structure to the process you will find there a numerous web and mobile apps available that are focused on habits. These include 21 Habit, 43 Things, Don’t Break the Chain and Habit List. For a more social approach you have Everest and Lift.

Photo by James Clear.

The biggest benefit of both approaches is that they offer long-term gains, versus the short-term wins normally attached to goals. Remember that habits take time to form, and they require persistence. Similarly, marginal gains won't deliver immediate results. Instead the small improvements compound over time, resulting in those long-term gains.

Photo of Chris Meier

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Chris Meier

Chris Meier is an article and web content writer, and a true web enthusiast. His personal interests...

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