Systems vs. Goals: Which One Is Better?

At the beginning of each year, Jenn and I like to ask ourselves these 2 questions: 

  • If you could sum the previous year into one word, what would it be?
  • If you could focus on one word for this year, what would it be?

We’ve found this to be helpful because it gives us a sense of what the year did to us, if only distilled into a word. 

It also helps us set our eyes on the “theme” for the next year. Where we want to focus our attention moving forward. 

Why am I telling you this?

Because if I could describe 2020 in one word, it would be “Chaos” to put it simply. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about why (cough, cough, COVID), but needless to say, that’s what I choose.

So, at the start of 2021 the theme – or word – I wanted to focus on was “Systems.”

Little did I know how impactful that decision would be for me.

To kick off 2021, I read a book called “Thinking In Systems: A Primer” by Donella Meadows (I highly, highly recommend this book). 

It was the first of many books I’ve read so far on the topic of thinking in systems as opposed to goals. 

Before we go any further, let’s set the definitions for the two words. 

Goal – the end toward which effort is directed.

System – a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.

Hopefully you’ve noticed something here. 

The major difference between a system and a goal is… one is infinite, the other has an end.

I’m still chewing through this concept myself, but I’m beginning to notice a recurring pattern when it comes to “success,” however you define the word.

I have an example to provide a little clarity:

I played baseball competitively through high school. Every year, our coach would tell us that our goal was to win the state championship. 

It was a major milestone for us. Standing in front of a crowd of hometown fans, holding the trophy. 

We did what all the conventional thinkers said to do… 

We visualized our end point. Talked about it every day. Thought about it every practice. Wrote down our achievement. 

And we “failed”. 

Every year.

We would get to district championships (and one year regional) and lose by a run or two. We would always go home, feeling like we failed ourselves, our family, and our school. We failed to achieve the goal we worked so hard to actualize. 

And this is the problem. 

Goals are binary in nature. You either achieve it, or you don’t. It’s black and white. 

And if you haven’t achieved the goal. You’re a failure until you do. You’re constantly steeped in this feeling of “missing out.” That only when you achieve “the thing” will you be considered a “success.”

The same can be said for anything in life. 

My “goal” was to graduate college… Or I wasn’t a productive member of society. Every day on the journey to graduating college, I would consider myself “not worthy” or a “failure.”

My “goal” was to get 6 pack abs… Or I wouldn’t be attractive. Every day on the journey to getting abs, I would consider myself unattractive or a “failure.”

My “goal” was to hit quota… Or I wouldn’t get promoted and make money. Every day on the journey to achieving quota, I would say to myself that I wasn’t worthy of becoming an AE until I did. I was a “failure” until I hit my goal.

Hopefully you get my point. In reality, what I was doing was incredibly insidious to myself. I was building a system of thinking where I was never “worthy” until I achieved “X.” 

I was exactly the person Scott Adams described in his book “How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big”. 

He said: “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

Knowledge and improvement don’t work like this. There’s never an “end point” where you plant your flag and say: “This is IT, I’m now done forever.” 

That would be silly, but that’s exactly how I used to think. And I suspect it’s how a lot of “high achievers” think too. 

Compare all of the above with the concept of a system. 

I mean – look at the very definition of system: “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.

Principles, frameworks, procedures, and systems are all timeless. In a sense, they’re infinite. 

And THAT is the game you want to play. One that doesn’t end, and includes countless opportunities to improve over multiple iterations. 

You know it’s a system if you can do it every day, for as long as you live. 

I can give a good example to help provide clarity. 

You could say my goal is to build a successful blog. You could even say I have a revenue target in mind. 

Yet – I’m not focusing on the goal, at all. 

In fact, the only thing I care about is performing one 90 minute session of undistracted work where I write at minimum 500 words. 

I know I can do this every single day, for infinity. It’s a “process” or the “how” of achieving the goal of a successful blog. 

I don’t even think about the goal. I only focus on doing a session of undistracted work. 

Because I know the principles of a blog: 

  • Content
  • Links

It’s also incredibly motivating and I feel accomplished every day. 

In a sense, I’m playing a long term game, one that’s the most enjoyable because in theory it never ends. 

And so far, I’ve observed that thinking in this manner is the most effective for every part of life. 

Want to lose weight? Your system could be to only purchase healthy food only. Simple and timeless.

Want to make more sales? Your system could be to make more cold calls (or cold emails). Simple and timeless.

On and on.

In the end – the system I’m most focused on is continuous improvement. It’s a game I know I can play until I die, and it’s one where I feel like a “winner” every day. 

Hopefully this resonates with you. It’s an idea I’m continuously refining and working to unpack more and more. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *