All Commentary
Saturday, January 28, 2017

Goals Inspire Us, but Systems Transform Us

Honest, realistic goals turn into habits, and that's what changes our lives.

One of the commonly cited problems with a great deal of self-help philosophy is the overemphasis on positive thinking, affirmations, visualization techniques, and other motivational tools that produce short-term inspiration but that often fail to help people create lasting changes.

Overzealous decisions set us up for failure at the very outset, and destroy our confidence in the long run.On a recent episode of the Accidental Creative podcast, Todd Henry addresses this issue in an interview with self-help author Gretchen Rubin who wrote a book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, to help people break the frustrating patterns of self-defeating decisions that obscure their pursuit of happiness and health. Rubin argues that the key to a happy and healthy life is not merely a matter of positive thinking, but is more a matter of building constructive habits.

One problem that keeps us from doing this, according to Rubin, is our insistence on trying to adopt behaviors that we think are “right” or “good,” rather than focusing more on developing rituals that work for us. She encourages those who desire to create lasting change to be honest with themselves about their already-existing habits and to try creating new habits that are consistent with the established ebbs and flows of their life.

If you are a person who hates or struggles with getting up early in the morning, for instance, she says it might not be wise to all of a sudden say “I’m going to wake up every day at 6 a.m. and go for a run.” These are the sorts of overzealous decisions that set us up for failure at the very outset. Moreover, they tend to destroy our confidence over the long-term, thereby making it harder for us to try again in the future. 

Echoing the sentiments of Al Switzler’s entertaining and humorous TEDx talk, Change anything! Use skill power over willpower, Rubin warns against falling into the try harder trap:

Don’t rely on self-discipline … Some people want to fight their way though the day. People often say to me, “Well, I want to learn to make healthy choices.” Don’t make healthy choices. Make one healthy choice. Then stop choosing. Don’t every day decide whether to go to the gym … that’s going to exhaust you and drain you. You want to say “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8pm, I’m going to go to the gym.” And there’s no more decision-making. There’s no more thinking that over. There’s no self-control. There’s no willpower. It just happens. And with a lot of behavior, that’s what you want to do. You want to put it on automatic, so you don’t have to use a lot of self-control.

In other words, our success is mostly determined not by in-the-moment self-control, but rather by our ability to effectively construct systems that naturally lead to progress. In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Shane Parrish observes “systems trump goals.” Quoting Scott Adams, Parrish shares the following idea:

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.

[O]ne should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavours. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

Adams has looked for examples of people who use systems versus those who use goals. In most cases, he’s discovered that people using systems do better and they are more innovative. “The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways,” he says in the WSJ.

The idea here is that a system is something you execute, while a goal is something you desire. A system can be implemented immediately. A goal might require you to wait for the right conditions. A system is process-oriented. A goal is results-oriented. A system allows for multiple successes. A goal is usually all or nothing. Reading for 20 minutes a day is part of a system. Being smart is a goal. Attending one social event a month is part of a system. Making friends is a goal. Exercising for 30 minutes a day is part of a system. Being physically fit is a goal.

To be fair to the complexity of language, we could easily dismiss everything written above as irrelevant or misleading if we insist on saying “a system is not what you, Shane, and Scott are saying it is” or “a goal is not what you, Shane, and Scott are saying it is.” What’s important, however, is not the debate we could have over the labels we use to refer to these things. What’s important is realizing that we can’t create the results that matter most to us without involving ourselves in processes and practices that gradually transform us into the kind of people who organically realize those goals.

This reminds me of some very valuable ideas shared by James Clear in How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good. In discussing the concept of identity-based habits, James says:

… [T]he beliefs you have about yourself can drive your long-term behavior. Maybe you can trick yourself into going to the gym or eating healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift your underlying identity, then it’s hard to stick with long-term changes. Most people start by focusing on performance and appearance-based goals like “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”

But these are surface level changes. The root of behavior change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.

The only way I know to shift the beliefs that you have about yourself and to build a stronger identity is to cast a vote for that identity with many, tiny actions.

Think of it this way …

Let’s say you want to become the type of person who never misses a workout. (If you believed that about yourself, how much easier would it be to get in shape?) Every time you choose to do a workout  —  even if it’s only 5 minutes  —  you’re casting a vote for this new identity in your mind. Every action is a vote for the type of person you want to become. This is why I advocate starting with incredibly small actions (small votes still count!) and building consistency.

This idea comports very well with my own beliefs about the value of daily rituals. I identify three benefits of committing to daily processes that can be completed by the end of each day: 1) The self-mastery and skill development that results from performing challenging tasks based on commitment rather than convenience 2) the sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that comes from consistently meeting specific goals 3) The self-awareness and self-actualization that comes from repeated investment in constructive or creative action.

Both of my colleagues, Isaac Morehouse and Zak Slayback, have written excellent blog posts about how they use the power of self-imposed constraints to increase their personal freedom and productivity. In Some Rules I Have, Morehouse states,

One of the best ways to experiment and find ways to get more productive and happy is through testing various rules. It’s also a great way to learn about yourself.

In Rules for Myself, Slayback adds,

When we think of rules, we tend to think of regulations that are imposed on individuals and the groups into which they associate by some detached or outside power. The rules that govern employees in large corporations, the regulations that govern these corporations, and the case law that governs these regulations are just a few examples. Rules don’t have to be imposed by outside actors, though. We oftentimes either buy into rules implicitly (e.g., norms that govern our behaviors, attitudes, manners) or hold ourselves to specific rules. The latter can be thought of as rules imposed. An ideal version of ourselves — the self that we want to strive to become — requires rules imposed on the non-ideal version to reach the ideal.

Goals inspire us, but systems transform us. The thing about goals, though, is that they have lots of sizzle. Goals often sound so impressive that they can seduce us into feeling like we’ve accomplished something merely by talking about them. Systems are far less glamorous than goals, but it’s the day-to-day rituals that make uncommon achievements truly realizable.

In Meditation from the Heart of Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man warns against the all-too-common tendency to get addicted to an ecstatic experience. The antidote, according to Omer-Man, is the practice of embracing “noble boredom.” Noble boredom refers to all of the not-so-fun activities that make the fun activities possible. Noble boredom is the source and substance of a free and fulfilling life.

Goals don’t challenge us. Commitment to specific processes challenges us. The important thing is to not let ourselves off the hook by thinking only in terms of what we want. After identifying what we want, we need to do the hard, but rewarding, work of discovering and devoting ourselves to the disciplines that help us reinvent ourselves.

By strategically creating our own rules, we gradually become the rulers of our own lives.

Republished from

  • T.K. Coleman is the Education Director at FEE and a co-host for The Minimalists Podcast.