Growing up and in school, it felt like we were always taught to set goals. I had it drilled into me that to achieve something you need to set a goal for the grade you wanted to achieve, the time you wanted to run, the number of books you wanted to read.

But for me, these goals never felt very real. They had a tendency to fall through or get forgotten and even in the cases where they were met, it was clear to me that the goals themselves weren't the real motivators for success.

Then last year, I came across the YouTuber Ali Abdaal and through consuming the content he puts out in his videos, newsletter and podcast, the mantra of 'systems over goals' became embedded in my mind.

The argument for why we should prioritise systems over goals is made by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits as such:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals: just having the goal itself doesn't predispose you to attaining that goal. Survivorship bias can cause us to see success stories as proof that what drives success is having the goals. We ignore the lifestyle, thinking and systems that truly drives success.
  2. Goals are short term: goals last until you achieve them, systems are for life. In many cases, there is ‘yo-yoing’ that occurs after a goal is met. When looking at people who strive for a target weight or a target marathon time, we see that after their goal is met, the gains that are made quickly deteriorate if the progress suddenly comes to a stop at the realisation of the goal. Systems on the other hand persist and continue to drive progress.
  3. Goals put a limit on your happiness: goals are binary - you either meet your target or you don't and your happiness is predicated on that win or lose outcome. Goals also mean delaying your happiness into the future at the expense of right now (similar to the idea of the deferred life plan that Tim Ferris talks about in the Four Hour Work Week). You should enjoy your systems to avoid having your fulfilment dictated by the attainment of a goal.
  4. Goals go against long-term thinking: goals are a finish line - finite games instead of the infinite ones we should pursue. Success shouldn't be a target to meet, but a lifestyle and process to build.

The idea that we should be focussing on the building of systems that drive consistent improvements changed the way I look at achieving success.

My sights shifted from eyeing far away goals to tinkering and self-experimenting with the systems right next to me. I got to work on building the best systems: a morning routine, a Personal Knowledge Management system for the content I was consuming and habits like reading, journaling and exercising.

But after a few months of doing this, I felt an absence of purpose. Without any defined why or direction to where these systems were taking me, I found that they were hard to stick to and it was easy to see them as pointless routines. My systems began to crumble.

Picking up Atomic Habits for myself changed everything for me and I was hit in the face with the realisation that I had missed a key part of the equation:

"Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress." - James Clear, Atomic Habits

Systems without goals lack structure, direction and purpose which matched exactly with what I was experiencing. Before we set out to change the how - aka the systems that will drive improvement - we need to address the why and what that comes from the goals we set ourselves.

Charting Goals and Progress
Photo by Isaac Smith / Unsplash

Going into 2021, I have gained a sense of direction for my systems through the goals I have set and the why's I have defined.

I have been amazed by how setting goals and defining a North Star for progress has revitalised my systems and made them stick. Now whenever I feel like I don't want to do something I know is good for me or feel like giving up on a habit or routine, I revisit my goals which picks me out of my slump as I keep the landmarks I'm running towards in my sights.

Both goals and systems are powerful tools we should seek to leverage in our pursuit of learning, thinking and doing better and the relationship between the two is what makes them so powerful.

Goals spark and steer, systems drive.