Forget About Goals: This New Year, Try a System

Each New Year, millions of people pick specific aspects of their lives that they wish to improve. Despite the interest, in nearly every case, no meaningful change occurs. One study from shows that only 9% of goal-seekers achieve their so-called ‘New Years Resolutions.’

The Western, cultural emphasis on goal-setting and achievement is still dominant. However, the repeated failure of the masses to actually achieve their goals, is a damning indictment on the merits of this approach. It is time for a different way of thinking about achievement and personal progress.

This year, you can join the 9% who actually achieve their New Year’s Resolutions and you can do it with much less stress and much more fun. All you have to do is ditch your attachment to a predefined goal, and replace it with a system that moves you forward. 

The SMART Goals Movement

The popular framework that people have used for decades now is the SMART Goal. This is taught in workplaces, business schools, and just about everywhere else. But does it actually work?

A corporate consultant by the name of George T. Doran created this concept in 1981. The title of his massively influential paper was “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” 

The ‘SMART’ logic breaks down as follows. According to Doran and his disciples, goals should be:

  • Specific – the outcome is clear and not too broadly defined.
  • Measurable – a quantifiable indicator of progress is defined.
  • Assignable – resources and people who will help on the journey are leveraged
  • Realistic – we should pick goals that are attainable.
  • Time-Specific – if no timeline is identified, the level of urgency will be too low.

It sounds so ‘smart!’ How could it be wrong? Well, as the old adage goes, all that glitters is not gold.

The Problem with Goals

Anyone who can come up with such a nifty acronym is undoubtedly clever, and smart. But the results are in and SMART goals have not been effective.

Why? Here are a few major problems with goals, whether SMART or otherwise:

  1. Imperfectly Defined

Goals can be difficult to define, especially when one lacks experience with the required subject matter. An imperfectly defined goal is toxic when adherents stick to it steadfastly. Even with knowledge and experience, we are almost always missing crucial information at the stage where goals are defined.

  1. Misdirected Focus

By clinging to a rigid, preset goal, we are virtually guaranteed to miss valuable learning. Progress is made from the learning, and application of information. Goals restrict this process, to varying degrees.

  1. The Dead End

When the goal is not met, a loss of motivation is a natural reaction. This is often followed by demoralization. Even if we accomplish the goal, there is still a dead end because the question remains: What comes next? Goals cannot answer this question because they live in the past. Only a well-functioning system can bring about new insights, knowledge, and even new goals.

Goals lead to a dead end.

SMART Goal logic teaches that failure to achieve is due to a lack of clarity. This is false. It is the lack of action that holds people back. Clarity comes later, often at unforeseen times, as we constantly evaluate our progress on the path of learning.

Most people get this backwards. 

It is easy to convert goals into a system that is tailored to your own unique lifestyle. To do this, you need ‘will,’ not ‘skill.’

Build a System Instead

Perhaps we have been influenced by too many movies and stories with variations of the following popular plot line. How many times have we all seen this movie? The lovable protagonist perseveres against all odds as they embark on an arduous path toward some sort of triumphant accomplishment.

In reality, things work quite differently. Clinging to the narrow path while ignoring new information tends to do nothing more than create unnecessary stress. It is not glamorous, nor is it particularly helpful to think this way.

Blogging extraordinaire Issac Morehouse explains the value of a systematic approach to improvement by considering something that many young people do – play basketball. He poses the question, how do people improve their basketball skill

It turns out, we can learn all we need to know here by examining what people do not do. When playing basketball, people do not sit back and theorize. They do not set pointless goals beforehand. They play, play some more, and regularly reflect on what they can do better. Coaches and teammates facilitate this process repeatedly over time.

Goals may emerge in the process but they are short-lived and flexible. If we put raw, athletic talent aside, the best basketball players are the ones who adapt as they go. They are constantly learning and mastering their craft. This is true of any sport or skill.

The looming and somewhat disturbing question is, why do we reinvent the wheel when it comes to improvement in other areas of life? 

Two Practical Examples

Consider how much more likely success is when the following examples of goals are converted into sensible systems:

Failure-oriented Goal 1:

To lose weight by exercising.

Conversion to a System: I go to the gym 3 days per week for 1 hour sessions on my way home from work. In each session, I perform a repertoire of 5 pre-selected leg exercises, abdominal, and chest/shoulders. I adjust as needed.

Failure-oriented Goal 2:

I will save more of my money.

Conversion to a System: On the mobile budgeting app that I just downloaded, I will track my expenses. I have forecasted that if I stay at pre-planned levels of my chosen expense categories, I will have $500 extra dollars each month to put into my savings account. I adjust as needed.

In each of the above examples, it is the system that generates progress. Consistent engagement with the system transforms the goal into something more practical. The key is to be comfortable enough with uncertainty to allow this to happen and make the necessary adjustments over time. 

You do not even need to be perfect, you just need to let things happen without attachment to a specific outcome. Building a workable system is infinitely more important than building the perfect goals.

Systems of Action

Goals encourage us to think in terms of ‘all or nothing’ instead of ‘some of something.’ When chosen for the wrong reasons, whether too broad, or too rigid, a debilitating loss of motivation tends to follow. Without a system to lean on over a period of time, it can be difficult to rekindle the spark that is required for motivation when it wanes. 

Systems virtually guarantee that some progress will be made, whereas goals tend to misdirect focus. A goal encourages a steadfast, rigid, path toward a predefined mission that is made with limited information. A system encourages and even guarantees progress because it is flexible, nimble, and actionable. 

We need the system to gain knowledge and valuable inputs.

This year, put the system first. Convert your goals into an actionable system, interact with it regularly, and focus on incremental progress instead of the impossible task of fitting everything you do neatly into an unnecessarily specific, predefined outcome. 

You may just find that you finally get closer to where you want to be. Enjoy the journey.

Further Reading:

What is Goal Setting? – James Clear

Education and Bike Riding – Issac Morehouse

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

*In particular, chapter 6 entitled, “Goals vs. Systems” is excellent.

Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away – Annie Duke

Atomic Habits:An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones – James Clear

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please consider making your purchase through these links as these help financially support the Deep Dive Careers platform.

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