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Forget Goals, Focus on Systems Instead

If you're like most people, you woke up on New Year's Day tired, groggy and maybe hungover.  But also with some sort of goal that you had proclaimed you would work on.

Studies show that 60% of people make New Year's Resolutions each year, but only a paltry 8% achieves them.

Where a lot of us go wrong with our well-meaning goals is that they're a bit vague or not specific enough such as "be more healthy" or "go to the gym" (which by the way were in people's top 10 goals in 2020 according to Polly).

But there is another more important reason why we fail so miserably at our annual goals.  We are focusing on the wrong thing.

It's culturally accepted that if we want to get better at something, we need to set goals.  As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says in his book, problems arise when we spend our time focusing on a goal, but not on the system to achieve them.

Underlying this issue is that we believe we need to change our results.  But they're not the problem.  The real issue is the actions we create to achieve our results.  In other words, whether we consider and design the systems or daily habits to achieve the goal.  Typically, when we focus on a particular goal, we are solving the problem at the result level.  It's a temporary fix.  What we need to do is to solve problems at the system level.

So say your goal is to go to the gym.  You might do that every day for the first week in January, but then there's too much friction.  You sleep in, someone invites you to their holiday house for the day or whatever.  Life gets in the way.   To control for that you have to design a robust system.  That is "I will wake up at 6am every weekday and go to the gym for 30 minutes."  The trick is creating a system that you enjoy and reduces the friction.    For some people, that might mean designing a habit to go to the gym after work or planning a 10 minute session rather than an hour.

Goal setting is binary; creating an unhelpful “either-or” conflict.  Either you achieve your goal and you’re a success or you don’t and you’re a failure.  Why so many people fail so miserably when it comes to new goals is that they fail to design a system that works for them.  At the first failure, they give up (and then feel bad about themselves).  A systems-first approach is the antidote.  A system where you feel good about yourself anytime the system is running - not because of achieving a vague goal.  In other words, going for 10 minutes is still an achievement as opposed to not going at all.

A systems-based approach to goals is also critical in the workplace.

If you have set goals with your team this year, sit down with them individually and ensure that the system behind it is motivating and easy to do.  Designing the habits and activities that works for you all is the best goal planning.  As James Clear says "If you genuinely care about the goal, you’ll focus on the system."