Setting Goals Might Not Be the Right Way to Achieve It: Why Systems Trump Goals

Bookmark’s Journal
4 min readJul 4, 2023


Grab any self-help or business books

Literally any… In most self-help or business books, you’ll encounter countless pages that celebrate the transformative power of setting clear goals.

However, this praise for goals is slightly misplaced because they have two main problems: they are future-oriented and overly specific.

This article proposes a possible alternative not only to achieve life’s goals but also to preserve and sustain them.

Goals Create an Illusion of Failure

Let’s start with the temporal trouble. All goals are situated in the future, but in order to achieve them, you must do work in the present. When you begin working toward a goal, you usually won’t see immediate results. This can be frustrating and discouraging, leading to a sense of failure if the goal is not achieved exactly as planned.

The specificity of goals often creates an illusion of failure. People tend to feel that if they don’t accomplish exactly what they set out to do, they haven’t accomplished anything.

For instance, say you want to lose 20 pounds before Valentine’s Day. This is a laudable goal, but it has some inherent issues. First, you’ll only get to celebrate when you achieve it. Second, if you fall one pound short, you’ll feel like you’ve failed.

Goals Naturally Evolve Over Time

Personally, I am often asked by finance professionals, “What are your financial goals?” I find the question rather vague and difficult to answer, as it comes with a lot of emotions attached to it. Feelings can be difficult to put into words.

With the changing dynamics of our daily interactions with the world, goals can indeed change as individuals evolve and their values and interests shift. It can go from “I am saving enough money to study for my master’s” to “I will use my money to start a business.”

Since plans are often fluid and subject to change, relying on them as a foundation can be risky.

Goals should not be your cornerstone when facing life’s great challenges.

Why Systems Trump Goals in Achieving Success

Scott Adams, the author of “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” suggests instead of having big goals, try creating systems that focus on the present and can be integrated into daily life. Systems provide daily satisfaction from successfully operating them and can help establish habits that lead to lasting success. Thus, the argument that systems are a better approach than relying solely on goals arose. Unlike goals, systems are firmly grounded in the present and can be integrated into your daily life, meaning that you can derive daily satisfaction from operating them.

Adams discovered the power of systems by chance. On a flight, he was seated next to a man who explained how systems transformed him from an employee to a CEO. His system was simple: keep moving from job to job, always seeking something better. Even though he didn’t have a clear end-goal in mind, this system allowed him to accumulate so much know-how that he ended up in the CEO’s chair.

Systems Also Surpass Goals Because They Lack Specificity

Creating systems simply means creating an environment where goals can thrive and grow.

Let’s revisit the example of losing 20 pounds discussed earlier.

To achieve the goal of losing 20 pounds, it is wise to establish a system. A systematic approach, such as a workout regimen consisting of 3 days of 1-hour weight training and 2 days of 30-minute cardio per week over a planned 6-month period, is designed to generate the desired result. This approach helps establish a habit, maintain motivation, and keep expectations in check. A system serves as an anchor to determine whether you are on track.

For instance, if you only work out 1 day of weight training and 1 day of cardio training per week, it is unrealistic to expect a 20-pound loss within 6 months, and therefore, you should be aware that you are not on track to meet your goals.

This is why achieving your goal is a byproduct of having a workable system.

Think of the system as the soil that needs to be cared for, with the right nutrients and minerals. While the seed represents your goal that will eventually bloom into a flower given the right environment to grow.

Although setting a goal may be an easy task, breaking it down into a workable system can be difficult. Therefore, I suggest starting by asking the following questions in a specific order to bring more clarity:

  1. What is the expected duration or timeframe for accomplishing this goal?
  2. What is the minimum investment required to achieve this goal?
  3. What specific actions can I take on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to bring me closer to my desired outcome?
  4. How will I know if my system is working and on track to achieving the desired results?
  5. How can I modify or adjust my system if it is not working as intended?

Asking these questions not only provides clarity for completing a task with minimal expectations but also enables you to maintain your goal even after it has been achieved.

How would you build your own system? Let me know in the comment section below!


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Bookmark’s Journal

To allow individuals to direct their financial future by authoring their own purpose, so that they can increase their income and choose their lifestyle