For most of us, we’ve been told to set goals in order to achieve and morph into a productive and successful person. Since my early elementary school years, I remember having to write down all the goals I hoped to accomplish at the start of each week as a homework assignment. Setting goals became an ingrained part of my daily routine. I constantly strived to check off the boxes on my to-do list, and wasn’t satisfied if items remained unchecked by the end of the day. Don’t get me wrong, goals are not inherently bad things. The problem arises when we become so fixated on the goal that we forget about the journey.
It was only when I got to college that I realized my habit of living life through the cycle of setting goals just to check them off was leaving me unfulfilled and unhappy. After reading James Clear’s bestselling book “Atomic Habits”, I decided to replace goal-setting with system-setting and see whether anything changed. According to Clear, the difference between a goal and a system is that “(your) goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.” I soon came to find that focusing on creating strong systems increased my productivity and cultivated the positive lifestyle changes I sought. Rather than solely focusing on the outcome, I grew to appreciate the process and how it shaped me. Here are three reasons why this mindset shift was so powerful for me, and why I think you should adopt it too!
Fosters sustainable, long-term positive changes
Picture this: your room has clothes strewn all over the carpet, food wrappers and dirty dishes clutter your desk, coffee stains soil your sheets and piles of dirty laundry occupy your chair. You decide to set the goal of cleaning your room. After three hours, it returns to its spotless, picture-perfect state. But after a week, it’s back to its post-apocalyptic condition and the cycle repeats. The problem is that though you’ve accomplished your goal of cleaning your room, you haven’t addressed the root of the issue — the system that got you there in the first place. As Clear puts it, it’s akin to “treating the symptom without addressing the cause.” Accomplishing goals equates to only momentary change. If you want lasting, long-term positive change, then you have to change the system. Continuing with the example of a messy room, imagine creating a system which would prevent the accumulation of so much mess in the first place: Putting things back where they belong, having a set laundry day each week and doing dishes right after you use them would help get you there. By changing the system, you’re solving the problem at its core and creating a desired outcome that is lasting rather than fleeting.
Creating lasting positive change by committing to refining, tweaking and improving the process of reaching your desired outcomes prevents burnout. This is because you’re no longer caught up in the rat race of chasing the same outcome over and over again. For example, if you only focus on the goal of having a clean room, but never change your systems for organization and tidiness, then you’re going to be spending a lot more time and mental and physical energy cleaning. By changing the system, you no longer start with the mess. You can get the exact same outcome — a clean and organized room — with less effort and strain because you’re stopping the bad habits that contribute to disorganization and clutter at the root.
Avoids disillusionment and frustration
Oftentimes when we set goals, we tie our happiness to achieving them. For example, we might tell ourselves, “I’ll only feel beautiful if I lose 20 pounds”, “I’ll only let myself relax once I make six figures” or “I’ll only feel loved once I start dating someone.” Such mentalities can be extremely harmful, especially considering that our journeys are not linear and not everything we envision ends up manifesting itself. In a similar vein, when we set goals, we usually also set a time constraint. The problem is that we’re often completely unaware of how much time it will truly take to achieve that goal. Even if the deadline you give yourself sounds reasonable, there are a variety of different stumbling blocks that could impede your progress and get in the way. For example, your metabolism might slow down or an economic recession might hit. The point is, not everything that life hits you with is under your control. By restricting our happiness to the confines of having reached our goals, we are setting ourselves up to feel frustrated and disillusioned. From this negative headspace, we are more likely to engage in toxic and self-destructive behaviors as well. To avoid this brew of negativity, focus less on the outcome and more on the daily habits you need to change to get to that desired state. Fall in love with the process and find happiness and satisfaction from relying on a solid and stable system.
Hopefully, the aforementioned reasons have inspired you to start thinking more about systems rather than goals. Don’t abandon goals altogether, but rather use them as guiding “North stars” for building up your systems! We at the Clog wish you all the best in your journey toward creating a healthier, happier and more productive lifestyle!