Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Goals vs systems

Many of us set various goals for ourselves, things that we want to achieve in different areas of life. These goals are often related to personal relationships, economic success, physical fitness, professional achievement, or creative endeavours. The reasoning for setting these goals for ourselves is that once set, they will then guide our behaviour towards activities that will take us closer to these goals, so that eventually we'll accomplish them. Sounds smart.

An alternative to this goal-orientation is something that could be termed system-orientation. What’s the difference between the two? Examples of some common goals and potentially corresponding systems:

A goal is to be physically fit for the bikini season. A system is to move your body in varying ways and intensities several times a week, to eat nutrient dense foods, to get enough rest every day.

A goal is to master a new language. A system is to expose to yourself to situations where you use the language, to make mistakes (painful), to study useful vocabulary starting from the top of a word frequency list.

A goal is to build a successful product. A system is to test vigorously the hypothesis that there actually is a need in the world that the product will meet.

A goal is to be happy. A system is to recognize what activities make you happy and to schedule enough time for these activities in your daily life.

Though the difference may seem subtle, focusing on the system rather than the goal can make a world of difference. First off, straining for a goal can push happiness over the cognitive horizon: ”Once I’ve reached this one more goal, I can allow myself to happy,” the reasoning goes. The problem with this is that once there, the human mind is very clever with coming up with yet another goal to strive for, hence pushing happiness far beyond the foreseeable future. I’ve written on this before.

What’s more, goal-orientation can be bad for the very-long-term progress. You might have witnessed this yourself: what happens when someone who has been on a strict diet and exercise regimen to reach a specific weight-goal finally reaches that goal? Far too often they stop the behavior that has taken them to their goal and yo-yo back to the original weight. The same type of yo-yoing can happen after reaching any other type of goal.

System-orientation avoids both these drawbacks. If you’re committed to a system rather than a goal, there is no need to wait for a completion of a goal to allow yourself to be happy, but rather you can find joy in the system and enjoy the ride. If you’re committed to a system rather than a goal, the number on a scale won’t trigger the yo-yo effect, but rather you will simply continue following the system, revising it when needed.

In the long run, a good system will always win over an ambitious goal.