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28 Comments

Forget about goals, fall in love with systems

  1. 16

    I'm talking to James (the author) tomorrow, so this post and a lot of what he says in Atomic Habits have been on my mind as of late.

    The point that resonates with me most is that if you're driven by a goal, then once you accomplish it, you'll immediately drop all the habits and processes that got you there.

    I had a goal once to run a really fast mile. I trained daily and dieted heavily, and I got to my 5:20 mile. Then I celebrated and quit all my training because what was the point in continuing? Separately, I have an "identity" of being a moderately fit person, so whenever I start to slip, I get a little more serious about my dieting and exercising processes and snap back into shape. So I've consistently been moderately fit for the past 10 years. Identity and processes last much longer than goals.

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      Nice, didnt know you ran! 5:20 is really speedy. I did 6:20 recently

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      This book puts a lot of pieces about productivity together for me. My favorite quote is related to what you mention; 'You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system'. I've printed it and put it on my monitor to remind me on focus on the system/what is close to your identity.

      Although its discusses personal productivity most, the principles apply to building your business as well, and what is important.

      Customer support is a good example in this, you don't want your users to get the answers they are looking for within minutes only for one week or month, you want to do this consistently. Especially for indie hackers who don't have the resources to just hire more people, it important to focus on the system in place so you build the help system that allows users to find answers themself. When this becomes your identity, you'll also make sure to write customer articles when you release new features or update the product. This is why it is ok to answer a user a bit later because you'll need to write the article in response so the next user will find it themself.

      Now that I'm growing the team, the goals we set focus on improving the system, less on the outcome. Setting goals this way allow them to be compounding.

      Next to goals, the other two key take away for me are;
      1- context is king - set yourself up for success and make sure things that are important for you are next to you, things that are not are farther away. For example, create a dashboard to make things visible that are important and require action, let these things 'scream' at you ;). You'll always tend to fall back on what is easy, make it easy to do what you want to do.
      2- show up - start small and be consistent, show up and just do stuff you find important, when you don't feel like it do something small. When you drop the habit once, the important thing is to pick it up again.

    3. 1

      yes, he talks at length about identity bases habits.

      Instead of "I want to run a fast mile", the self talk should be - "I am a runner"

      Our habits shape our identity, but the identity we aspire to will help us build life long habits.

      That's how I've managed to build a regular writing habit.

      James' blog and his book is the most actionable piece of self development content out there. Must read for everyone.

  2. 4

    I've recently read E-Myth Revisited and it really shifted my mindset, systems are also a big part there and I've noticed that we've been creating them indirectly as part of the process to reach a certain goal but they haven't received the love that they should get.

    They are a major focus for us now and hopefully it will stay that way 😅

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      i'm a big e-myth revisited fan. another one that goes way deeper on the topic of systems is work the system by sam carpenter. highly recommended, if that's your thing.

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        Looks good, cheers 🤙

      2. 2

        Thanks! Just downloaded both them and added them to my to-do heap

      3. 2

        thanks for the tip!

  3. 3

    I have a genuine question to all the people that praise this "forget about setting goals"......thing.

    How do you know what process to focus on, if you haven't first clarified your goal?

    Here's a quote from the article.

    [...] if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?
    I think you would.

    No, I wouldn't.

    See, the author says "if you ignore your goal", but in this example, he's clearly not ignoring it. If the coach had ignored his goal to win the championship, how would he be able to plan the games ahead? To plan his player's energy to the final match? To plan anything, really? You cannot just ignore what you're fighting for. It's bizarre.

    And let's take the opposite example. If his goal wast to end in top 5, the tactics, the strategy, the process would be completely different.

    See, you cannot trick the system. You cannot simply "forget about your goal". You'll end up on some kind of emotional autopilot. You have to have some anchor.

    A goal is what dictates the process. There's no process if there's no intention towards something.

    1. 1

      I think you are taking it a bit too extreme. From my perspective you'll need to know your direction, like winning a championship. Then focus on creating the system that will get you there. When your focus is on winning single matches, or even the training players, this will result in a team that wins, and eventually wins the championship.

      With this shift in focus/goal setting, the result is even more compounding than that single championship as it builds the foundation to subsequent wins as well.

      For me, in practice, it means I continue to set goals only change the angle of them by focussing on the system. Do you want and MMR of X, what is the habit / system you need to form on a daily basis to reach this, this habit / system becomes the 'goal'. (like doing x calls a day, writing weekly etc)

      So yes you'll need direction, you might call that a goal if you like. On a day to day basis, I would focus on creating the system/process to get there, not hitting the single goal.

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        I certainly agree with what you're saying. The focus should be on the action. But the title literally says "Forget about setting goals".

        You say I'm being a bit too extreme. How about that title.

        Now, the author says nothing new. We all know that we need a direction and we need to focus on the action steps to achieve it.

        But trying to be revolutionary in his idea he's undermining the importance of constantly calibrating your process to your goal. Simply forgetting your goal means that you'll detach from it at one point.

        Goals are not constants. They change and the process should be adapted. If you forget about it, you can continue making calls and writing weekly out of habit and literally get carried away in a process that brings 0 value. This happens if you're not mindful/"extreme" about your goals.

        You grow processes out of goals.

        To me this whole thing is a marketing/productivity scam. People like to convince themselves that there's some magic, some uncovered trick to being successful and productive.

        In fact there's no such thing. It all comes down to setting a goal, breaking it down into smaller steps and calibrating both in the process.

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          I don't think it matters what's first, the chicken or the egg.

          Also in my view goals are more concrete than direction. You can set a goal of making 1M revenue, while you can also set a direction to generate revenue and then build the system to generate revenue and increase on a daily basis. The latter exists and works (at least for me) without a clear, well defined and SMART goal.

          I don't understand why you are coming in so strongly with 'scam', convincing magic etc. When it does not work for you that is fine, but its also good to realize there are more ways to look at things, and different things work for different people.

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            Isn't a system to generate 1M revenue different from a system to generate 1K?

            I mean, it's obvious that based on your concrete goal, the system will be different.

            You might think it's the same, it might look the same, but it's not.

            Consider another example. If I want to get fit (direction), my system will be to go every day in the gym and eat healthy (whatever that means) food. That's my system. It's simple, a bit vague, but that's fine, because I don't have concrete expectations.

            If, on the other hand, my goal is to get strong and lift 200kg deadlifts by the end of the first quarter, de-prioritizing my flexibility + endurance for a while in favor of my power, my system will be completely, completely different.

            I'll make sure that I do deadlifts twice a week, net everyday, so that I can recover from the load. That I do one set of fives, no more, because I want to prioritize power over endurance. I'll consider eating an exact amount of protein daily to be in a caloric surplus, making sure that I have enough glycogen in my muscles, thus eating more carbs 2hrs before the training session and making sure that I have at least 7.5hrs of quality sleep. I'll also make sure that I prioritize deadlift as my first exercise, when I have more power and energy to lift heavy stuff. I'd also have a concrete plan of how much more weight to put on the bar for each training session in order to reach the amount I'm aiming for.

            And the system will change completely, again, once my goal changes to 300kg deadlifts. I'll not be engaged in the same process. But what if I had forgotten about my goals and just cary on?

            So, you don't have this type of action plan when using directions to dictate your process.

            Even though it might seem the same process, it's not. I talk from personal experience. I was doing the former route for three years, sticking to the process and seeing laughable results.

            Once I spent some time to outline a concrete goal and an actionable plan to stick to, things started to click immediately. I did lift 200kg in 3 months following a process derived from a goal. Not the other way around. It's not a chicken and an egg problem at all.

            Now, not pushing towards a goal but in a vague direction is a more calming experience, I agree. It makes you feel productive and at the same time creates a sense of progress. That's why a lot of people think it works better. It's merely easier and more fun. People don't like to pressure themselves. :)

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              The key is to make the direction not fague. Maybe that is a goal for you. The point is to make a system to reach what you want consistently, not only a one time outcome. You can make that as challenging as you want, just like how challenging you set your goals.

  4. 1

    I like what Scott Adams says about goals - that they are for losers. What he means by this is the fact that with goals the majority of the time is spent in "pre-success failure" - and once you achieve it the carrot is no longer there you tend to lose focus (like what you said about your fast mile Courtland).

  5. 1

    In my opinion, Goals and Habits can be combined to get the best results. Setting up long-term goals is a great way to start changing your life, find focus, and increase your willpower and self-discipline. Then, developing a habit/system related to your goal will help you get to it but also allow you to exceed your goal.

  6. 1

    Depends. Depends.
    Time and again people ask me what my goal is or what I am up to ?
    And my answer never changed much from childhood: which is to be a "good human being", every work I take up revolves around that core idea/thought.
    Better classification is "short-term goals" & "long-term goals"
    For long-term goals, one needs to concentrate more on the process/system.
    But the same doesn't apply to "short-term goals" !!
    Say, for example, being healthy is a long-term goal which is a process/system and a lifestyle.
    Having a goal like "reducing 5 kgs" is a short-term one.
    The perfect approach is when your "short-term goals" and "long-term goals" are in sync, not being contradictory but complementary.

    Just my thoughts, I would be much happier if the headline of the post would have been something like " Goals vs Systems" and then elaborating each one, rather than taking a one-sided approach.

  7. 1

    Focus on the input, and the output takes care of itself.

  8. 1

    I'm a big fan of James work....especially because he wrote about my very first system in his book! Here's the excerpt: https://jamesclear.com/paper-clips

    Since then, I've gone on to create software to help others with this...and if you're interested in getting pre-made templates for all sorts of things, be sure and check https://flowster.app out.

    Happy to answer any questions :)

  9. 1

    I'm a huge fan of process goals. There are some fantastic sportsbooks that cover this topic in depth.

    1. The score takes of itself -- Bill Walsh.

    Bill won the Superbowl 3 times with the 49-ers in the '80s. His philosophy was to look after the fundamentals and the score will take care of itself.

    1. 11 Rings by Phil Jackson. For those outside the states, Phil won 11 NBA championships.

    Their philosophy was an extension of their faith in control the controllables.

  10. 1

    Well written, and I agree with the sentiment in general. However, I do not think that putting process ahead of objective is appropriate in all situations and circumstances. Particularly when it comes to life's tactical moments. If you want to start your startup - where do you go if you don't have any goals?

    It's also a matter of setting goals - rather than focusing on the end result, you can define your goal as a process, a path toward something.

  11. 1

    Thanks for sharing; I agree that goals are temporary and can be stressful, and that that makes having a small number of medium-sized goals (like winning a specific competition or launching by a certain date) less effective than a system (steadily making progress).

    I do find that if I steadily plan a pipeline of hundreds of mini-goals (things like implement feature X, fix bug Y), then once one goal is done I don't forget about all of the other goals.

    I also find that if I run lots of mini experiments to measure my efficiency, then even when the goal is accomplished, as long as I write it down, the accomplishment isn't forgotten (so the goal remains meaningful) because its completion adds to the set of things I have learned.

    In case this sounds interesting to anybody, the app I use to organize it is free and open source at
    https://github.com/mathjeff/ActivityRecommender . Let me know if you have any suggestions/thoughts!

  12. 1

    If you liked this then you'll probably like the book "Out of the Crisis" by W.Edwards Deming (1982).

    It's about how Deming helped Japan to form its formidable industry and get out of the mess of WWII. Using in the terms in the article, he speak a lot about ditching traditional goals and moving towards systems.

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