Don't Set Goals—Create Systems

Tue Oct 15, 2013
~700 Words

Cartoonists are an interesting lot: they have a job that many would see as being unproductive or even pointless, but since when did being incisive become unproductive?

Bill Watterson’s insights on life as expressed through Calvin and Hobbes have entertained and helped millions. If you haven’t seen this bit of tribute art, where a fan has drawn artwork to accompany the text of a speech by Bill then I highly recommend you take a look now. If you’re working from home and you’re the kind of person who wants to put family first then you may find its message particularly comforting.

When it comes to business we have Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. The cartoon itself will make you chuckle but Adams also shares many insights from his long and varied career in his writings. In this article for the Wall Street Journal he makes two strong recommendations:

This could also happen at a larger scale, say with a business venture. At the first major setback you may be so disheartened that you either quit straight away or otherwise lose your momentum and the venture fizzles out.

One way to get around this is to build systems that move you in the right direction. Setbacks are less important now as you aren’t fixated on a particular inflexible goal but rather a direction: stray away from that path and all you need to succeed today is to nudge yourself back towards that path. Keep doing that consistently and not only are you far more likely to succeed in your endeavour but you’re going to be generating a lot less negativity when you hit the inevitable setbacks that life will throw your way.

System may be slightly too big a word though; what we are looking for is just a bit more structure in our lives and some routines that help us through the week and keep us on the right track. Such systems/routines could be as simple as:

Goals also bring more guilt into your life. This may be perfectly manageable if your only goal is to get in shape, but you probably have goals in your working life, regarding your family, your hobbies… keeping on top of all of these all the time is a near-impossibility, and focussing on one naturally de-emphasises the others to the point that you start to forget that you even made the commitment to yourself in the first place which causes further remorse.

One solution to this is to build one habit at a time, at a rate of no more than one a month. This month you’ll go running every morning until it’s more natural for you to go running than to not. Next month you’ll get into writing every day, the following month it will be something else.

The solution I prefer is to track when I give time to these important things in my life and use a system to see at a glance which parts I’ve been neglecting, and perhaps which activities I am over-committing on, to the detriment of other dimensions of life. No one wants to live like a robot, lapsing is inevitable and shouldn’t be a cause of guilt. Rather, you just pick one of these activities and spend some time on it. Such systems shouldn’t be telling you what to do each day, they should just be supporting you, making it easy to make each day productive without the guilt trip that you get as your calendar is spamming you with notifications and your ‘due’ todo list is an ever-growing mountain of things you should apparently be doing but aren’t.

If you like the idea of a general system which is designed to be low-guilt yet high impact then I’d like you to try Q2 and let me know what you think, and how you get on with it.

And if you have some systems that you’ve built into your life that help you be more effective, or simply spend more time on what’s important, then I’d love to hear about them.