"A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do." - Scott Adams


Aren't goals a good thing?

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, advocates that people should pursue systems rather than goals.

I think he makes a compelling point. 

Systems are essentially the habits we practice in our day-to-day lives. If we have productive and effective habits, then we will likely see positive results.

When we set our minds on something too specific, then it puts a lot of pressure on ourselves.

How many people actually stick to their New Year's resolutions?

And when we fail to reach our goal, this can actually reduce our ability to achieve future goals, as Kelly McGonigal writes in The Willpower Instinct:

"Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. In contrast, self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure – is associated with more motivation and better self-control. When we do experience setbacks – which we will – we need to forgive those failures, and not use them as an excuse to give in or give up."

So instead of focusing on individual goals that we may or may not achieve, maybe we should just try to live our daily lives in such a way that we will be happy with the results.

But maybe we don't have to choose between systems and goals. Perhaps a combination and balance between the two is a good approach.

For instance, we could have a specific goal like attaining a certain degree or career. And then we focus on the instilling the systems in our lives that will guide us along that path.

In terms of setting goals, I think the SMART approach is a good heuristic to use. 

(Although I have an instinctive aversion to acronyms, I think this one actually pretty useful) 

SMART stands for:

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable).
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
  • Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).

The more thought we put into how we define our goals, the more likely we are to achieve them.

Saying something like I want to be more healthy or read more books is too vague. We need something concrete to guide us.

And this is they way in which I'll try to live: using systems for day-to-day living and SMART goals for overall objectives.