Want to Succeed? Don’t Set Goals, Set Systems

Goal setting is a hamster wheel, says Adam Alter. If you want to channel your best work and get off the failure circuit, set systems instead.

Adam Alter: Goal setting is fascinating because it's sort of a broken process in many respects. This is the way a goal works: You say to yourself, “When I achieve (whatever the thing is), that's how I'll know I'll have succeeded, and I'm going to do everything I can to get to that point as quickly as possible.” What that means is you exist in a failure state for a long time until you reach that goal, if it's a long-range goal. And so as you evaluate your process all you get is the negative feedback of not having achieved that goal. Perhaps as you move closer to it there's some positive feedback, but if the goal is really the end state that you're seeking out, there's a lot of failure before you get there. And now here's the thing: when you do get there it's a massive anti-climax.

So there are people who achieve the highest highs; people who achieve the highest highs in athletics, in business, and if you talk to them and you ask them to describe what it's like to reach their goals they say things like, “I got there and it was an incredible anti-climax. The minute I got there I had to start something new, I had to find a new goal.” And that's partly because there's something really unsatisfying about the moment of reaching the goal. Unless it has its own benefits that come from reaching the goal, if it's just a sort of signpost; that doesn't do much for us, it doesn't nourish us psychologically. And what that ends up meaning is that we have to try to find something new.

So really if you look at life as a series of goals, which for many of us it is, it's a period of being unsuccessful in achieving the goal, then hitting the goal, then feeling like you haven't really got much from that goal, going to the next one—and it's a sort of series of escalating goals.
A really good example of this is, say, smart watches or Fitbits or exercise watches. People, when they get those watches, a lot of them hit on the number 10,000. “I want to walk 10,000 steps.” When you do that, the thing will beep; you'll feel pretty good about it for a minute but then that feels a little hollow and the goal escalates over time. People will describe going from 10 to 11 to 12 to 14,000 steps to the point where they're moving through injuries, through stress-related injuries, because the goal is there; they respond to the goal more than they do to their internal cues, and basically there's something really unfulfilling about that.

The reason the goal keeps escalating and becoming more and more intense is because when they achieve the goal they don't actually get anything for that achievement, and so goals, generally I think, are in many ways broken processes.

I think part of the problem with goals is that they don't tell you how to get to where you're going. A better thing to do is to use a system. So the idea behind a system rather than a goal is that a system is saying things like, “I’m a writer, my goal is to finish writing this book but I'm not going to think about it in that way. Eventually I'll have 100,000 words, but my system will be that for an hour every morning I will sit in front of my computer screen and I will type. It doesn't matter what that looks like. I'm not going to evaluate the number of words. I'm not going to set some benchmark, some artificial number or benchmark that I should reach, what I'm going to do is just say, 'Here's my system: an hour a day in front of the screen. I'll do what I can—bam.'”

And the thing is, every time you set a system and you stick to it, you're achieving something. Instead of a goal that you're failing at, essentially, for long periods of time until you reach the goal, you're succeeding every day as long as you adhere to your system. And you end up getting to the same place but that framing is so much more effective. It gives you the kind of positive feedback you seek and the system is kind of geared towards psychological well-being: this is the thing I need to do to feel good about the way I’m moving through the world, towards whatever end state I'm looking for.

Goals don't do that. They just set signposts that you're supposed to look at from afar and move towards. Systems are a much more useful way of engaging with the world towards certain ends and certain outcomes.

You've just achieved a goal you've been working towards for two years. You did it! Congratulations. Someone asks you: how does it feel? "Kind of anti-climactic, actually," you say. This scenario is quite common among those who have achieved even the highest benchmarks in business, athletics, or art, says Adam Alter, and it's because the goal setting process is broken. With long-term goals particularly, you spend the large majority of the time in a failure state, awaiting what could be a mere second of success down the track. This can be a hollow and unrewarding process. Describing an idea first proposed by Scott Adams in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Alter suggests swapping quantitative goals (I will write 1,000 words of my novel per day. I will run 1km further every week) for qualitative systems—like writing every morning with no word target, or running in a new environment each week—that nourish you psychologically, and are independently rewarding each time you do them. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

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