Scott Adams is of the opinion that goals are for losers and systems are for winners. The reasoning is that goals make it psychologically easy to stop doing everything it took to achieve them once you achieve them (this problem is the main point of the book The Slight Edge). But not only so, goals make it harder to do the needful thing, because every day you haven’t achieved your goal, wake up defeated. So he recommends systems, daily/weekly, monthly tasks that move you in a positive direction regardless of the final outcome.
This seems right. But, sometimes goals are very important. You might really want to buy a home, dunk a basketball, or make straight A’s. Or you might need to lose weight or get out of debt. So making a goal and achieving it might be very valuable. There are two options. One, change what you desire. Or two, create systems that will take you in the direction of your goal, but only dwell on the systems, not on the end goal (some research literature says that visualizing goal oriented tasks is more valuable than visualizing goal achievement). If you take option 2, I think there is a valuable middle step that gives you option 1 as well.
I think that between goals and systems is the sort of person you wish to become. In other words, between winning races and training routines is “the sort of person who is good at making training routines and running faster than I used to run.” William Irvine, in A guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, explains the concept of internalizing goals. The Stoics tried to make their sense of peace and joy depend not on outcomes or even task completion, but rather the virtue acquired. And so it’s not just that you implement a system to win races or even that you win them. It’s that you overcome yourself by attaining the virtue of self-mastery with respect to running. So the pattern is something like this:
- Determine what you want to do.
- Ask yourself if you want to become the sort of person who can do that thing. In other words, is it valuable to be that sort of person even if I do not attain the goal.
- Then design a system to make it happen.