In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear asserts that we should forget about setting goals and focus on building systems, in his words:

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You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.

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In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything And Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams asserts that ‘goals are for losers while systems are for winners.‘ In his words:

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Losing ten pounds in a goal [that most people can’t maintain], whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

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The difference between the two, in his mind, is that goals are one-and-done things while systems are enduring and do not focus on the short term.

So, stay away from goals and focus on systems is his advice.

I thought I would deconstruct this today and analyse the goals and systems idea in further detail.

First, from a self management perspective, I think Scott is spot on. I think of goals vs. systems as a focus on results vs. a focus on process.

Focusing on results means spending large portions of time outside our circle of influence as we do not generally control outcomes.

A focus on process is not just better because it is a happier path [it is that, too]. It is better because our circle of influence grows in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend within it.

However, the difficulty with extreme points of view is that there are always exceptions [I think Scott took the extreme point of view just to make a point]. And, there is an important exception to the systems/process path.

Every once in a while, we need to check if our processes are leading to the outcomes/goals we have in mind.

The inherent assumptions with systems is that we design systems that work.

So, if we take, I will lose 10 pounds [goal] vs. I will lead an active life [system], it is vital that we check in every once a while to make sure our system is leading to the desired outcome of feeling healthier.

In that sense, we need both goals and systems. And, consistent with Scott’s point of view, I think it is better we focus on systems.

When we apply the goals vs. systems idea to management, however, the implications are interesting.

When it comes to dealing with others, I think that managing via systems is a bad idea. 

Managers who try to control their employees’ processes become annoying micro-managers.

This is because the nature of systems is that they are personal. What works for the manager will likely not work for his colleague. And, that is okay. As long as she is getting her work done in a way that is consistent with the values and culture of the firm, the manager should not meddle.

So, in this case, it is vital that we, as managers and leaders, focus our energies on setting clear goals for those we manage/lead.

And, just like in the self-management case, it is worth checking in with their systems/processes from time to time just to ensure they are not doing something completely wrong. Trust, but verify.

So, if I had to abstract from all this analysis and arrive at the principle, it would be this: don’t think goals OR systems. Think goals AND systems and tailor based on context.

When it comes to managing ourselves, it is best to focus on processes/systems instead of goals/results.

And, when it comes to managing others, hold them to outcomes instead of processes.

In both cases, do not abandon the other.

Check in with your goals from time-to-time to make sure your processes are taking you where you want to go and vice versa.

As a wise friend once told me when I was grappling with a “this or that” question:

“Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

I find that most of the time, it better to have AND instead of OR.

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