Systems not goals

Systems not goals

New Year is the time when people tend to set themselves goals – to lose weight, to run a half-marathon. In every case they’re meant to make us happier – but what if the best way to achieve that is almost to stop having them?

One of the fundamental problems with goals such as “I will lose a stone in weight” is that you’re telling yourself that you’ll be happy when that happens. That means you’re also telling yourself that you aren’t good enough yet, and that you can’t be until you reach that goal. Is it any surprise then that as little as 8% of people actually keep one of their New Year’s resolutions?

Another issue with goals is that they can actually be demotivating in the longer term. Think of someone who is motivated to lose weight for a wedding next year. What happens to their motivation on the day after the wedding? It can be the same for someone who trains to run a half marathon – as they cross the finishing line what is their motivation to continue training?

The normal response to these questions are that the person will have so enjoyed being slimmer or fitter that they will naturally carry that on. Experience tell us that this isn’t necessarily true, and the presumption of long term success also shows up the third problem with goals – that they imagine that we can predict the future. How then can we make it easier to keep our New Year’s resolutions?

One idea that has gained a lot of currency in recent years is that of “systems not goals”. If your goal is to lose weight then your system is how you make sure that you eat as healthily as possible every day. If your goal is to run a half-marathon then your system is the training schedule that you put together and follow.

The beauty of this approach is that even if you forgot all about your goal and concentrated on your system you would still make progress. In fact you’ll be much more likely to make progress than someone who concentrated on their goal but didn’t have a system. Whilst having goals can provide direction it’s the systems that provide the momentum.

Committing to a system also means that you avoid the other problems with goals. Instead of only being happy when you reach your goal, sticking to a system means that you get to feel a sense of achievement every day. Committing to a system also means that you concentrate on what you can control (your actions) and not on what you can’t – the future and the outside world.

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