Goals vs Systems


In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear makes a bold statement on page 23: “Forget about goals, focus on systems instead.”

Mr. Clear, I have a quibble with you.

First let me say that I don’t think you really hate goals; in fact, you talk about reaching goals at other places on your blog. I think you made a provoking statement to get people to think about the importance of picking a productive habit and sticking with it so that eventually you will see results, which I absolutely love. And let me also say that I have a stake in this game since I speak about Initiating Results, which in part is about clarifying what you are trying to achieve.

My quibble is about making goals sound secondary to systems, or even inconsequential.

For example, in this same section you have a heading titled “Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.” Yes, winners sometimes have a better system - but c’mon, man, did the team that came in second place at the Olympics really blow it by having the same goal? Sure, one team might have had a slightly better system (or might have just a little more talent or a better experience that might even be out of their control). Did the person who had the goal of getting the job - and made it to the interview - really blow it because they had the same goal? You’re telling me that interviewers are completely rational?

And let’s talk about “Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.” You state that once people reach their goals, many people revert back to old habits after accomplishing it. So, let’s take a look at that, in particular the example you used. When someone goes from couch potato to running a 5-k race, they are no better off after they’ve run the race? That’s a pretty big assumption that the person says, “That’s it! I’m no longer running anywhere anymore anytime" and heads back to that love seat, Netflix, and their Cheetos. I would like to make the case that the fact that the person ran the race is tremendous, and their life is better because of it - you go Couch Potato! And maybe, just maybe, they’ll set a new and bigger goal. At the very least they now have a system to at least participate.

I’m also betting that you and I agree that an audacious goal coupled with a great system is the way to go; your argument is that if you have to pick one or the other, please pick the system. Let’s flip back a couple of pages - to page 17, to be exact - and examine the argument you used there to talk about systems.

I am a fan of the airplane metaphor, and the fact that a very small change has very small detectable differences - at first - but can lead to huge changes over a distance. A 3.5 degree difference pointing in a different direction at the end of the runway doesn’t look like much, but by the time it moves from LA to the East Coast it could be the difference between New York City or Washington, DC (both are pretty great destinations, if you ask me).

But what if, while you are at LAX, you don’t know the destination and you’re just picking a direction? Your metaphor is assuming you know your destination to begin with. If you are just picking a direction and sticking with it, you could land in Centralia, PA. And, at last count, there are about 3.12 gazillion directions to choose - kind of makes sense to at least pick a general destination rather than to head out into a fog and hope something awesome happens. That destination is a goal.

Let’s get practical. Let’s say eating better is a goal. On Amazon that gives you over 10,000 results. I didn’t even try Google because I didn’t want to break the internet or get spammed with funky recipes. One of the best ways to know which system to choose is to have a destination, or goal, in mind. Now it doesn’t mean you have to stick with that goal, but it is a great measure to know if the system gives you results that you want. Course correction is a grand thing.

But here is the ultimate point I think you are trying to make, Mr. Clear: anybody can make a goal and then do little or nothing to achieve it. I’ll high-five you on that one. In that case, your goal probably does not have enough clarity.

Now that I’ve gotten the quibble out of my system, I’m going back to enjoying the book and learn more about habits that help me reach my goals. Happy system building, everyone!