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13 – Systems Not Goals

by Jill

“System thinking is a discipline for seeing the wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things for seeing ‘patterns of change’ rather than static ‘snapshots’ ” – Peter Senge

Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the difference between having a system or having a goal. The word “goal” gets thrown out there and sometimes we don’t really know what that even means to have a goal. So, think, for example, if you are someone who was a coach, and you say, ‘My goal is to go to the championship.”’ You might not be able to go to the championship. And so that’d be super depressing, because only two teams go to the championship. Instead of having the goal of winning the championship, and being that sole team, come up with a system. It will include coming up with better plays, getting better players on your team, having coaches that have particular skills, and talents, having good practices where everyone gets stronger and better at the game. And those systems will build your way to becoming better and more likely to winning the championship. It will provide a pathway for becoming better next year, becoming better five years from now. And that is really what the difference between having a goal and having a system that makes it likely that you will get your goal. but you will go beyond that. When I first lost weight, and I had that goal, it gets very narrow minded because there’s a lot of different ways to lose weight. You could starve yourself and you would be in very poor health. But you’ve lost weight. You don’t think about it as losing weight.  James Clear talks about the problem of goals is that everyone has the same goals but not everyone succeeds.  He Says “Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.” What you do is you think of a system, I want to be a healthier person. I want to be a more fit person. Instead, think about those things you really want to do. A system is about doing these exercises that will give you a strong core. That will give you strong legs. That will give you a lot of stamina and a lot of endurance. And then we’re going to work on healthier eating so that you can start reducing weight, you feel better and your stats are healthier when you go to the doctor. Because now you have a system in place of healthier living instead of a goal.

Scott Adams How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big on Systems

Amazon.com: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the  Story of My Life eBook: Adams, Scott: Kindle Store

The next person who talks a lot about systems versus goals is Scott Adams in his book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. He says, “… losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower” And he talks a lot about how the systems then will become routines. He says, “Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it – no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.” And that you will be able to create this constantly rewarding system. So, you can have tinier steps. You can have tinier goals and celebrations because you’re constantly achieving the system. So, you reward yourself, not for losing weight, you reward yourself for following through on your weekly plan of becoming more fit. On your weekly plan of eating better, and you’re warding yourself. Because this will eventually get you to where you want to go. Goals can be very negative, because when you don’t get there you feel depressed about them, you feel sad about them. And so, it’s really one of those things that makes it so much easier for us to keep going. Because what we’ll do is we’ll turn these steps into routine, and they will be habits. And then we will stop spending energy trying to force ourselves to do something, but we will become used to this pattern. And that’s why it’s important that the system has steps that are easy to follow and easy to accomplish. As you start getting better at these steps, just like when I first started, I said I had to do this amount of cardio every day. I am much more capable than I was back then. So, I tweaked it up a little bit. I’ve done some more interesting things. And I’ve been able to actually make it a little bit more fun. I bought myself an Oculus Quest and now instead of just being on the exercise bike or the rower, I’m rowing in the Antarctic. It’s more fun. And because I was able to tweak this as I was able to go along, I found a way to take something that was fine and make it even better. So, you keep tweaking those things until they become a routine that you will enjoy. You will be less likely to go back to your old habits. Because sometimes when you say well, I want to lose this amount of weight and then you lose that amount of weight. And you go right back to where you were before you got into your healthier lifestyle. But when you have a system, it’s no longer about that goal, even though you probably will hit it, you will probably shoot past it. And you’ll say great, I’m not interested in losing weight anymore. So, I can adjust my system a bit. Maybe I get a few more calories, but that same system is in place to keep us from going back and sliding back into where we are. Problem is goals as they tend to be very inflexible.  


Flavio Rump On Systems

Next article we’ll talk about comes from Flavio Rump calls The Underlying Principle of Becoming the Person he said when you work on a system as compared to goals, “What seems to happen is that you start becoming the person who works out regularly, or the person who reaches out to new prospects every day. And then you feel good every time when you act, you start becoming a person who naturally does this, and you start doing it regularly, more frequently than you would otherwise do it, it turns the path into a goal, you reap the benefit of feeling good every time.” So, he talks again about how goals are really narrow and specific. While systems are bigger. Find a way of making smaller steps that will break the things that you’re really looking to do in the end into small repeatable actions. Stop thinking of things in terms of goals and start thinking of things in terms of skills and repeatable actions and it will become a lifelong habit of taking you well beyond that. You just not going to lose 10 pounds, you’re going to be a healthier, more fit person who loves to be active and go hiking and go skiing, because you’ve built this system of health instead of having a goal of weight loss.



  1. Look at your goals in your life and think, how could these be broken up into smaller steps? What are the types of behaviors I need to learn or actions I need to take in order to meet this goal?
  2. Build a system around those steps that you’ve just determined that you need to take and make them repeatable.
  3. Come up with smaller step celebrations, not because you achieved your goals, but because you achieved the method of your system.
  4. Learn how to tweak your system as you go on, so that you’re able to make it more fun, more beneficial. And we’ll start meeting where you are right now, instead of where you were two months ago when you started the system. Adapt the system to meet your new scenarios as you build up your strengths, your knowledge, your abilities.


  • Take one thing that is a goal of yours and break it into a system and write that system down and give it a shot for a couple of weeks to see if the system is more positive, more flexible, and easier to do on a weekly basis. It’s going to take a little bit more time than a week because things just take time. But it should be apparent that this is easier to follow instead of trying to meet some goal.

Our fun movie advice of the day is from the Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Sam: It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Whew, that was a long one. Sorry about that. But it is one of my favorite quotes in a movie and it just seemed so appropriate right now. And Sam has it right! These stories of people going through dark times or hard times are great because they did not think about how bad things were right at that moment. They were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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