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Systems Over Goals

focaccia bread

What the Focaccia?!

Forget Goals; Focus on Systems

Image by Lisa Padgett on Pixabay

“Forget about goals, focus on systems instead.”

– James Clear, “Atomic Habits”

At first glance, this concept might seem rather revolutionary.

But upon further examination, it actually makes a lot of sense.

In his outstanding book (run, don’t walk, to get this one), “Atomic Habits; An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” author James Clear explains:

“Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life – getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family – is to set specific, actionable goals.”

Eventually, however, the author began to realize that his results had very little to do with goals he set and nearly everything to do with the systems he followed.

What’s the difference between systems and goals? Click To Tweet

“Goals are about the results you want to achieve,” the author explains. “Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”

There’s that magic word again: process.

Here are a few of the author’s examples that explain the difference between goals and systems:

#1. “If you’re a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches, and conduct practice.”

#2. “If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal might be to build a million-dollar business. Your system is how you test product ideas, hire employees, and run marketing campaigns.”

#3. If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.”

Here’s my personal example…

As a writer, one of my current goals is to finish writing the first draft of my next screenplay in three months. My system is to work on that script five days a week…in one 53-minute writing session per day. That’s not a lot of time.

But I have learned (after years of experience and much trial and error) that it is far more effective, for me, to work in short 53-minute super-focused sessions first thing every morning than it is for me to routinely put all my other work tasks on the back burner (ack!) and work solely on one script, all day, every day.

However, since a script inevitably reaches a point where I do need to put in more time than one 53-minute session per day, then I will clear my plate of all other work tasks and go someplace else to focus fully on that script – even just for a few days.

This is the system that works for me. I don’t always meet my three-month goal of completing the script. But that’s okay. Because I know I will be a heck of a lot closer to completing it than if I didn’t have this system in place.

As James Clear says, the system is what matters…because the process of writing in short but intense sessions is how I get better and better AND faster and faster. I do, eventually, meet my writing goals. My timing is often off…but what I learn during the process is well worth the wait.

Now for the really interesting question:

“If you completely ignored your goals,” asks James Clear, “and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?”

His answer: “I think you would. The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day.

“The score takes care of itself.”

– Bill Walsh, three-time Super Bowl winner

“The same is true in other areas of life,” says Clear. “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.”

Of course, goals are not completely useless.

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

– James Clear, “Atomic Habits”

Clear explains this further: “Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.”

“Fix the inputs,” Clear advises, “and the outputs will fix themselves.”

Because this point is so powerful, I shall paraphrase:

The results are NOT the problem. What you need to change is the SYSTEM that is causing those results. Click To Tweet

Goals and Happiness

There’s another reason why we might want to re-think putting our goals as top priority. “Goals restrict your happiness,” explains the author. “The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.’”

Sound familiar?

“The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone,” says Clear. “A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”


“Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

– James Clear, “Atomic Habits”

I have certainly found this to be true with my writing.

How about you?

One last bit of advice from James Clear on the topic of habits, goals, and systems: “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”

In other words:

There is a very good reason this quote seems to be everywhere these days. It’s the truth.

As important as goals are, if we don’t have the good daily habits and proper systems in place to achieve them - and learn to enjoy the process of doing so - we probably won’t achieve them. Click To Tweet

Focus instead on developing a system that works for you, then show up day after day…and watch the magic happen.

Related blogs by Maryanne

Motion versus Action – BIG Difference Between the Two

Wanna Take a Quantum Leap in the Effectiveness Department? 

Process This – Focusing on Process

P.S. The next time you’re in the kitchen, whipping up dinner to go with that focaccia bread, have a listen to Brené Brown’s interview with “Atomic Habits” author, James Clear. It’ll knock your salty socks off 🙂

Maryanne Pope is the author of “A Widow’s Awakening.” She also writes screenplays, playscripts and blogs. She is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and a Director with the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To receive Maryanne’s blog, “Weekly Words of Wisdom,” please subscribe here.

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