Shane Parrish has an interesting point in his review of (the creator of Dilbert) Scott Adams' book How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big about systems and goals, which Adams defines as:
"If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal."
If a goal is a target that you set to acheive at some point in the future, a system is a change in behaviour, a way of continually looking for better options or creating the right habits to build toward success. And systems trump goals:
"Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction."
Adams gives a few examples to make his point, a simple one being setting a goal to lose weight which is something that may be difficult to maintain, as compared to learning to eat better as a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower. One of the most interesting examples of this idea, which Adams talks about in this post, is the practice of blogging which had a seemingly intangible return-on-effort when he started doing it but has since led to newspaper columns, speaking engagements, business opportunities and approaches from book publishers. Blogging, he explains, is a system:
"I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility)."
I can definitely relate to that example, but at the time of year when we typically set ourselves new year resolutions, it's worth reflecting on the wider point he's making. Shane Parrish recounts his view that the balance of organizational thinking towards goals versus systems is in need of some reflection, and I'm inclined to agree with that too.