Systems versus goals – having systems is superior to having goals when aspiring to succeed.

This key takeaway resonated enormously ever since I read Scott Adam’s ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.’

And the book contained a second tenet, equally chiming: Don’t specialize but develop a variety of skills.

And if you have a sound system in place, you will eventually succeed. ‘A system is something you do regularly with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life’ writes Adams. His success as a cartoonist and author may count as evidence that systems are superior to having goals and that developing multiple skills works. Both exponentially increase the odds of being successful.

At the time, Adam’s book succinctly confirmed and conceptualized a conviction I had lived by for quite a while: Focus on getting through the day with a systematic approach that provides satisfaction and a balanced lifestyle daily. And pursue various fields of interest, even if they don’t seem related to each other.

But pitting systems versus goals is a brilliant move as it so casually dismisses the holy grail of businesses and personal development alike: goals.

And there we have a new model for productivity, summarized in the catchy adage ‘goals are for losers and systems are for winners.’

So, Why Then Are Systems Better than Goals?

I have to confess that I am biased. Systems are my thing. Here is why:

Ever since my university days, I have been intrigued by systems. Looking at the world through the system lens appears to be a better way of describing and understanding reality.

The Systems View on Life

An eye-opener for me was Niklas Luhman’s milestone book ‘The Reality of the Mass Media‘: The media does not describe an objective reality out there, but it replicates itself based on inner truth.

For example, a new television report references and relates to prior media reactions to a recent event. As a result, not the event itself and its objective reality are the media communication focus. But the interpretation of the event now has begun to evolve within the media system.

And according to Luhman, this effect of self-referential communication is a constituent for all social systems. Cultures, religions, social sub-cultures, even organizations establish their reality due to self-referenced communication.

What follows is that we need to look at systems to understand reality. That is why looking at isolated facts can not give us the full picture to find a solution.

Capra and Luisi have called this ‘The Systems View of Life,’ and its reasoning is compelling:

Look at the whole, aka the system level, because life exists as the complexity of interrelated parts. The systems view allows for better assessment as well as the formulation of practical solutions.

A point in case: Depression is a severe problem and a growing burden for humanity, especially in Western societies. In the U.S., 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children suffered from mental disorders related to depression in the last year. Along with this endemic goes widespread medication and, often, addiction.

Rather than just medicating the problem, the ‘systems view’ would suggest a holistic approach. What is systematically wrong in our societies that so many people suffer from depression? What are the effects of nutrition, social relations, the environment such as pollution and noise, and the perceived lack of direction and meaning?

A systems approach results in a multi-prong approach that addresses root causes and changes conditions for good. Only looking at symptoms results in a patch that creates new problems (here: dependence on anti-depressants).

Adopting the systems view

Our Individual Lives as Systems

From Luhman’s social systems, we could see that systems exist at all kinds of aggregation levels. Indeed, wherever there is a border across which communication happens, there likely is a system.

In the same vein, our minds are systems. We have a lot of self-talk that may or may not capture outer realities.

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains do not directly access a reality. Instead, we rather operate our lives with mental models.

Besides, to grasp that we base our decisions on our projections of reality, realize how many cognitive biases there are. A cognitive bias is any systematic deviation from rational judgment and thus contributes to our subjective reality.

Wikipedia currently lists 198 cognitive biases: 111 are belief, decision-making, and behavioral biases, 43 are social, and 44 affect how we memorize.

Consequently, adopting a system view over having goals does not only relate to our productivity. But it fundamentally relates to how we access reality and what we fathom as the truth.

Systems Offer a Better Model of Reality and a Key Ingredient to Growth

So, the systems view offers a better heuristic to sort what is real and delusions of the mind, aka cognitive biases.

And I sense your acceptance, dear reader, with presuming that delusions don’t make a reasonable basis for any lasting success and happiness.

Therefore, when we systemize our behavior, we introduce the scientific approach’s bedrock into our lives: consistency.

For example, think of what is perhaps one of the most consistent life systems you could have: the monastic lifestyle. Doing the same things every day at the same time completely frees your mind to focus on what is essential for you. Here, spiritual insight and development.

With this in mind, an additional advantage of systems becomes apparent: Structure and routine help us avoid distraction by external stimuli.

Having a system in your life introduces simplicity that creates boundaries where needed and space for growth where wanted.

A case in point: Major themes of self-help systems are motivation and perseverance. Both require energy, at times, more strength than we can muster. The psychologist Roy Baumeister speaks in this context of ‘ego depletion.’

Ego depletion refers to the idea that our mental resources limit self-control and willpower to complete a task or achieve a goal. We can only push so far before becoming tired and distracted. Or even worse, demotivated.

And here now we have a crucial ingredient to our best possible productiveness: Effective use of our resources.

Systems manage and conserve our energy because the rules we set for ourselves become self-enhancing habits.

Hence systems aim at improving ourselves. They are a regimen of rules to bring out the best in us. Apply your best and see where it takes you.

After all, as an old Yiddish adage says, ‘Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,’ which translates to “Man Plans, and God Laughs.’ So, as much as we plan and set goals, life unfolds in unpredictable ways.

And with that:

Goals vs Systems

Let’s Talk About Goals

There is much to be said about goals. Books about goals fill whole libraries. From organizational goals to the art of personal goal setting. From thinking big and fat-hairy goals to micro-goals that make larger goals achievable.

For our purposes here, let’s keep it simple. A goal is an envisioned future result that we plan for and commit to achieving.

Goals are meant to be SMART, which, of course, stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based.

What then, can be wrong with goals when they are the SMART, guiding beacons in our lives?

systems versus goals problems with goals

Problems Related to Goals

Since goals are the desired outcome in an uncertain future, we need to consider three parts to personal goal setting.

First, how to come up with the right goal for us? Second, how to go about achieving that goal? Third, what happens once we reach our goal?

Now, before we look at each part of the goal journey, let’s agree on another assumption: Whatever our aspirations may be in this life, it always includes the notion of happiness, of feeling good and content about ourselves.

Goals then are an important tool to reach that state of happiness or contentment.

1. Coming Up With the Right Goal

How can we know that a goal really is good for us? And how certain can we be that the goal is our own, and not adopted from society’s view of success?

Goals stimulate and demand imagination as we make guesses about the unknown future. All the while, god still chuckles. Even more so in a world that changes faster than ever before.

So goals are in danger to be either overly optimistic, delusional, or ineffective in making us content in the long run.

And what happens to our current state of being? Once we decide and identify that we require a posh house in a good neighborhood, the current life in the apartment gets devalued.

Meanwhile, not yet having accomplished an objective can lead to discontent and, in the worst case, anticipatory anxiety of daily life.

How many people do you know that are miserable because they do not live up to their expectations?

2. The Path to Achieving a Goal

One of the greatest human fears is losing control, and as such, setting out towards a new goal is stepping into the unknown.

That is why most people suck at planning and staying motivated to reach their goals. When first infused with the optimistic spirit of a new audacious goal, life looks bright.

Any path to success, however, goes through difficulties and setbacks. For this reason, some say to think real big is the solution. A dream, they say, so large that life will override any adversaries and keep us motivated.

In turn, research shows that slicing up bigger goals into micro-goals and acknowledging difficulties through planning increases the likelihood of success.

But, how many people do you know who achieve their New Year resolutions?

And if reaching an objective defines success, we make the here and now a failure.

3. What Happens After Reaching a Goal?

If you have one central goal in your life, what happens once you do achieve it? Well, you need to keep going. Stories of lottery winners abound, who very quickly go back to their default happiness levels or even become depressed after winning big.

Retirees who have dreamed of retirement for many years slide into discontent once they reach their goal and their pattern in life breaks.

Why? After celebrating achieving your goal and feeling great about your success, you realize that now you don’t have that guide anymore, which gave purpose and direction.

Re-enter Systems versus Goals

When it’s hard to come up with the right goal, following a system can help. Because a system focuses on daily activity, we get satisfaction whenever we successfully follow that system.

Perhaps you have the goal of writing a successful crime novel bestseller by the end of this year. Off you go and devise a plan to reach that objective somehow. After three months, you notice that you still know very little about editing, lack knowledge about crime scenes, and, by the way, much prefer a mystery plot over crime.

Instead, you could get up early every morning and write freely for two hours before breakfast, following a system. In the evening, you could for a couple of hours structure and revise your work from the morning and enlarge upon whatever works best.

A system thus focusses on practice that continually improves your skills. And books will be the natural products of your continued writing.

If you are goal-oriented, you will feel you are a writer once you have written a successful book. If you are system-oriented, you will feel you are a writer every time you fully engage with writing.

As a result, a system takes away the potential stress of focussing on the outcome. And when the daily activity becomes a habit, it will become gratifying. Becoming good at something comes from proper engagement with the action, not focusing only on the result.

You may say that the book will still require the same effort to get it done. Sure, every word needs to be written. But in terms of your daily energy and enjoyment, systems do a much better job. And they are much more open to seeing where life can take you. In comparison, a goal may well limit the options and makes a slightly different outcome feel like a failure.

The Systems versus Goals Debate – Mitigating Conclusions, Examples, and Thoughts


We will always have aspirations that we, perhaps for lack of a better word, call goals.

Working towards a new, better state of affairs lies in human nature.

In this context, the systems versus goals debate, last but not least, relies on how we use words. Every system has a purpose. And every well-defined goal will entail a plan on how to get there.

But rather than bending semantics, let’s consider what management theory would tell us.

An introductory course in management principles covers management’s four key activities: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling.

Goal-setting belongs to the planning phase. In contrast, the implementation of a system is organizing, leading, and even controlling.

In fact, implementing a system is a looped personal improvement approach that reinforces itself over time.

Fitness as a System and Not a Goal

For example, one of my systems is to work out daily to maintain a kickass fitness level and remain in good health.

Fitness is a central system as it boosts your mood, increases your confidence, and keeps you healthy. It quite simply elevates your entire game.

Depending on my travel, I exercise for 75 minutes more or less at the same time each day.

In my case, I mostly do bodyweight training and yoga. I have developed different routines. Like 20 minutes of sun salutation variations, 15 minutes of arm balances, 15 minutes core work, 10 minutes push up variations, 100 burpees, 30-minute run, 20 minutes of passive stretching, and so forth.

Each day, I mix my routines freely based on how I feel and what I think my body needs. But for each exercise, I have a minimum amount of times I have to complete it per week.

And for each month, I have three jokers I can play if I am tired. So I get full rest days, but I have to walk at least 10000 steps on those days.

This way, my daily exercise is a fun playtime. I have days I go full ape, and on others, I am a mellow sloth. Every two months, I review and finetune my routines.

This system works great for me. I have achieved many milestones related to strength and flexibility, just through playing my exercise.

Systems Are Great for Gamification

Systems can be applied to every area of your life. And so can be goals.

When outlining my fitness system, I used the words game and play. In fact, implementing systems in your life is a fantastic way to gamify your experience. Gamification is plain and simple, fun, and a highly effective system in itself. It’s a bit like writing the manual that works best for you.

Having systems increase your chances of success. And since you have to put in the work anyway, why not make it fund and get rewarded in the here and now every day? Or do you prefer stressing over gaols?

Don’t Dismiss Goals Altogether But Have System Wherever You can

So how can you get a focused sense of where you are headed in life when using systems instead of goals?

Rather than thinking of specific goals, think about how you want to live.

Let’s say you want to become an achieved writer. Create a system that lets you engage with the craft of writing at your best and write the hell out of your life.

You want to travel the world, live under the radar, and still make good money. Turn your interests into affiliate websites and spend x-amount of time each week on the different requirements for building successful websites, like writing, graphics, coding.

Great tools to gain focus and acquaint your mind with future realities are visualizations and affirmations – both help put you into the right frame of mind for success.

Zig Ziglar once said, ‘What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.’ Having adequate systems in place helps you become the person that can achieve goals that you might not even dare to put forward when you start.

Systems shift your focus in life to enjoying right now and building success and resilience in the long run. So don’t limit yourself to specific goals. Rather see where the magic of life can take you once you become better and better at being yourself.

The serial entrepreneur Nathan Latka put it nicely in his book ‘How to Be a Capitalist Without Any Capital‘: ‘There are two kinds of people in the world: people who obsess over the golden eggs, and people who obsess over optimizing the golden goose’s health, so the golden eggs become bigger, better, and more plentiful over time. The goose is the system. The golden egg is a goal.’

Yeah, I am going for the goose. Are you?


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