Discover more from Falling to Systems
You don't need to set goals to achieve big outcomes
Goals aren't always good
270 days earlier, I was a couch potato who hadn't run in over a year. All of a sudden, I found myself running my 500th mile, and crazy part is that this was never a goal I set out to achieve. So how do big accomplishments happen without goals? We'll cover three ideas that help explain how below.
Thanks for reading Falling to Systems! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The reason that running 500 miles felt kind of surprising is because it wasn't ever really a goal I had set out to achieve. Instead, it was the natural and inevitable outcome of a running system I had created and started to execute nine months earlier. When I developed that system, I explicitly chose to NOT set a goal.
Idea 1: Goals focus on the destination, and not how you actually get there.
In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes that "Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results."
It's easy to see why goal setting is so popular. Focusing on the destination is fun. It's one of the few times we give ourselves permission to dream big, and to see ourselves in an exciting new reality where we're already the best version of ourselves.
In fact, for years I was a big fan of the aphorism that "it takes no more effort to aim high than it does to aim low."
But that pithy little aphorism holds true precisely because there's very little effort in CHOOSING where you want to go. The real work lies in actually getting there, and that brings us to our second idea.
Idea 2: A good systems beats out a good goal every time.
Developing a good system that you can stick with over the long run will eventually achieve and surpass any goal you can think of today.
We spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over picking good goals.
In the corporate world, I can't tell you how many hours I've sunk into developing OKRs, defining strategic objectives, and hashing out north stars. I've spent days at offsite retreats with dozens of smart people flown in from all the country debating whether we should go left or right, and arguing over whether a particular goal was S.M.A.R.T. enough.
What we often didn't do was spend any time thinking about the repeatable processes and activities needed to actually achieve the goal. We didn't think about what the work itself would actually need to look like. We didn't really spend time discussing what the system needed to look like.
To quote Clear again: "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." I loved that quote so much I decided to name this newsletter after it.
This goal myopia isn't limited to the corporate world though. It plays itself out in our individual lives anytime we begin to think up a new year's resolution, stair down a milestone birthday, or catch ourselves in a moment of sharp disappointment with ourselves. And this brings me to our third idea.
Idea 3: Goals are often temporary and unsustainable.
Because goals are largely untethered from the practical, meat and potatoes view of work to be done, they often boil down to a snapshot in time that can only be achieved through an unsustainable approach.
A crash diet before a wedding to ensure the photos look good, an end of quarter sales blitz to ensure the team quota is hit, or even just simple panic cleaning before guests arrive for dinner.
Again, Clear brings it home "When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves."
Focusing on the inputs over the results flips the problem on its head. Instead of obsessing over the wedding photos, energy gets diverted to devising a system that makes healthy eating as easy as possible. Instead of relying on an all out sales sprint, you instead figure out a system that evens out the effort over three months. Rather than resorting to panic-cleaning, you figure out how to stick to a regular cleaning schedule that will ensure your home is presentable at all times.
Going back to my running journey at the top, I specifically avoided setting an outcome-oriented goal when I started running. I didn't want to run a certain distance, or hit a certain time. Instead, I focused on crafting a sustainable running routine that I knew I could stick with, and the results poured in naturally. Sure, 500 miles sounds impressive, but it was just a snapshot in time. I'm far more proud of is the 270 days it led me there.
In case you’d like to see a spoken version of this essay, be sure to check out this post on YouTube.