#56 More Thoughts on Goals: Systems Might Be A Better Alternative

I’ve been talking about goals. Now I want to wrap things up with some points that didn’t find a home in my prior couple posts. They aren’t closely related to each other so prepare to jump around a bit.


The United States Declaration of Independence says…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


And over time many have looked at that “pursuit of Happiness” as the ultimate goal. We don’t need money, fame, awards, successful businesses, etc., so long as we’re happy.

Sounds great. But if you dig into the research on what happiness is and how to achieve it, you find a mess. People argue about everything from how to define the word to whether it’s a worthwhile goal.

I tend to trust folks that live at the intersection of psychology and data. So I was curious what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman had to say on the topic. He's an expert in the areas of judgement, decision making, and behavioral economics. I introduced him as the author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow back in post #54 - Goals That Don't Motivate.

Here’s something he blogged that gets to the complexities of the idea of happiness as the ultimate goal.

“So goals are very important to life satisfaction.  Also being educated is good for life satisfaction.  High income - the more the merrier - is good for life satisfaction.

For emotional happiness, it’s quite different. I would say the main thing is social.  The main source of emotional misery is loneliness and the main source of emotional happiness is spending time with people you love, so they are really quite different.”


So Kahneman is differentiating between life satisfaction and emotional happiness. I don't know enough at this point to appreciate the differences between these two terms, so I’m going to punt. I just wanted to introduce this head scratcher as food for later thought.

At some point I’ll circle back and explore whether happiness is indeed the ultimate goal.


Jason Fried co-manages a successful software company named Basecamp. He's also the co-author of a couple books - Rework and Remote. These books, and other writings of his, have cemented his reputation as a contrarian.

And here’s what he had to say in a blog post on the topic of goals

“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them."

So you set a goal at age 35. As you strive and grow towards that goal you learn and change. So by the time you hit 40 that original goal is well off course. It's no longer intrinsically motivating. So why bother with the goal in the first place?

It’s a valid point. I’ve already shared this exact experience with you in post #30 - I Predict NOTHING

Remember my youthful goal of dominating Wall Street? How I chased it hard for a couple years? And how it no longer fit me by the time I’d achieved it?

So based on this type of experience, Fried pretty much says he doesn’t see a lot of value in goals. 

I should end this story right now. My intent was to share another point of view on goals, and I've done that.

But I can't move on. While doing my research on Fried's quote I came across something that drives me bonkers and I have to vent. Here goes.


I came across a blogger that had a remedy for the problem Fried points out in his quote. And this blogger has a decent following, so I assume folks find his words helpful. Anyway, here's what this person suggested for overcoming Fried's issue with goals.

“Set realistic goals that appeal to the person you’re going to be.”

Please tell me you see the horseshit, circular logic baked into the above quote.

Set a goal**.
Strive to reach it.
Experience an unpredictable journey of change and growth.

BUT, don't forget those all-important asterisks.
**Your original goal must accurately predict the preferences of future you.

Sure. No problem. Thanks for the brilliant impossible advice.


Scott Adams of Dilbert fame likes systems over goals. In his book How To Fail At Everything and Still Win Big he says this…

“goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.”

A simple example he gives is losing ten pounds is a goal and eating right is a system. As further explanation he shares the following…

“The systems versus goals point of view is burdened by semantics, of course. You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. 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.”

Here’s a personal example, from many years ago, where I used a system rather than a goal. 

I was trying to sell software to a particularly challenging billion dollar company. While working the account at several levels, I knew the only path to real dollars was through the CIO (Chief Information Officer). And he wasn’t taking my calls. 

So rather than set a goal of closing the account by X date for Y dollars, I, instead, put a system in place. On top of all the other stuff I was doing at this account, I would call the CIO every Friday until I died or we spoke. 

Sometimes I’d call early in the morning. Sometimes I’d call late in the day on my way home. But I called every Friday, no matter what, and I always left a positive message.I was working my system and it became kind of a fun game. Placing the call was a tiny victory for me each Friday, and this went on for months.

Until one Friday. The Friday where our game came to an end. The Friday where he shocked me by actually answering the freaking phone. And you won’t believe what he said.

“Keith, thanks for calling. I’ve been hoping to catch up with you.”

It was like we were old friends, and we never once discussed that he’d blown me off for months. And within a short while, he became a significant customer.

Does this story prove that goals are bad and systems are always the answer? 


But it does show, in this single case, that using a system improved my mental state. Gave me tiny victories that increased my energy. A welcome boost when you’re living in an ultra competitive environment. One where you get your face kicked in quite a bit, and where there's already plenty of measuring going on. 


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

As I look at my Maps it’s surprising to me how much this systems thinking has gotten inside my brain.


Take a look at the CAN?s from my WORK and SELF Maps...


On my SELF Map I’m focused on Eating like Joyce, Posting weekly, and showing Gratitude. On my WORK Map I’m focused on Engaging weekly, Leveraging my target audience, and Adding value by showing gratitude. 

Don’t these look more like systems than goals?

It’s especially obvious in the ENGAGE CAN? From my WORK Map.

I CAN? ENGAGE by creating & defending something personal & tangible weekly.

Years ago I would have stated that I must have X number of readers by some date. Or that I want to deliver Y speeches. Those would be more traditional SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound).

Instead, my focus is on developing a cadence, a way of keeping my head in this game. Giving myself opportunities for small, consistent, energizing wins on a daily / weekly basis.

That makes a ton of sense because I’m not doing this work to take over the world. I’m doing it because I find it satisfying - intrinsically motivating. I wouldn’t enjoy some Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) that may or may not be in my long term best interest. 

Goals, CAN?s, Systems. As I showed in my opening collection of quotes, everyone seems to have an opinion on them. I, personally, don’t care what you call them or whether or not you use them.  Just make sure there’s something out there on the horizon that gets your juices flowing. Makes you want to get out of bed in the morning.

That’s all you really need…

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.