J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Goals Are For Soccer? (Reevaluating Goals vs. Systems)

Should the idea of goals be left on the field?

Should the idea of goals be left on the field?

Recently my friend Will Spencer sent me this article by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame). Part of the article is a cautionary tale against listening to advice from successful people re: their methods (for example “follow your passion”). The rest of the article focuses on why Adams prefers systems over goals. “Goals are for losers,” writes Adams, pointing out that the majority of time for a goal-oriented person is spent in a “not yet successful” mindset (having not yet achieved their chosen goal).

I agree with Adams that we should be skeptical of career/success advice and self-help books. For every millionaire who made money on real estate, there are probably at least a dozen who lost their shirt (and didn’t write a book). As for “following your passion,” I had already considered the arguments against (a major theme of Cal Newport’s excellent Study Hacks blog), and generally found them to be lacking. Adam writes that when he worked at a bank, he was advised to avoid loaning money to small business owners who were following their passion; those types of businesses almost always went bust. Good advice, probably, and Newport’s advice on Study Hacks is also mostly sound; I completely agree with his emphasis on deep focus, hard work, effective systems, and attempting to live a meaningful, interesting life.

But for some people (like myself) there is no real choice when it comes to following your passion. If I didn’t, I would literally die of boredom (or at least accelerate my demise; I quickly get despondent and depressed if I am not actively and intensively pursuing writing, music production, and other creative endeavors). I made the choice in my twenties to follow my passion (start a music label and spend most of my time making dance tracks); I would earn money via IT freelancing on an as-needed basis. For me it has worked out so far. Not only is my soul intact, but I have significant savings, passive income streams (music royalties), and plenty of freelance work. Maybe, as Adams suggests, I’m still passionate about making music because I’ve had some success in that area. Certainly it’s nice to have a “win” in your field (money, a good review, a track in the charts, praise from fans, whatever). But most of the time, I create because I feel compelled to create. So my advice to anyone who asks is still to follow your passion. Just expect hard work and be realistic about how you’re going to pay the bills (and yes, you should be skeptical about my advice as well).

So that covers the first part of the article. The second part; where Adams argues against goal setting, made me think. I had never considered goal-setting to be opposed to a systems-based approach, and considered both to be useful tools (or, more accurately, I considered goal-setting to be part of my system).

In my own recent experience, setting and working towards a challenging goal was a positive, empowering experience. I didn’t feel, as Adams writes, that I was in a state of “near-continuous failure” because I hadn’t yet reached my goal. Rather, I felt like I was steadily working towards an important milestone. And that felt great.

But still, reading the article by Adams made me doubt my approach. Did setting the goal lead to success, or was it the system of daily effort that really made the difference? According to Adams I’d be better off tossing out the goal and keeping the system.

Adding fuel to this fire of doubt was the fact that after achieving my most recent major goal (completing the first draft of a novel), I floundered for a couple months. I knew I needed some time away from the manuscript before jumping into revisions, but it didn’t feel appropriate to set another major goal that wasn’t related to the book (after all, all I had was a first draft … I hadn’t actually completed anything yet).

After letting the question simmer in the back of my mind for a few weeks, here’s where I am at the moment:

  • in the long run, systems are more effective than goals (and habits, or actualized systems, are the most effective)
  • goal-setting can still be useful tool, especially if you are trying to create a new pattern in your life, and change the direction of your inertia
  • goal-setting is less helpful in life areas that require regular good habits and/or systems for ongoing success (for example physical health and fitness, unless you are training for a competition or something like that)
  • it’s not necessary to have a main life goal all the time; it is important to know where you are going (life purpose, and a clear vision of what you want your life and/or the world to look like)

You could accuse me of over-thinking this process, and you might be right. But the “tweaks” I make to my life system have real and immediate effects (to my productivity and happiness, to the quality of work I produce, to my ability to help others and make the world a better place).

How has goal-setting helped you? When has it felt awkward and contrived? What are your most effective life systems?

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7 Comments

  1. richg

    I have always avoided setting goals to some extent, I am a person of passions, they have changed over time but are still present just the same. I feel like goals; as we refer them, can result in what we call a failure because if not reached in a traditional sense we tend to see it as a failure. I think that having a vision of what direction you want to go in, and as you say what you want the world to look like, the system so to speak is key. to me it’s just doing a little bit everyday that makes your life and others lives better is an effective system to succeed.
    I enjoyed your incite on this JD.

  2. richg

    Just clarifying my thoughts here, Setting goals seems like a static kind of idea, I like to think I am more dynamic in the way I get there,

  3. I really enjoyed your thoughtful response to the Adams article (which I have not read). It sounds like what you’re really talking about is the “what” and the “how.” (Goal=what, system=how.) To continue the novel-writing example: I had a goal of writing another novel. The way I achieved it was with a “system” of sitting down and writing for an hour a day, five days a week. (Businesses refer to this as strategy and tactics.) If I hadn’t had my novel-writing goal in mind, then my daily writing would have been a soul-fulfilling exercise in following my passion, but it might not have resulted in a finished manuscript. For the most enlightened among us, who see everything only as the journey and never the destination, that might be fine–but I wanted to have a novel at the end of it.

    • Exactly. But goal can also equal “by when”, with optional self-imposed consequences. Which I’m currently thinking is sometimes, but not always, useful.

      Are you happy with your own novel-writing pace? Do you see any value in pushing the output, or do you prefer to let it flow as it flows?

      I wish George RR Martin would push the output a bit. 😉

      • I wish I had the mental time and space to push… so many other things going on in life. I do still write regularly, but always wish there were more time for it. Creatively, though, there is a time for work and a time for rest. For me the key is to know when to keep the butt in the chair and when to take the butt out for a walk and stare up at the clouds.

  4. Isn’t a “system of daily effort” just a series of smaller, possibly more achievable “goals” leading to your ultimate goal? Can you call your day a success if it led you in a good direction and you’re happy with the results? Does all progress go in a straight line, or is it a little ziggy-zaggy? Are you open to a subset of related goals as you go from day to day that are adjunct to your main goal? Is flexibility the most valuable tool you possess on your journey?

    • Certainly there’s some overlap, but the way I’m defining goals (a specific outcome or achievement by a specific time) is distinct from strategy/system in my mind.

      Re: flexibility … sometimes a virtue … but maybe so is rigidity and the single-minded pursuit of an outcome. It sometimes feels like I’m “going against the flow” when I prioritize a long-term aim or goal (and ignore other requests for my time and attention in the process). But otherwise the long-term/big-picture is always sacrificed for short-term, day-to-day tasks. So I would almost say the opposite; inflexibility is a more valuable tool! 😉

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