Lucas Brenner » Articles » Goals vs. Systems

There is a conflict between goal setters and system creators in the world of productivity and self-improvement. The issue is whether goals or systems are more appropriate for getting work done.

Yet the answer to the question is quite simple: you need both.

Basics of Goal Setting

Everyone has goals, consciously or unconsciously. One would like to play the violin as well as the woman in an internet video, one would like to be able to program and so on.

A goal is an idealized idea of your future self. You imagine yourself reaching a certain milestone in the future. It is not about how you can reach the goal, but only about the success at the end.

Thus, a goal is an idea against which you measure your own success. Moreover, a goal can motivate to working on something.

Nevertheless, it is important to set realistic goals. If a goal is too difficult, you cannot be satisfied with yourself, even if you have achieved a lot. To exaggerate, 99 percent of progress feels similarly bad as no progress at all, because in both cases the goal was not achieved.

Basics of Systems

A system focuses on daily or short-term routines that produce progress. A system could be a daily or weekly habit, for example. By planning your day, you can easily incorporate systems into your daily routine.

Accordingly, systems have no “ending” and may not convey the same sense of accomplishment as achieving a goal. You have no clear milestone to work toward other than maintaining the habit. For example, maintaining a budget plan is a system for keeping track of your finances.

A streak can be motivating, but should the streak break, it can be so devastating that you immediately abandon the habit completely.

Goals and Systems Should Be Used Together

As you may have noticed, goals and systems complement each other very well. The disadvantage of goals, that the way to reach the milestone is not clearly drawn, is put into perspective by a system. The problem of a system, that there is no clear measurement, is solved by pursuing a goal. You thereby avoid excessive demands, stress and negative emotions.

When your have reached your goal with a system, you can consider whether you want to keep the system or not. If so, you set a new goal and the journey continues. Unrealistic goals are largely made impossible because there is no suitable system for these goals.

I like to describe goals and systems with the following metaphor: A system is like a map with a path marked on it that takes you forward. A goal is like a compass that points the way to your destination. Without a map, you won't arrive at your destination; without a destination and a compass, you cannot orientate you.

To achieve something, you need both goals and systems. You can only reach your own potential if you wisely combine goals and systems. At the end of life, you realize that productivity was never the ultimate goal anyway.