Some years ago, Scott Adams – the creator of the Dilbert comics – wrote in his semi-autobiographical book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life”, that “goals are for losers, systems of winners.”
The original point which Adams was making was pretty multifaceted but included components such as the fact that when you set yourself a goal, you’re putting yourself in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. Either you are struggling to achieve that goal of yours, and feeling as though you are not a success until you have done so, or you actually do achieve your goal, and then you’ve got nothing to motivate you to take positive action anymore.
Another reason why Adams doesn’t like goals is that he believes they are not as resilient as we would like them to be. It’s one thing to set yourself a goal such as “I will weigh this much by this point next year,” but you don’t necessarily know what is or isn’t practically achievable, once reality has its say.
Goals can be undermined and made redundant by external forces that have nothing to do with your own positive intentions.
“Systems,” on the other hand, are the habits and routines that you act out on a daily basis, for their own sake, and that – ideally – will increase your odds of a positive outcome by default.
Since Scott Adams proposed the idea of being systems-focused versus habit-focused, many people have said words to the same effect, ranging from James clear, author of the successful habitat-management book “Atomic Habits,” and Tim Ferriss, who included Adam’s thoughts on systems versus goals in his book, “Tools of Titans.”
As a rule, however, systems and habits are things that people bring up in relation to business, or certain other professional aspirations, or arenas in life.
You don’t too often hear people making the point with regards to health and fitness.
Well, here are a few reasons why “systems” may be an essential key to good health, whether those systems relate to advanced technologies that may have something to do with the future of the health industry, or whether they relate solely to work out the timing.
Because good health has to do with who you are every day, not just who you are sometimes
When people think of being “healthy,” they are never really thinking of reaching a particular point somewhere in the future, when they can just rest and celebrate the fact that they’ve “made it.”
Well, maybe when people are battling against chronic health conditions, they will be looking for a particular outcome, by a particular point in the future. But in the vast majority of other cases, we think of “good health” as something that we want to embody and carry with us every day, not just as some target that we’re shooting for at some point down the line.
Ultimately, good health has to do with who you are every day, and not just who you are sometimes. Clearly, among other things, that means that an approach to your health that prioritizes doing the right things on a daily basis is likely going to be just what the doctor ordered, in terms of giving you the best possible chance of enjoying good health overall.
In other words, make a point of adopting the right health-supporting “systems” to carry forward. Things like home-cooking your meals from whole-food ingredients, for example.
Because goal-oriented health and fitness strategies often lead to burnout and temporary results
There are all sorts of situations in which people do take a goal-focused approach to their health, rather than a systems-focused one. This can perhaps be seen most clearly when it comes to people trying to get “fit” – generally in the sense of losing weight – by a particular fixed point in time.
Often, this desire to get in shape will have some connection to New Year’s resolutions and the January gym rush, and also to the months leading up to beach-season, in the summer.
Many popular fitness programs that get sold to people are actually structured in this sort of way, too. Sometimes they will entail 30-day plans, or 60-day plans, or 90-day plans, usually divided into “phases” that have specific aims – such as burning fat, building muscle, et cetera.
There are a few problems with doing things this way, but perhaps the most obvious problem is that when you try and exercise in a way that’s unusual to you, for a set length of time, in order to lose weight, there’s no reason to assume you won’t just regain the weight if and when you go back to your usual lifestyle routines.
Consistently, people do regain the weight they’ve lost after crash dieting. The key seems to be to change your lifestyle. Foremost, through your daily fitness and nutrition systems. Not just “sprinting” for some goal, and then feeling like you’ve made it once you hit the target.
Because effective systems can give you a clear sense of what you should or shouldn’t do at any given moment
With regards to health and fitness, systems help to inform you of what you should, or shouldn’t be doing at any given moment, whereas goals often don’t give you that kind of helpful on-the-ground insight.
If you were to set yourself a goal to lose or gain a certain amount of weight, for example, that wouldn’t necessarily tell you anything about how much you should or shouldn’t really be eating on a daily basis, or whether it’s okay to make exceptions, or how you should balance your macro and micronutrients.
On the other hand, systems – being concerned with the everyday routines, and nothing else — will fill in all those plans for you, and give you useful practical guidance.
That’s not to say that the standards and guidelines of your system of choice will actually be objectively correct – but they will likely be quite useful, all the same.
If, for example, you have a system that tells you to avoid added fat, or sugar, at all occasions except social gatherings with friends, it’s difficult to trick yourself into thinking that evenings at home alone are a good occasion for ordering a pizza. At the same time, though, you’ll be less likely to actually feel guilty if you do have a slice of birthday cake at a relative’s party