Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

We all have things that we want to achieve in our lives — getting into the better shape, building a successful business, raising a wonderful family, writing a best-selling book, winning a championship, and so on.

And for most of us, the path to those things starts by setting a specific and actionable goal. At least, this is how I approached my life until recently. I would set goals for classes I took, for weights that I wanted to lift in the gym, and for clients I wanted in my business.

What I’m starting to realize, however, is that when it comes to actually getting things done and making progress in the areas that are important to you, there is a much better way to do things.

It all comes down to the difference between goals and systems.

Let me explain.

The Difference Between Goals and Systems

What’s the difference between goals and systems?

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Now for the really interesting question:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?

I think you would.

As an example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I’ve written this year. (You can see them all here.) In the last 12 months, I’ve written over 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so I have written enough to fill two books this year.

All of this is such a surprise because I never set a goal for my writing. I didn’t measure my progress in relation to some benchmark. I never set a word count goal for any particular article. I never said, “I want to write two books this year.”

What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And after sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work. In the end, I enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.

Let’s talk about three more reasons why you should focus on systems instead of goals.

1. Goals reduce your current happiness.

When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”

The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.”

SOLUTION: Commit to a process, not a goal.

Choosing a goal puts a huge burden on your shoulders. Can you imagine if I had made it my goal to write two books this year? Just writing that sentence stresses me out.

But we do this to ourselves all the time. We place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, you can keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals.

When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.

2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.

You might think your goal will keep you motivated over the long-term, but that’s not always true.

Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?

This can create a type of “yo-yo effect” where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This type of cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.

SOLUTION: Release the need for immediate results.

I was training at the gym last week and I was doing my second-to-last set of clean and jerks. When I hit that rep, I felt a small twinge in my leg. It wasn’t painful or an injury, just a sign of fatigue near the end of my workout. For a minute or two, I thought about doing my final set. Then, I reminded myself that I plan to do this for the rest of my life and decided to call it a day.

In a situation like the one above, a goal-based mentality will tell you to finish the workout and reach your goal. After all, if you set a goal and you don’t reach it, then you feel like a failure.

But with a systems-based mentality, I had no trouble moving on. Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process and not missing workouts.

Of course, I know that if I never miss a workout, then I will lift bigger weights in the long-run. And that’s why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.

3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.

You can’t predict the future. (I know, shocking.)

But every time we set a goal, we try to do it. We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there. We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way.

SOLUTION: Build feedback loops.

Each Friday, I spend 15 minutes filling out a small spreadsheet with the most critical metrics for my business. For example, in one column I calculate the conversion rate (the percentage of website visitors that join my free email newsletter each week). I rarely think about this number, but checking that column each week provides a feedback loop that tells me if I’m doing things right. When that number drops, I know that I need to send high quality traffic to my site.

Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything. Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.

Fall In Love With Systems

None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

154 Responses to Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

  1. Jeremy says:

    Sounds like Nick Saban agrees with you on systems…. thought that you might find this interesting:

    http://thequad.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/saban-is-keen-to-explain-process/?_r=0

    • Della says:

      Thanks, because of systems thinking I have gotten my new website started and it looks great. I could rush and have a half baked opening but I’m thinking long term and taking my time to be sure everything looks great for the long haul.

      It took me a long while to decide on this medium and I’m glad I did.

      Della Badart

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Jeremy. Saban has done some incredible things at Alabama. I’ll look into his story more. It might make for a good article.

      • Jeremy says:

        Thanx James… just FYI your articles have both inspired me and confirmed things that I have been doing on working towards my dreams. Very nice stuff and keep up the good work sir!

    • Mouli says:

      I am a student of engineering in India. Really this was a useful article for me. I regularly read your articles. I took you as my inspiration.

    • Abhishek says:

      Hi James,

      I really like this article. It hits the target spot-on. Once we have figured out what we have to do to attain our goal, we might as well forget the goal and focus on what has to be done.

      Nice article.

  2. Greg Battye says:

    I found this very useful – a great way of making progress without being constantly accompanied by the feeling that you’re not there yet (and maybe never will be).

  3. Tom Busk says:

    Goals can also be just another way of re-enforcing a negative self-image – “See, there’s another failed attempt!”

  4. Vijay Sonnad says:

    Very nice James! Although you are interested in a variety of topics, this topic seems closest to your heart, and it is very pleasing to see you make progress.

    We all desperately desire wisdom, and your insights will help many.

  5. Donna Collins says:

    Thank you for another helpful and encouraging piece.

  6. Steve Sykes says:

    George Leonard says basically the same thing in his 1992 book Mastery. He talks about learning to love the process, or “practice” of doing something. From that book I learned the phrase “learn to love the plateau,” emphasizing that often long periods of practice will pass with no visible increase in progress towards a goal, then you will have a breakthrough before reaching a new higher plateau. Love what you are doing, the process that involves a long period of time, not just achieving a goal which is an event of zero duration.

    • James Clear says:

      Great points, Steve. I haven’t read Leonard’s book, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley.

      Thanks for reading.

  7. Chris says:

    Good article James. Do you not set goals for yourself and only use systems?

    How do you gauge what you are working towards?

    • James Clear says:

      Chris — I do set goals. Plenty of them. But what I’m finding is that systems are how things actually get done.

      As I said at the end of the article, “None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

      Goals are great for providing direction and a sense of purpose, but the real work is done by systems. Furthermore, we can often reach our goals without even worrying about them (if we commit to the process).

      The underlying theme of the article is that most people spend 90 percent of their time thinking about goals and 10 percent of their time thinking about the daily process. I think it should be exactly the opposite — 10 percent goals and vision, 90 percent systems and process.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. We have similar, though slightly different philosophies that both appear to work. I wouldn’t say that goals are the problem, but rather the size and frequency of them. In this way, I suppose I prefer a hybrid of what you’re saying and what most others go for (big goals).

    My overarching goal is habit-formation in various areas such a writing and reading, so that I won’t require willpower to do these things that I want to do. To meet this bigger goal, I have a daily requirement to write 50 words in my book and another 50 words in anything of my choice. Since starting this, I have averaged writing about 2,000 words a day (despite my small goal), which is why I’m nearly finished with my book (called Mini Habits). The “stupid small” requirement gets me started, which is indeed the hardest part of the process.

    You can’t only focus on your big towering objective or you’ll use up all of your willpower just thinking about it. I think we both agree that real results happen in planning for long term progress instead of building up for a giant leap into the stratosphere. The latter simply doesn’t work.

    • James Clear says:

      Stephen, I would agree: similar approaches, different words.

      At the end of the day, it’s about the daily process (and using small goals/habits is a great way to continually get the daily work started). Meanwhile, goals can provide some direction and a plan for the future, but they should be occupying your mind and energy most of the time.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Yeah, I meant to say in my first comment that the differences are probably just semantics. It’s amazing how flexible words can be. Thanks for your content James. Yours is one of two or three blogs I’m subscribed to and I tend to agree with your logical and researched philosophies. Also, that picture of NYC you won that award for is seared into my brain forever. So beautiful.

        Like you, I’m always looking at relevant studies in neuroscience and behavioral science. Have you seen the recent study on how making a left fist to helps with high pressure situations because it “primes” the right hemisphere? Really cool stuff! I just wrote an article for Dumb Little Man about it. Cheers!

  9. Alec MacLeod says:

    Thanks for an excellent perspective on the concept of goals. This notion is counterintuitive at first, but it passes the gut feeling test handily.

  10. DT says:

    WOW! I’m so glad I opened today’s article in my inbox! This was definitely a great perspective shifting article! Thank you so so so so much for it! I’m now looking forward to your emails every Monday and Thursday from now on! I really liked how you touched upon how goals make decrease your happiness. It really does, I do get depressed when I feel like I haven’t made my goals in time. I think you’re right about concentrating on the system/process and just doing your best everyday. Results will come!

    • James Clear says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article, DT.

      I think happiness and being in the present moment is the most important reason I like systems as well. Learning to enjoy the process of each day is a challenge for all of us, but focusing on the system has made it a little easier for me (although I still struggle often).

      As always, thanks for reading.

  11. Melissa T. says:

    I’m saving this post…. to do a great reply to (maybe/hopefully) in the future. By far my favorite goal and strategy piece yet! Awesome.

  12. Promo Anene says:

    Excellent article! Indeed, most goals are like projects. They rarely get achieved as desired. More importantly, they leave you with negative feelings while you are at it. Thanks for pointing out the systems formula.

    • James Clear says:

      Well, I’m definitely not the first person to figure this out, but I’m happy to share it with you. Thanks for reading!

  13. Donna says:

    Great article. New to your blog but really enjoying it. This article reminds me of myoneword.org. Familiar with it? Instead of setting lofty goals/new years’ resolutions each year, you choose one word and focus on change. Check it out.

    • James Clear says:

      Welcome to the community, Donna. It’s great to have you reading.

      I haven’t heard of My One Word, but it sounds like a useful idea. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Elise Auxier says:

    James, you just captured the reason I would grimace at the thought of losing (say) 15 pounds as brutal, depriving drudge work but feel enthused, light and hopeful when I record my exercise and careful calorie count each day in My Fitness Pal! I achieved the goal, just wondered why setting it as a target or specific number always seemed to bring a resentment vibe up in me! This one really resonated with me. Thank you.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Elise. And congrats on the progress you’re making. Keep that momentum going!

  15. Paul says:

    Another excellent and insightful article. The thing about this article, like most of your other ones, is that it’s practical, common-sense and obvious once you’ve read through it.

    Thanks.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Paul. I find that good ideas are often like that: obvious after you hear them, but not obvious at first.

      Thanks for reading.

  16. Joanne T says:

    I always find your writing easy to read, understand and follow. I especially liked the one where you shared books to read on different topics. Thanks for all your postings. They are wonderful and insightful.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Joanne! I’ll be sharing more book suggestions in a few weeks. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

  17. Adrian says:

    Brilliant.

  18. Deborah B. says:

    I think I’m in love with James Clear! Well, today is day 1 of yet another diet and for a 62 year old woman who has benchmarked every decade with a weight loss ‘goal’ I felt once again defeated before even getting started. If I hadn’t been so tired after work tonight and fell asleep on and off while trying to watch TV I probably would have gone from good intentions to eating badly. Then I woke up and went online and read James’s words and felt differently about what I have started to do. He is so right about systems. The goal is weight loss, the system is to figure out what to do with each new day and what I will do within that day to feel successful with that day itself. The weight loss goal is 75 lbs. That’s almost overwhelming to think about. But a system will keep me grounded and focused. Did I mention that I think I’m in love with James Clear?

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for the compliments, Deborah. I’m just happy to share work that helps people.

      Thanks for reading and good luck with your healthy lifestyle changes. It’s all about the process.

  19. Mohammed Ali says:

    That was an awesome post. I admit I love making Goals, but I can see why they can be a source of unhappiness. Working on systems is a much better approach.

  20. Right on James!

    When I talk about this issue, I separate goals into ‘end goals’ and ‘process goals’. As a climber, getting to the top of a route without falling is an end goal – I try to never focus on those, since your brain doesn’t work well with them (for all the reasons mentioned above + your brain wants to avoid stress, which is actually what makes you better in weight lifting and climbing!).

    Instead, I focus on the process goals – my goal is to only breathe through my nose throughout the entire route. It’s super challenging! But, when I master that skill, I stay calm throughout a stressful climb and it turns out I usually almost accidentally climb the route without falling.

    Lately, I have been trying to make a point of determining my process goals (my systems) for each of my big life goals (end-goals) … and subsequently to remove attachment to my end goals. I have a big calendar that I am using the Seinfeld technique to keep track of my progress.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • James Clear says:

      Good ideas, Moose. Breathing through your nose is a great way to stay in the present too. It literally forces you to focus on this breath, which is a great way to forget about all of the bigger, future goals.

      Keep marking those X’s down on the calendar!

  21. Oh well done. You have succinctly expressed several of the thoughts I have had about goals and how they cultivate this on/off mentality when some gols (like lose 50 pounds) are never ever about losing 50 pounds but about the whole process of learning how to live a life which allows your body to shed 50 pounds and keep it off. Whether or not my body responds by losing weight is utterly out of my control, as you said, but eating properly and making the necessary effort to move is not. Thank you.

  22. Very well said, James. It goes right along with the Seinfeld advice to not “break the chain.” If you keep doing what you should do, you’ll get the results you want…or better.

    I think another way focusing on systems is better than focusing on goals is that if you set mini goals to reach a larger goal and you get off track, it’s discouraging. If you are working on a system, however, you know it’s always in flux and always has potential to get better. You can recover from failure on a daily task in a different way than something that was supposed to occur at a once-and-for all time in history.

    For some reason I’ve always found the advice of setting a goal and breaking down all the tasks needed month by month, week by week, day by day overwhelming and discouraging. I feel like I suddenly have a mountain of expectations to fulfill. I like the systems approach much better!

    • James Clear says:

      Well said, Michelle. I was the same way — breaking goals down into smaller steps always seemed a little off to me. It sounded good in theory, but I struggled to put it into practice. I don’t have as much trouble with that when I think about building a process and focusing on the system.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  23. Lori Miller says:

    I love the idea of the year of the sloth. As a calculus instructor once said, “good mathematicians are basically lazy.”

    I hadn’t thought about systems v. goals, but that’s exactly how I do things. I never write down goals at work, even though they want us to, but the systems I use make me the best at what I do.

    Another problem with goals is that even if you have a good system, if it doesn’t get you closer to a goal, or get you there fast enough, you can drop the good system for no system. Someone mentioned weight loss–it’s better to have a healthy diet you can live with, and a system for living with it (e.g., no unhealthy food in the house, don’t leave the house hungry) so you can just do it on autopilot.

  24. Ellis says:

    This is exactly what I’ve come to after of years of attempting to reach goals. They just dont work for me. I’ve tried everything imaginable from all of the books,etc.

    The system is the solution – at least for me. The first time I stumbled across this concept was when I read “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. I really enjoyed the CD’s. But his material is about business systems – creating a process, system of getting things done. One of his examples is McDonalds. They have a system for everything. I adopted that mindset to my life. Create a system / process and then check the results I’m getting from that process – a feedback loop. No progress? Then I’m doing something wrong. Making progress? How can I improve it? Of course the first thing is to have a goal / result that lights you up to start with. Sometimes I have “reframe” the goal. Instead of loose 35 lbs for health reasons, I convert it to loose 35 lbs so I can get into that Italian suit I want!

    Long story short, I measure everything by results. Does doing this “thing” give me a result towards my desired outcome? I know that sounds obvious but how many of us “work” all day with absolutely nothing to show for it? Being busy is not the same thing as accomplishing something – getting results.

    One thing I’ve had to work hard on with this method is to create feedback loops, processes I can complete in short order. If I have to fill out 3 pages in one of my journals to track my results, its too much work. I wont do it. I shoot for a 5 min at the most feedback tracking.

    This is a great blog! I’ve really enjoyed reading it.

    Thanks!

  25. Richard says:

    Wow! *mind blown* again! Thanks James

  26. Joe in Oklahoma says:

    I’m a very chaotic thinker at times (a lot of times) and you hit the nail on the head. I focus on goals with little attention to the system. I grow impatient and forget the system and let the goals just fall away. The times I am raging successful are the times I follow the system with no regard to the goals – and lo and behold I reach that goal. But I never linked the two. Until now. Thank you.

  27. Abhishek G Nair says:

    One of the most useful and thought-provoking articles you’ve written. Thanks so much.

  28. Jennifer Ayoub says:

    Wonderfully written! You spell out the difference between making progress and planning for your progress. You’ve got me started–I’ll be putting this into my practice.

  29. Caroline says:

    Hm. Interesting thought. So perhaps better than New Years resolutions being goals, we should resolve to follow systems. Like, rather than lose 30 pounds, work out a way to eat healthier and resolve to stick to that.

  30. Niel says:

    Hallelujah! At last I have an answer to my supervisor. I’m doing my PhD, developing a new instrument, but the research process is unpredictable, since we don’t know what hurdle we’re going to have to overcome next. So, while we know what we are working towards, we cannot know what we are going to do next, and goal-based thinking has failed again and again.

    My system of turning up for work every day and doing something is therefore what brought me to the success I’m currently having. Perhaps if we had systems thinking from the beginning it would have cost me much less anxiety and had better results.

  31. Laura Cheftel says:

    I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH. WOW. THIS is what it’s about, “life is a journey, not a destination”!! Thank you thank you thank you for this James.

  32. Saad Belfqih says:

    It’s a great feeling when I open my email inbox and find that I just received a new article from James. Always inspiring! Thanks.

  33. Lucian Ispasescu says:

    Brilliant. Thank you!

  34. SergeZ says:

    Just a Big Thank You for this article.

  35. Ajay S Kini says:

    Although this concept of enjoying the journey rather than destination is old, well known yet most often ignored by most of us, you have written it crisply, clearly and with good examples.

    Thank you James for this effective learning that has an impact for the long term for everyone.

  36. Cherryl says:

    After I read this article, I totally feel the choice of resting today instead of going yoga because of my shoulder aching like no other, is correct. I’m planning to exercise every morning for life. If it really hurts, I may get hurt while doing all the stretching while at yoga. Yes, I do want to lose weight but I don’t want to end up hurting myself more. Thank you. I have been reading your articles for some time now and this is my first comment. *Thumbs up*

  37. Rob O'Keefe says:

    James,

    Rock solid post my man. Peas happy to share it. Keep the content coming, this stuff pumps me up big dawg! Perspective builder for sure!

  38. Therese says:

    Excellent and timely article. And great comments also. Being successful is really about keeping the action going. Thanks for your continuing insights. I look forward to reading your blog every Monday and Thursday.

  39. Huang Huiling says:

    This post is lovely. I took on a new business recently and am really eager to get things going so that I may reach my goal. Two incidents happened today that made me reflect that perhaps a proper system will allow me to reach the goal in due time. One was reading your post that was emailed to my inbox. In other words, with a proper system, I may fall short of my goal but at least I will not lack motivation to continue even after I’ve achieved the goal. Thank you for keeping me in check.

  40. Esther R says:

    Interesting article. Never really thought about my systems — just the end result.

    Will start working on reverse now. Let’s see how it goes.

  41. Fancia says:

    This is by far my favorite article.

  42. Silvia says:

    Just “Thank you”!

  43. Marg says:

    James, You have no idea of how much I needed to read your words today. Thank you.

  44. Rhi says:

    Excellent James, thank you for sharing!

    Reading this makes anything seem possible!

  45. B Smullen says:

    Great article. Articulated perfectly what I’ve been trying to do with my weights programme for the past year.

  46. LKA says:

    Thanks for the reminder. As an artist, it’s very easy to get caught up in the end result of hopeful commercial “success”, rather than to focus on perfecting and expanding the craft. Time passes quickly. Before you know it the day is nearly over and you still didn’t work your craft. From now on the marketing end will be on a specific and strict schedule, and I’ll return to spending the greater part of my day learning and creating new material and studying new ideas, which is exactly where I need to stay. This is so timely. Never too old, never too late. Starting…now. All the best.

  47. Sharon says:

    This is so amazing. It’s just what I needed to hear…how are you able to do that? Thanks James.

  48. Marko Graenitz says:

    Great article James! Maybe an additional thought: BIG goals can be a trigger for actually setting up systems for the long run. Last year I committed to do my first Ironman twelve months later; setting up a grueling training schedule; followed through; then after the competition, my training was part of everyday life and it was easy to just keep it up as a HABIT.

  49. Danielle Farrow says:

    Spot on and very clearly put – thank you, James! As well as appreciating your info, I am finding Simpleology very useful for goal setting and examining, while simultaneously building up habits and creating process/practice (particularly via the daily training).

  50. Chux18 says:

    What is awesome is that the way you relate sports into business.

  51. Lee says:

    You have given so much help to me – thanks once again for a very rewarding and useful blog. I save your articles into my Readability app so I can catalogue them and re-read later. (Readability pages also make great PDFs, I’ve found.) And I’m glad to have the list of Archive links.

    Building good day-to-day habits has been a major step-up for me in actually ACCOMPLISHING anything, and vital for beating the Procrastination Dinosaur that seems to reside in my brain. Your e-book on Habit is wonderfully helpful too. Thanks so much for all the life-enhancing encouragement that, yes, we CAN do it. Right on! (And write on…)

  52. Steffen says:

    what a great and insightful article.

    the problem of goals that they are not fully under your control. the environment or the circumstances can change anytime.

    setting a goal could be associated with losing control, which could produce stress, which could produce fear, which could make you stuck. in the end setting (wrong) goals could be the birth of procrastiation or analysis paralysis.

  53. Ruth Cooke says:

    I agree up to a point, since most of the goals I have for the upcoming year are actually goals to put systems in place. However, if there’s a project I wish to complete that’s a one-off, a goal with a deadline is just what I need. For example, my goal is to write a complete novel in November (along with a whole bunch of other folks!), but I also want to put a system into place for writing that will see me continue to progress, though perhaps at a slower pace, throughout the year.

    I’m also looking at putting systems into place that will help me choose healthier eating and exercise more, as I know from experience that a goal to lose weight without a system is a goal that I will fail to acheive.

  54. Reading your article this morning was a great way to start my day. I believe I will implement a systems mentality moving forward. I will be thinking about what needs to change for me today. Thanks have a great day!

  55. Hugh says:

    James,

    Love this article and concept. I would love for you to write your next article on how to create system or tips on creating system.

    Hugh

  56. Lee Darke says:

    I guess the old adage, “Showing up is 80% of life” fits here. Great post. Now I have a question for everyone. How do you define and create a measurable system that suits your purpose?

    • Marg says:

      Hi Lee,

      I am keeping it simple right now. I need a major overhaul in every aspect of my life! I have had considerable upheavel in the last two years and it has so thrown me off track that I don’t even see the train anymore! What I have done is look at the biggest area of my life that if I changed it, would bring me the biggest return. I say it is my diet. My diet affects how I feel, look, sleep, how much I accomplish etc. Since that is an area I am totally off track in, I have decided to start there. I now have a visual up on my wall that counts my veggies, fruit, dairy, beans and grains for the day. I have a specific amount that I would like to eat of each. I am using stickies so when I have something, I can removed that sticky from one side of the sheet to the other side of the sheet. Primitive, but so far, effective. It provides me with a very concrete way of checking my “system”. I had no system before – too busy wondering how to reach my goals but not having a clear system. At least for me it is a start and when James gives us something more thorough, then I will use it! :)

      • Lee Darke says:

        Marg,

        I have some experience in this area. By making some simple changes I went from 215# down to 175# in about a year. The key is what you eat more than the exercise. It’s not rocket science by any measure and you don’t really have to count calories or really deprive yourself. I also had some very beneficial side effects like no longer having to take medications.

        Check out http://www.marksdailyapple.com for starters. If you want any assistance or support, I’d be happy to help.

        • Marg says:

          Thanks Lee – just checking that site out now… I am not counting any calories. I am just giving myself a designated number of each to eat. Sor for example 6 veggies. I love veggies so that is not a problem. I just needed the visual plan to help sort it out. As well, I have gone through my fridge and listed on stickies the veggies I do have so it makes it easier to choose and to plan a meal. I used to be very healthy, but ended up on meds and my weight just shot up. I am off the meds and now need to retrain my system. What would be your biggest tip for keeping focus? Congrats on your success. :)

          • Lee Darke says:

            Hi Marg,

            It is pretty much as James said. Change is a process, that is all you really need to consider. Make small manageable changes. Start with your easiest meal and make a change. Get used to that then move on to the next meal. Don’t rush.

            The plan I used was to start with Breakfast, then moved on to dinner and finally lunch. I looked for Paleo/primal recipes that were easy to make and had things I liked. Most people eat the same things over and over, so I just substituted my favourite paleo versions.

            Don’t re-invent the wheel, take a meal you like and tweak it to fit the paradigm.

            Finally, as it is a process, don’t sweat the details, just keep at it and evolve. Don’t chastise yourself if you slide back to old habits, just acknowledge it and then correct course. 80/20 rule is best. That is you will eat 80% of the foods you should to be healthy. Rather than deprive yourself have a small treat everyday. Find a way to make that treat fit your new eating paradigm, but if you can’t don’t sweat it.

            Be kind to yourself and all will be awesome.

  57. Marcy says:

    You hit the nail on the head.

    Almost three years ago, I joined a gym near my office. Like most people, I could’ve said, I want to lose X lbs or X% body fat, etc. But instead, I simply said, I want to create a routine of regularly going to the gym, pushing myself to continuously get better and become healthier. I focused solely on the system. And, unlike most women, I focused on lifting rather than cardio, which in the long run has given me much better results.

    I have gone from about 22% body fat down to around 16%. I am physically in better shape than I was in high school and stronger than I was then. In fact, I am lifting heavier weights for some of my lifts than I ever thought I would be able to do. If I had set goals for my weight, I would have been sorely disappointed (as I’m sure you will understand) and probably would’ve given up a long time ago. Because I’ve gained so much muscle, I’ve lost less than 10 lbs. And if I’d have set goals for strength, I would’ve stopped short of where i am now. Not to mention, as you note, I wouldn’t have had anything to motivate me once I hit those goals.

  58. Jorge says:

    Hi James:

    Thanks for this great article. It’s not easy to concentrate that much common sense in a short note that challenge a general assumed idea about the “importance of goals”, but you did it. Congratulations and thanks again for this “CLEAR” blog.

  59. Danielle says:

    I am SO thankful that I’ve found you! You have such a different and refreshing approach to thinking and how to get things done!I read so many books and blogs, but everyone says the same thing. I’ve felt stuck for awhile and I finally feel like Im “loosening” up a bit. Thank you again! :)

  60. Erik says:

    This is one of the best descriptions of the benefits of systems I’ve read yet.

    I particularly love your writing example. Setting a goal of writing two books in a year would sound IMPOSSIBLE, but when you commit to writing every week, the content actually happened.

    I had a similar experience recently. I started a weightlifting program focused on the core compound movements and building strength. My “goal” was just to do the three workouts every week and track my progress.

    Five weeks in, I was curious how much progress I had made on my deadlift. Turns out I had already increased the weight by 50 lbs!

    A goal of “increasing deadlift by 50 lbs in five weeks” would have sounded ridiculous. But by committing to the process, I made it happen.

  61. Shailesh says:

    Cleared my confusion about GOAL and PROCESS. Thanks.

  62. I think this makes an awful lot of sense. If I’d been better focused on developing the “healthy lifestyle & fitness system” yesterday, I would have stopped running as soon as I felt the blister happening. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about it, and a potential bigger issue, today.

    Perhaps developing the system is the “Prime Directive”. Fully operational and developed systems are what’s needed for sustainability.

  63. Stephan Luten says:

    What you shared makes a lot of sense and I have been using it without realizing it in some areas. I did not set a goal to loose weight but just had a desire to get in the best shape I could be in. The process of running, working out and keeping to that schedule not only allowed me to get in shape and participate in 5 and 10k’s but people have been asking me how I lost so much weight and am able to keep it of. When I got up to 225lbs I stopped weighing myself so probably weighed more when I made my decision. I have been able to stay around 170-175lbs. I now need to apply this technique systems and process to my writing and business ideas. Thanks for helping us all stay focused.

  64. Julie says:

    Love this post James and the conversation you started here. I deeply believe in the power of systems and wonder if what you are saying here is that the system becomes the goal rather than the long-term result down the road. This makes sense and yet there still needs to be that moment of declaration and commitment, the identification of the system you want to put in place. I think this is still a critical piece of the puzzle – determining your goal whether a system or an event. Love your thoughts and also would Love to see your business metrics tracker template! :)

  65. Joe McGonigal says:

    This sounds a lot like what Scott Adams discussed in a recent WSJ article http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304626104579121813075903866.

  66. CT says:

    Not only a “ah ha moment, the light bulb came on” experience but a huge, huge load of my mind of struggling on how to achieve what I’m striving for. Life changing and hope. A prayer answered for direction on how do I accomplish what I so desperately want my life to be like. A prayer answered, thank you for sharing.

    • Judi says:

      CT, just have to say “ditto” and I’m happy for us both! Hope you will post your progress . . .

      James, so appreciative of your willingness to share your insights and encouragement with others. I have been looking for a path to overcome adversity and make progress in life, and have read lots of great advice without being able to put it into practice. However your approach really ‘clicked’ with me and this time I believe I can implement the changes I need to make. Thank you.

  67. SJ Scott says:

    James,

    I think you and I agree. I have always viewed this as needing a series of mini-goals to make a macro goal. Really, though that is just another phrasing on your “process” argument.

    The important part of your system idea is that it highlights taking action over making the perfect plan. Something that I agree with 110%.

  68. Chris says:

    This makes so much sense. Why didn’t I see this before? I would get burnt out if I didn’t achieve my goal when I predicted I would achieve it. Following a system and having feedback loops to tell if I’m on the right track is so much better. Every day I follow my system, if I’m progressing I feel more productive than when I daydream about finally achieving my goal and not knowing where to start.

  69. Alex says:

    Great article stressing the importance of focusing on the present over the future. I think this is backwards at times however in saying that system is long-term while goals are short-term. The goal is what you’d like to achieve long term, it only affects the here and now as much as the process or system you’ve developed in order to achieve that goal. So focusing on the system or process is really focus on the short-term, what am I doing right now, today, this week to achieve my long-term goal. In sports we always here about following the process, attention to detail, playing the right way, these are all the intermediate steps taken that will help you achieve your goal in the end. Without a system or process of day to day or week to week action and improvement, our goals are nothing but dreams and fantasies.

  70. Greg says:

    Dang it all…I have bought into this “must have a goal” business for decades and for all those decades I’ve never really accomplished the goals. And in all those decades I felt worse and worse about myself. “See, I knew I would fail” became a mantra, almost. I appreciate your clarity and simple way (that’s a compliment, for sure) of explaining this. I feel so much more equipped to put some simple, but VERY effective, systems in place in my life. Thanks very much James.

  71. Great article, James! Thank you so much. Today I did the opposite — pushed myself towards my goals even if I had hurt my wrist this morning and now I sit here in pain and not able to play for some days. I feel completely stupid. I would love to dig into this more. Anyone who has some good reading tips on this topic? All the best to you all, Maria.

  72. Jas says:

    Really interesting. Never thought about achieving in that light. I am currently preparing for an interview so my goal is to get the position and my preparation is the process. In preparing I am acquiring so much knowledge that will be beneficial whether or not I am successful. Process is really long term.

  73. Josie says:

    Absolutely LOVED this article! thank you James!

  74. El says:

    Great article. This is a “game-changer” for me.

  75. Synchronicity is god’s way of waving hi…or so it seems to me.Thus it’s been a god-send that an e-mail mysteriously arrived in my mailbox one day that lead me to you.I read your articles every evening for inspiration.I’ve been stuck about writing for my site. Your commitment seems to be only to post consistently Monday and Thursday and keep generating more traffic to share with. I love the idea of writing just to inspire as many as possible as the primary goal before commerce. However, as an entrepreneur, is this part of the process for you to create an audience when you are ready to deliver books that might be sold for a nominal fee?
    I would be most appreciative if you can share your plan….

  76. Arooj says:

    James, this is possibly the finest post of many that you’ve written. You could write a book on this premise, and I know from my study and practice of financial engineering and interventional radiology that what you posit is absolutely true. I just wish I had this perspective when I was just starting out.

    • Kim Knode says:

      Loved this post too! And I agree with you. Gonna start today… Although I still write down my goals… but I will focus on the process….hmmmm what process? I need to make one.

  77. Amen!

    This is precisely the theory behind irunurun and why we say “actions speak louder than goals”. We’re really not anti-goal for the same reasons you mentioned (as well, goals can be effective for aligning groups of people), but making it happen has very little to do with goals…much more to do with consistent behavior.

    Jim Collins hit a similar nail with his notion of a “20 mile march” in his most recent book, Great by Choice, i.e. how much ground do you need to cover each day to stay on track.

    Keep it up, James!

  78. Daniel says:

    Awesome! I think this is the best article you have written yet (and I read all of them :) ). I love the perspective and I already feel like this way of thinking will help my a lot in the future. Thanks!

  79. Kathy says:

    Love this article. I am a big goal setter and often fall short of my goals everyday. When that happens I just feel like giving up! Now I am going to “work up a system” and concentrate on that. Thanks for the advice. I needed it!

  80. Alison says:

    James, I love that your last name is “Clear” because your articles are written so clearly! Each time I open my mail on Mondays and Tuesdays I’m always inspired by your clear thinking. You have a unique way of expressing ideas that I can understand and use! Thanks so much.

  81. Kumar says:

    This is so true. Please read Bhagwat Gita. You would be definitely impressed.

  82. Michael says:

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act — but a habit.” –Aristotle

  83. Dominic says:

    Thanks for this article. There have been some articles about favouring directions over goals before, but your article breaks it down much more specifically than anything I’ve seen. You’ve made me realise that the failure I am feeling is because I’m focusing on the result rather than the process.

    This is what the saying “It’s the journey that counts not the destination” meant.

  84. Cal says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this great post! My system: read James Clear’s columns whenever he updates one.

  85. Lukas says:

    Great article James.

    Did you read the book Work the System by Sam Carpenter. I think you might really enjoy it.

  86. Awesome post, as usual. The Seinfeld technique (which I know you’ve written about too) was the only thing that worked to motivate me to write on a regular basis. Before that I would just think, “I really should write more. I want to write a book.” And I would never actually sit down and get started.

    I do a lot of my writing at 750words.com. That keeps track of how much you’ve written and how many days in a row, and each time you log in, it tells you how long you’ve been on a streak. That’s an excellent motivator. :)

  87. Althea says:

    James, I am not sure I am totally sold on your take in this post. Goal setting has been for me, and I am sure many others, the means by which I have achieved the things I have so far achieved. Importantly, for me it has never resulted in unhappiness. I have come to understand that“The real value in setting goals is not in their achievement. The acquisition of the things you want is strictly secondary. The major reason for setting goals is to compel you to become the person it takes to achieve them”. So the journey to achieving that goal is of infinitely more value.
    I also focus on systems (I call them disciplines) but I am intentional about making sure that those disciplines are directly aligned to my goals. And yes, even though I try to ensure that my goals are achievable I am also very cognizant of the fact that there will always be things I have no control over. Goals work for me….They keep me focused. I am not sure how I’d otherwise be inclined to setting up disciplines (or systems)….gotta have a goal in m mind.

  88. Shadia says:

    I love your blog, so much of it is in line with the work I am doing. I’m an MD and a wellness coach, and to me what you write about is the distinction between outcome and behavioral goals. When most of us set goals, we set outcome goals (the classic new years resolution to lose X amount of pounds) without setting the behavior goals to get us there (going to the gym X times a week). It’s also interesting to note, as I wrote in my most recent blog post, that when we think of ourselves in the future having attained a certain outcome goal, our brain is registering that image as someone different than who we are. I’ve become more systems-based/behavioral goal focused precisely because it allows the conscious mind to be more present in the moment and connected to who I am, right now. Great writing. I’m glad to have found your work.

  89. Keith says:

    Hi James,

    Just found your site via an email recommendation from Jon Giganti. Love this post. Simple but effective. Goals = Direction. Systems = Progress. Looking forward to reading more.

  90. Daniela says:

    Thank you so much!

    This is the kind of logic, thoughtful post I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

    In this past years of rising life coaches, it is all to easy to come with grandiose terms of changing and goals and passion in a sexy package. While I’d definitely pursue a goal-driven life, it seems like these coaches just mention hard work, but move on to sexy products. I didn’t like this approach and that’s why, perhaps NaNoWriMo wasn’t for me.

    Thanks again, I’m subscribing right now.

  91. I have always had a dislike for setting goals and have tried many times to change that because I’ve read so much that says to be successful, you should have them. I’ve always appreciated the value of having a system and a process set up to accomplish something that’s been important to me. I thought the systems were a “nice to have” but not good enough because I couldn’t depend on myself to set a goal. Thank you for making me realize that I can ditch the goal idea for good and embrace my systems methods. OMG it’s NMG (no more goals!) for me.

  92. Manoj Jogiya says:

    Thanks James. People talk about goal and measuring goal. I somehow had doubts nevertheless I bought few books on goal setting written by Brian Tracy and Craig Baslantyne. This books did not help me in creating goal nor achieving goal because I did not believe in it from beginning itself,just for curiosity I bought those books and I read them and I felt that the theory of goal setting and achieving was kind of constitutional tradition or rather confined to. . What I believed in my life from my childhood was system, professionalism, discipline and attitude. This four qualities in me made me more successful in my life. Your article endorses the same here. This article of your’s will make my belief further stronger and concrete. Thanks.

  93. Pradesh says:

    Something I learnt from my coach that supplements the thinking of system is to identify and focus on the next thing to be done.

    As an example, suppose I need to change the design and copy of my website. That is auch a mammoth task and I know it is going to require a significant portion of my time. So I try and identify the time when I will be available. If I can’t find that block of time, I keep putting it off until I find a block of time.

    However, if I break this task into smaller steps (call the web designer, print the company profile, get testimonicals from 2 clients, and so on) then the work is divided into manageable chunks.

    Then, we need to focus on what is the next step is. In this case, ‘call the web designer’. That’s a ten minute task, and I can easily find the time to fit that into my busy schedule. After that is done, the next task is ‘print the company profile’ – that’s a 5 minute task. And so it goes.

    I believe we shouldn’t discount goals in favour of systems, but they should complement each other. much like many others have indicated as well.

  94. Paul says:

    I’m not even done reading the whole post yet, but I just HAD TO comment to say thank you!

  95. Joshua says:

    James, this is one of the best posts I’ve read on the internet.

    The power of process over goals cant be overstated. While a goal can look foreboding and stop you from starting, a process is one of the easiest things to do. I know I often had fitness goals growing up. In my mid ’20′s I stopped trying for goals and found a routine I enjoyed (mostly because I was busy with work and couldn’t spend as much time with meal planning and constant gym changing). Within 2 months I had the elusive six pack I could never get, crossed my 285 bench max, and was at the lowest body fat I ever reached. This has helped me in entrepreneurial efforts, various studies, and any other undertaking I have embarked on.

    Great post James!

  96. Fraser says:

    Great article James,

    For a long time I have been unsatisfied with ‘goals’ being THE way to achieve what you want. The problem is, as you have eloquently pointed out, goals are a destination but life is a journey.

    Great insight.

    Fraser

  97. Andy says:

    Love your articles man! Very useful and great information. Love the way you write all your articles and wish you success in the upcoming years!

  98. Junaid Abdul Wahid says:

    I’m from Pakistan! What a man you are James. Full of visionary thoughts! I regularly read your articles and you know what, I feel improvement in myself by applying your thoughts! Thanks for writing such articles.

  99. Mervyn Akash says:

    For a long time I had been too focused on my goals and never realized how stressed I was. Thanks to your advice I am now thinking in a much different way and guess what… I am kinda enjoying it!

    Thank You!

  100. swati says:

    Hi james! I would like to Thankyou from the bottom of my heart. I am always in the process of chasing after goals rather than to go forth and steady. Your article just struck in my heart and mind! I wanted a stability where i can pause and think and do some action.well your article has surely woken me up ! I am always gonna read this article When in doubt! Thankyou again mate ! Cheers !

  101. Judi says:

    Fabulous article, thanks for sharing it. And I think I have discovered one of my favorite paradoxes! I choose to make 2014 my “year of the sloth” …

    Therefore, I will make amazing progress in improving myself and my community. Long-live the year of the sloth! :-)

  102. Muhammad Awais says:

    Hi, great article, it helped me a lot. Thanks for sharing. Now I am tension free.

    Thanks.

  103. Katarina says:

    Hi :)

    Just wanted to say how much it makes me happy to come across this article (and your website). Six years ago (I’m 24 now), I used to train kick-boxing because of sheer boredom and lack of friends to hang out with :,D . Then I got to like it and stayed even a bit longer to stretch and talk to people. I was doing it for recreation only but I noticed I straightened my back, lost some weight, got stronger, rather flexible, etc. As I improved and could do more, I enjoyed the process even more. I didn’t care how much I could jump,neither had goals. Even on boring days, I endured because I wanted to stay and see what other things I could do next. My mindset was different than it is now.

    Once I set goals and started comparing myself to others, I got paralyzed and felt like I can’t do things even when I didn’t try them at all. I’m “waking up” now from that slumber phase, and I hope to enjoy many other processes like I use to. My old self didn’t even know what system is, but I sure understand it now once you put it into words. Thank you so much for sharing your idea with us! :D

  104. Rebekah Miler-Lyles says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

  105. Caitlin Cumberbatch says:

    Thank you so much, James. I want to be a writer and this helped. Is there any other advice?

  106. Kim says:

    This was the perfect time to sit and read this article. Feeling the shift already.

  107. Elise says:

    This article gave me a great idea. I normally set a list of New Year’s Resolutions, but this year I decided not to, just to see what would happen. After reading this, I think I’ll make a list at the end of each month of the things I’ve achieved…that way I’ll create a reward for myself rather than putting pressure on myself to achieve goals.

    I really love the ‘process, not goal’ concept. I work with people who are battling addictions and I think this could really help with recovery.

  108. Darryl says:

    How can you not focus on your goal. How do you know that you improved on the process if there was nothing to measure it by. I agree the process is important. I used it during my path to weight loss and fitness. But I always had goals toi achieve. Like I’m going to workout 45 minutes today instead of 30 mins. I think your article is good, but I still think you need to know where you stand so you know where improvements need to be made in the system. What that’s the point of a “process” or system or if you just go around in circles with the same result. Isn’t that the very definition of insanity.

  109. Jerry Dugan says:

    I’m still a goalie, but this article is right. To really achieve those goals, you have to have systems or habits built in to achieve the success you want to see happen. I’m not converted away from goals, but I am definitely, and already, sold on both/and. Have both goals and systems in place to achieve them into making a sustainable life change worth having. Thanks for the post.

  110. CGPando says:

    Great post indeed. Very helpful. Thanks.

  111. Lucia says:

    Thanks, very interesting and useful point of view. Often happines resides in the travel and not that much into the arrival point.

  112. Claire says:

    Hi James, great post here!

    I had so many responses I wanted to use to disagree with you while reading your post but you summarized it all for me in the last section:

    “I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

    I find that you can’t truly create and stick to your systems if you don’t have a goal, a reason for creating the systems in the first place. I mean, how do you know how well you’re doing if you don’t even have a standard for comparison.

    So, setting goals is important as is creating a plan and system to achieve said goals, and then FOCUSING on working the plan till you achieve your goals. Then you can go ahead and aim for even bigger things!

    Thanks for sharing!

  113. Dee says:

    Nicely distilled. Thanks, took a lot of planning anxiety away.

  114. Dharmesh Dev says:

    Great Article.

    First, I used to think and concentrate only on my goals but this article has completely changed my mindset. Thank you for such great thoughts and keep up the good work.

  115. Gaël says:

    Thanks James, this is a very inspiring post!

    It reminds me of a quote from Anthony Robbins: “It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”

    You just put words on a feeling I had for a long time now.
    That goals were good as a map but it was by doing the leg work consistently that I got my results.

    To illustrate it, have in mind a goal that you want to achieve in say 3 months and that is completely outside your comfort zone.
    You will be projecting your today’s self (with your current level of awareness, knowledge, skills …) into something completely unknown so at first it will look very scary and fear will kick in…
    And you forget that between now and then, you will take the necessary steps to make this thing a reality, you will learn, you will take action.

    And it boils down to the process of taking a step at a time and growing.

    To give you an example, I put together a mastermind session last November. First time I did it, very scary. But as time went, I did what I had to do to make it real and it was successful in the end. Did I surprise myself!? Oh YES!

    So I came to realise that by doing great things consistently, the result can only be great.

    But again, it is the process and being consistent that will make it great.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with the world :)

    Take care
    Gaël

    PS: I am putting a blog post together on that subject. I am thinking of linking your post if it’s OK with you.

  116. Jeff Wedge says:

    Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.” Your concepts and theirs line up very well and you’ve given me some food for thought. Or more accurately, maybe a reason to think more about eating less food rather than losing weight (which IS one of my goals by the way…).

  117. Bill says:

    Good post, James. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of all is opening one’s mind to considering the debate topic which you pose. Thanks!

  118. Henry says:

    I’m your Chinese fan. I’m first time to read your article. It’s very useful. I need to change minds quickly, thanks.

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