Recently I have been reading a lot of articles that sing praises for the systems approach over the goal-setting approach for achieving success. This trend warrants a discussion as there are some powerful repercussions if people decide to follow that advice.

First let’s clarify what the two philosophies are:

1) the goal-setting approach is about setting specific goals (for example: I want to gain 20 kg)
2) the systems approach is about the process and habit formation (for example: I want to eat more every day)

Much has been said about these two approaches, with opinions differing wildly. The systems people are arguing that by focusing on doing the right things without having a particular goal in mind, you will achieve better results. This support for the systems approach is a very recent trend and seems to be a bit of a counter-movement opposed to the more prevalent advice of having goals drive you.

Neither theory is necessarily wrong, however which philosophy is better suited to you depends on what type of a person you are, what motivates you and what drives you.

With that said, in my opinion, there is one important caveat. Goal-setting is the better philosophy when it comes to becoming top of the class. People who prefer systems without actually setting goals, usually end up achieving only mediocre results.

Setting goals is beneficial, since it allows you to see the big picture while you are doing the work. Some people who just enjoy the process can get lost and never arrive at a destination. I see plenty of those at the gym. They go into the gym regularly, but even years later they still look like as if they have never ever done any exercise.

Mastery and Deliberate Practice

The key to mastery is deliberate practice (the so-called 10 thousand rule), which implies having some sort of a plan and a goal. Without this, you are just messing around.

The systems approach is about focusing on the process and doing things that you are passionate about, however this does not always equal deliberate practice. This is the main part of the problem that systems advocates are missing out on.

Compare these different statements:
goals: “I am going to gain 10 kg” or “I am going to lose 10 kg of fat” vs. systems: “I am going to eat one healthy meal a day
goals: “I am going to gain 10 kg of lean muscle” vs. systems: “I am going to go to the gym 3 times a week

The first one encourages you to work on your weaknesses and change up your process when things don’t work, while the second one doesn’t.

This means that if you want to adopt an agile way of doing things, then you need goals. Having goals has the effect of giving you feedback on whether you are doing things right or wrong.

If you are on track to achieve your goal, then you have adopted the right process to get there, and if you aren’t, that means your system is bad and you need to change it up. Just focusing on the system and the process without having a specific goal in mind, robs you of this feedback mechanism.

Having a goal allows you to choose the right plan of action to achieve that goal. Doing just what feels good and not having a specific goal in mind can set you up for failure.

Josh Waitzkin, a former chess prodigy and the former World Champion in Tai Chi Push Hands, wrote a book on his experiences called “The Art of Learning”. In the book, he describes his own take on the discussion:

I have seen many people in diverse fields take some version of the process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves. This issue of process vs. goal is very delicate.

If you want to be the best you need some sort of goals. If you are an athlete your goal is to win, while the system is your everyday practice.

Scientific Studies and Arguments

Let’s have a closer look at the arguments of both sides:

The most prevalent scientific research seems to indicate that humans derive happiness and a sense of meaning from striving for and achieving their goals. To summarize several studies:

Personal goals and subjective well-being have often been linked. Within the framework of personal goal constructs, it has been repeatedly stated that striving toward personal goals provides a person’s life with structure and meaning, and empirical evidence has shown that people who are involved in the pursuit of subjectively important personal goals indicate higher subjective well-being than individuals who lack a sense of goal directedness.

Most of this work derives from research work initially started by Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham. Their work showed that having clearly defined goals increases performance and leads to higher rates of success.

However the goals being set need to be specific and challenging. Hard goals are more motivating than soft, wishy washy goals:

Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development. Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging.

This body of research is what is behind all the advice on goal-setting. However in recent times, some researchers started arguing against goal-setting and instead prefered a more systems-oriented effort. In their research papers, they argue that goal-setting can be counter-productive and even harmful.

Recently many self-help sites have started advocating against goal-setting and instead started to promote the systems-approach. For example, James Clear argues for this type of approach over goals and bases this on 3 main arguments (goals reduce happiness, goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress, goals suggest that you can control things that you cannot control).

The article has some excellent points, but approches things from a specific frame and that’s where in my opinion it falls short. The argument that goals reduce happiness because they remind you “that you are not good enough yet” only applies to a very specific set of people, ones who have a very fragile sense of self-esteem.

While those people do exist, they need to overcome some emotional issues first. I do agree that at the beginning, they should follow a systems-approach, however as their self-esteem gets stronger, they should adopt a goal-setting approach.

James Clear ends his article with a statement that acknowledges that goals can be useful sometimes, but that systems are superior:

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.

For me, I would argue the opposite: systems are good for planning your progress and goals are good for actually making progress.

The last two arguments of James Clear against goal-setting actually fall away, if you realize that they are better suited as arguments against badly implemented systems and not goal-setting as such. If you adopt an agile system with built-in feedback mechanism, continuous process improvement and short-term goals, then you already take into account things beyond your control and having a strong long-term vision will guide you to keep on performing even if you achieve some of your goals.

Another argument that people for the systems-approach use is that having a goal in mind can make people act unscrupously (for example sellers or people taking steroids to become better athletes), a sort of Machiavellian the ends justify the means.

However this can be overcome if you set principles that you want to abide by in your vision. Having a strong set of principles in your vision statement to guide how you act, will ensure that you act ethically during the entire process of achieving your goal.

When To Adopt Goal-Setting And When A Systems Approach Is Better?

Having argued for goal-setting as the superior approach, there are some merits for a pure systems-approach as well. This has its time and place.

To determine when to adopt a goal-setting approach and when a systems approach depends on several factors. You need to look at:

1) nature of the activity

2) purpose of why you are doing it

This distinction is the fundamental element that is missing in the entire discussion. The discussion does not include an analysis of specific aspects of the different things that people can use goals or systems for. A lot depends on what type of activity you are doing. For some activities, the goals approach is better, while for other activities the systems approach is better.

Another element that is missing is for what purpose are you doing that activity. If you purpose is to improve in a certain activity, then you need a goal, however if your purpose is just to do an activity just because you like doing that activity and you don’t care if you improve in it or not, then the systems approach is sufficient.

For example brushing, you don’t want to get better at it, you just want to do it 2 times a day. For this type of activity (which includes a lot of different habits), the systems-approach is enough. However if you want to transform your body, then a systems-approach alone doesn’t cut it and you need to have specific goals in mind to help drive you.

A further element to consider is what is your current standing? If you are a beginner, then you should probably focus on the process first, without having a specific goal in mind. With the process approach, you are working on the building up of habits and especially strengthening your willpower.

However once you have a set of beneficial habits built up, like going regularly to the gym, then you should switch over to rigid goal-setting and work hard on achieving goals.

In the later phase, you can combine both the systems and goal-setting approaches. You set specific goals and after you have set those goals up, you focus on the system.


There is one very beneficial side-effect of focusing on the system. It can induce states of flow. A flow-like state was what Einstein was describing when giving advice to his son on how to learn almost anything. However for Einstein, setting goals was part of the entire process, for as he said:

If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.

A goal is the guiding light, while the system is the ship that will get you to your destination.

You can also mix it up. Some important things require a goal and a specific focus, while some things don’t. For some things you can set goals, while for other ones you just focus on building habits (process).

One important advice given when setting goals is not to have too many goals at the same time. Too many goals can distract your focus and prevent you from achieving them. However this can be overcome with a mixed goal-setting and systems approach.

It can work like this: You should work on only a few very specific goals (too many goals can be overwhelming), while you slowly start introducing other goals (when you are advanced in the first ones) by focusing on creating the habit first, for example you have the goal of getting stronger and learning another language, however there is another goal of running a faster mile that you want to accomplish. The first two goals have priority and that’s the ones you focus on first.

Once you are advanced on those two main goals, you might want to start introducing other goals that you want to accomplish. For that mile-running goal, you might start that just by starting a habit of going out for longer runs periodically, without focusing on any specific times or techniques.

When you feel that you have accomplished your getting stronger and language learning goals, you should go full blast into your other goals and put the first two goals into maintenance mode. So here you reverse the way you were doing things.

Once in maintenance mode on the first two goals, you put in a system in place to maintain them, while you come up with a goal on the mile-running. You set a specific goal on how fast you want to run the mile, and focus your training on that, engaging in deliberate practice to accomplish that goal.

A systems approach can be good for maintenance mode. You can adopt a systems approach once you accomplish a goal and don’t really need to improve.

A systems approach is also good for people feeling down and depressed. People at the bottom of the success spiral have a negative mindset and feel bad about themselves. They often quit at the first opportunity and usually think of themselves as failures. Some of them also blame the world for their failures.

For these types of people, the systems approach is a much better approach. They need to start at the bottom, by forming basic habits, and building on top of them. This will reinforce positive behavior and build their success loop, which will slowly make them adopt a more positive mindset. After a while they can adopt the goal-setting approach

Both approaches have their place and in order to determine which one to adopt, you need consider your current place and what you want to achieve. In my opinion the goal-setting approach is the superior approach, however the systems approach can be more useful in certain cases.

Here is a small framework to help you decide whether you should use the goal-setting or systems approach:

1) Are you a beginner?

2) Do you feel like you are a failure and the world is against you?

If you answered “yes” to both questions, then you should start off slow by adopting a systems approach. Don’t focus on any specific goals, but instead on building up a few beneficial habits like going to the gym twice a week or eating healthy foods for breakfast.

If you answered “yes” to the second question, then you should also start off by building up a few beneficial habits first. Once you are successful in establishing these, then you should follow up by setting a few easy short-term goals. After you have these quick wins, you will start feeling better about yourself, which can start off a positive success loop. After all, success breeds success.

If you answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second one, then either approach can be good, but you can probably already start off with setting some basic goals that you want to accomplish.

3) Do you want to accomplish something special in the activity you want to engage in?

If you answered “yes” to this question, then you will need to do deliberate practice and you will need to set specific goals and have a very good system to help you accomplish these goals. So here goal-setting is a must.

However if you want to engage in an activity just for the pleasure of engaging in the activity, then a systems approach is enough. This also applies for activities which you just want to try out, for example like blogging. With some activities it is hard to establish a clear goal (because they are dependent on so many factors) and so starting off by testing it out and establishing a system is the best way to go about things.

This fourth question depends on already having set some goals previously.

4) Have you already achieved what you want to achieve in this activity and are in maintenance mode?

If “yes”, then the systems approach is enough in maintenance mode. However if you still want to improve, then you need to set further goals and engage in deliberate practice.

Hopefully, this article enlightened you a bit and gave you some tips on how best to tackle the challenges, and also hope and dreams in your life. Now you have no excuses, so get to work!



Read More:
Expect the unexpected. That’s why your goals should be flexible and the system you adopt to achieve those goals should be agile: An Agile System For Self-Development

Your personality can also sometimes affect the best way that you should approach things: Why are you the way you are? Personality types and behavior

In order to achieve anything, you need to have a good vision of where you want to be: How to create a vision for yourself

The right way of setting goals: How to set goals and actually accomplish them

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