The case for having no goals in your life: Why it might lead to more success and happiness

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Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 7.50.43 AMWe 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 basically written 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.

In fact, I think I’m going to officially declare 2014 the “Year of the Sloth” so that everyone will be forced to slow down and make consistent, methodical progress rather than chasing sexy goals for a few weeks and then flaming out.

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.

About the Author: James Clear is an entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer in 18 countries. He writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses proven research and real-world experiences to share practical ideas for living a healthy life. You can get new strategies for sticking to healthy habits, losing weight, gaining muscle, and more by joining his free newsletter.

This post originally appeared on JamesClear.com

Image credit: Trevor Manteranch

If you liked this post, you might also like “A scientific guide to saying “no”: How to avoid temptation and distraction” and “The Habits of Successful People: They Start Before They Feel Ready

  • http://barbuddy.pro/ Edward Woodcock

    I have recently started a healthy-eating paleo-based diet. People keep saying to me ‘Why are you doing that? You don’t need to lose weight, what are you doing it for?”

    This post nails exactly why I answer to them “I just want to eat better.”

  • http://barbuddy.pro/ Edward Woodcock

    Scott Adams also recently shared his similar philosophy on this.

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304626104579121813075903866

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    My old high school football coach reminded us every season, and every week, that our goal was “to be as good as we could be.” We couldn’t control injuries, talent level, etc., but we could control our hard work and our attitudes. He said that if our best is winning a championship, that’s great. And if our best was only winning 5 games, that’s ok, too.

    Turns out “being as good as we could be” meant playing for 4 straight state championships, and winning 3 of them.

  • Kevin

    Hi James,

    Thanks for this article, quite interesting.

    I think overall it is quite paradoxical because what is your system based on ? your goal!
    If you don’t have a clear goal, you can’t set a clear system.

    You didn’t have the goal to write two books but you did, which is great. But if I don’t have a clear goal, why would I write 3 times a week ? why would I practice 5 times a week ? why would I get up at 6am every morning to get things done ?

    In my opinion goals give you the will to set up your routine and your system, and then, I totally agree on the fact that, afterwards, you must focus on the system.

    But once again, I am sorry but I disagree with your article’s title. I don’t believe that not having goal will make you happy.
    If I didn’t have any goal I would get up late, smoke, eat unhealthy, drink alcohol and party all the time. And on the long run I would most likely feel unhappy.

    I think that not setting goals makes you happy on the short term because there is nothing you worry about, but you won’t achieve much and this will make you unhappy on the long run.

    I think that both of the system and goals work together. If you don’t have goals, your system won’t be good because you won’t find any motivation to work hard.
    On the other hand, as you pointed out, if you set goals, focus on them, while not having a good system, it will be an obvious fail.

    Setting clear goals, focusing on his daily grind, being happy.

    Enjoy your weekend everyone!

  • http://actionplanr.com/ Brenda Horton

    Yes to systems and yes to having goals. Systems are the vehicle to help you achieve your goals, your projects, your vision. Goals and systems are NOT mutually exclusive. And waiting to achieve a goal does mean that you are unhappy until you achieve it. It’s all about mindset. Systems are definitely necessary. I am the co-creator of a system called actionplanr.com, a productivity system for female entrepreneurs. You need both systems and goals to achieve your desired outcome.

  • http://www.jenniferhester.com/ Jenny Hester

    James – I am a big fan thank you for all you do. I love this posts. It helped me to realize that working a system is easier than checking off goals.

  • Jen McGahan

    So true, James. My friend emailed me this advice yesterday and it resonates with your article: “In time, I learned to take a breath and … brainstorm all I could do, then pick the top 1 to 3 things to focus on that day. The most effective people I’ve seen have simply done this consistently. Amazingly things get built out over time.”

    Beautiful post here. Thanks.

  • http://blog.momekh.com/ Momekh

    Isn’t that pushing the semantics a bit too far?
    Let’s just keep this simple please.
    What do you want to do? An answer to that question is a goal.
    How are you going to do it? An answer to that question is a process.
    You stick to the process to get to the goal. The goal is – by definition – a destination, a quantifiable little thing. Messi scores a goal. But he practices everyday, he puts himself through a process.
    Please James, I read your blog as well (which is very nice as well), calling this “no goals” may get a few more clicks because of the supposed controversy, but let’s just keep it simple m’man.
    My goal was to convey a point. My process may or may not be up to the mark. :) Keep doing what you doing man. All the best!

    • lcarte2003

      I agree with you Momekh.

      • Gon Fern

        I think goal thinking is even more complicated than system thinking. What you want to do? I don’t know if this is the right question to ask. What you want to be? I want to be happy. How are you going to do it? Enjoing and working every day in whatever it is that I enjoy doing. And that, that daily sistem, will bring goals I didn’t even imagine… and I will be happier than if I put my happines behind a future improbable event that might happend if I do this and that. Goal thinking is like spending salary… you spend the most when you have just recived it. And then you are miserable thinking about all the things you can’t buy until next month. And, who knows, maybe next month you won’t have a job. So, why wouldn’t you enjoy a daily basis system of enjoyable little things? Why would you waste all that potencial enjoyable time in an improbable goal? Sorry for my ugly English.

  • Mrs. Cooper

    Never thOught about it like that. Food for thought. Building systems over goals.

  • Chris Marabate

    I agree, goals are stressful. Nothing works better than a system.

  • Bruce

    Awesome article, James! Very insightful and useful! Thanks…

  • Jaime Zepeda

    This is a fantastic approach to self-improvement, James. If I may massage your message, I think your core point here is to trust the process. It’s more important to commit to a lifestyle, a habit, than to a goal that is bound and limiting. Instead of trying to lose 10 lbs, you should try to eat a healthy breakfast every day; these are not, in any way, mutually exclusive, yet many of us treat them that way.

    I wrote on a fairly similar topic here: http://himay.typepad.com/my-blog/2013/10/there-is-no-plan.html. Having a life plan is self-defeating, because you limit the scope of your life to be very narrow. Instead, just focus on doing good, doing well, and trying your best. Make this your system, and great stuff will follow.

    Thanks for this, James!

  • Joey Baxter

    I have experienced the issues you mention with goals. They made me stop using them. But I started again after some realisations, one of which incorporates much of what you have said about systems into goal setting!

    Firstly, the issue with living for a moment that hasn’t yet come. I realised that that’s not true. It’s always the present. You are living that future moment you have envisaged every day and that’s empowering and, I find, really enjoyable. To travel is hopefully a better thing than to arrive. Having the goal in mind can enhance the journey.

    The issue of pushing too hard just to fulfil the goal, when in truth you are bringing detriment to ends you are using the goals to serve. I just see this as an issue of perspective. I know the goals are just tools. A means to an end. As long as you know what those ends are, then they pipe up at the right time with the higher reasoning needed to overrule the goal.

    I agree with you with regard to the power of systems. I recently set goals using an NLP/creative visualisation method. All the goals I set were based on the completion of the systems I have put in place. One for my health – a chart breaking down all the key things I want to achieve on a weekly basis to feel full in mind, body and soul. The visualisation included me putting a big tick through the chart, as well as other motivating images. Visualisation for Goals 2 and 3 include the completion of the tasks I have set out on Asana (a productivity web tool) for 2 business projects I am working on. The other goal I set was to find new and exciting things in my life – skills, experiences, phenomena. That goal has some structure, not so much a system (would run counter to the nature of the goal) but has the most inspirational visualisation. To end at the beginning of my comment, I feel inspired thinking about it now. I have that now, it’s not just some thing yet to come!

    Oh, and part of my health chart includes getting 7-12 X 20 minute meditations in a week. That helps with making sure you never get over concerned about any of the above anyway!

  • venkatg

    Whats your view on Charles Duhigg’s suggestions in ‘The Power Of Habit’

  • Link

    Not quite true. Examples are not so enough to prove your opinion. No goal no vision. This article is only true if you are working with no deadline.

    I must study in 2 hours tomorrow morning: This is a goal or a system? it’s about sticking a schedule and also archiving a thing.

  • BOM

    The Main Point is, You Need to have a system. Goals are futile without a System. You only will achieve your goals, if the goals are embedded in your system. You cannot run your life like a project with milestones and so and be happy with it. Instead you create habits, that will bring you further.

  • Chris

    My goal is to sell my business in ten years when my son enters highschool. That vision guides everything, from seemingly small day to day decisions to software decisions to the systems and processes we create. You start with the goal. You have to know where you’re going before you put a system in place.
    Are there some drawbacks or negatives associated with setting goals? Sure. Just like everything else worth doing.

  • Tembrooke

    What a brilliant concept! I’ve had a big goal (finishing my novel) for a long time, but the scope of it is so intimidating that I end up getting paralyzed and don’t work on it. I like the idea of focusing on a daily process rather than the goal itself.

  • http://Www.karenmainonline.com/ Karen Main

    It is choosing the goal that creates the system. In your coach example of they did not have a goal to win then they would enjoy running around the field. When the goal is set then the system is created to step toward that goal. I totally agree once the gaol is set the system or process is where the focus needs to be until the goal is reached and then the celebrations begin or until you lose your way and then the goal is reassessed or altered even. The goal is the beginning, the guide and the end.
    Love my goals.

    • Gon Fern

      The system already makes you happy with or without the goals. Enjoy playing not just winning. Best.

  • Olivier

    #3 Sounds exactly like a goal-setting to me.

    • Olivier

      Could you elaborate more?

  • TC Spear

    Big time article J-Clear; love the concept explored. It relates well to thoughts I’ve been having about freedom, and how most off us don’t feel very free…but that’s for another day.

  • http://rubythewhippet.wordpress.com/ Andreja Zitnik

    Where have you been all my life? :D This post is totally in line with my thinking over the past two weeks… only you brought more clarity into it. Thanks!

  • Frank

    Just do what you like and stop writing articles, how-tos, manifestos, to0do lists, blah blahs. These just reinforce the second guessing of what people think they’re “suppsoed” to do. If people just said “f it, I’m going to just do more of what I like” and let that be their guide, this whole industry of goals and getting crap done would disappear.

  • Dr Shail K Sharma

    I find that in the mornings when I am fresh after a night sleep I have clear goals to achieve during the day but as the day gets over I have hardly finished anything worthwhile.

  • Julia Belzetsky

    Good post, just what I needed. Time to start enjoying the process!

  • Omar

    Great article and I enjoy reading such stuff since am aiming for success and happiness, still working on the goal part though, any way thought I should add this small comment from my personal view:
    “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.”
    doesn’t having a “schedule” means that you already have a goal set and a system to reach that goal? what if I don’t have a goal set, how would I put up a system for something like that?

  • Win Nguyen

    Love this post James. I have been thinking about goals vs systems a lot lately. Ramit Sethi sent out an email today about goals vs systems. Are you guys working on something together? ;)

  • Sticky

    I like this, and while a lot of people here are saying that the goal is necessary I don’t agree, I believe you can get amazing results with no goal.

    A year ago I took up yoga as a substitute for alcohol (I had come to the end of my drinking and it seemed like a good idea to replace it with something healthy) So I practice yoga an hour or so a day with no goal at all, just the process of one hour of yoga every day. Also I play guitar daily with no goal, I just love playing the guitar, both of these could lead to a lot of possibilities without me ever having decided on a certain goal, I could have created goals like having a successful band or becoming a yoga teacher but I am happy just to go through the daily process (Which could lead me to either goal naturally) My life has lead me in some interesting directions that I wouldn’t have picked myself going in purely because I hadn’t planned on it

  • pastor lee

    if you didn’t decide to write (a goal) you wouldn’t need a system. So completely unhelpful advice to a world of floundering kids who have no purpose other than to indulge their own unhappiness. They read the website title only and feel justified to continue with no goals. You didn’t make a positive impact, you just helped feed a problem of dissatisfaction because too many people won’t read the content, which is, at best, semantical.

    • Robin Stanton

      Well that is a little harsh isn’t it? One blog post, or more accurately, one blog post title is single handedly responsible for a “world of floundering kids”? I think you just threw the baby out with the bathwater. Cliche? Yes, but so is your response.

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    Interesting article, great clarity, nicely explained. No wonder you are… Mr.Clear. Thanks.

  • lcarte2003

    there is nothing negative to have a goal, what I do is to keep it secret, because if I keep saying all the time, I want that I want that I want that, I will just crash into a wall.. But inside me that goal is alive and I need that famous process to make it realize. Some people becomes important or win something without even want it at first, some people becomes famous or win something by having a plan and a strategy, or call it system, process.

  • http://blog.thecodewhisperer.com J. B. Rainsberger

    Goals and systems can help each other. Goals without systems can become unfulfilled dreams and systems without goals can become busywork.

    As you write, treating goals as commitments can lead to mindless practice, and can take us away from what we want. We also have the problem of a neverending path of “next goals”, which can either inspire or depress, depending on our mood.

    Systems without goals help, for example, when those systems create options, which allow us to seize opportunities as they come up.

    I spent ten years focusing on systems. I succeeded well enough. Unfortunately, now I feel purposelessness. This makes continued focus on systems feel hollow. I think I need more than systems, even though I know that systems help and “work”.

  • http://www.manycontacts.com Gary Gaspar

    Wow!!! Amazing post! The thing that resonated the most with me was that you feel like a failure when you don’t reach your goal. This feeling sucks! On Monday you are the best because you did more than you planned and the next day, you are a failure because you didn’t get thru your to-do list.

    Btw, I can’t imagine working without a to-do list (goal for the day). How do you balance the use of a to-do list with the idea of it being a goal?

  • Hawkenfox

    A content individual who love what he does, would not need so much of a goal. Goal setting is good for achieving a target as a team. Goal is not really required for any individual who is passionate at what they do. Success is valued differently and for some success is simply enjoying what you do. To enjoy yourself at a job is more like having play time all the time, it don’t require a goal. Good things that follows such a system are just by product of a passionate person.

    • Hawkenfox

      I find it extremely important to fall in love with whatever you do in life. Gym, diet, school, work ….anything and everything good for you.

  • Me

    Thanks for the article. Most goal setting and life-planning activities and software applications call this concept ‘Habits’ instead of ‘systems’. Old concept, but nice to see it reiterated because it is important.

  • Ambar

    Lol..a straight copy from Bhagavad Gita..

    “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.”

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