By Aaron von Freter

By Aaron von Freter

You might be familiar with research that suggests setting goals and then laser-focusing on them can actually be detrimental to motivation and perseverance. The more fixated you are on your goal, the less you enjoy the actual experience of working towards that goal, thereby increasing your chance of failure.

James Clear suggests a new approach to goal-setting. Namely, don’t set them. When it comes to making progress in areas that are important to you, craft a system that will help you get there in lieu of setting a goal:

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.

The problem with most goals is that they place huge burdens on you, and in so doing can imply that you’re not quite good enough yet. They also don’t set you up for long-term positive change, being geared towards one major milestone after which you could cease your productive routine entirely and still have achieved what you set out to.

Clear doesn’t advocate doing away with goals entirely, but rather using them as a guide for building a system that’s much more rewarding, habit-building, and geared towards measurable progress:

[K]eep 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.


  • Brian Hermelijn

    This reminds me of the DUMB goals method by Brendon Burchard. Thanks for sharing this wonderful insight!

  • Nunzio Bruno

    I literally just had this conversation with a prospective client this morning! I had to (politely) disagree that forcing top level goals on the entire organization wasn’t really the best way to get the results desired. Hopefully, I’ll be helping them develop systems instead and designing strategy to help achieve their goals 🙂

  • Paul genius

    Don’t agree. The systems as James clear calls it, is essentially not just setting up the big long term goals, but also breaking it up into smaller/more manageable chunks and working on them everyday.

    Just another shiny new terminology for already existing ideas.

  • Andrzej Marczewski

    Essentially just SMART goals..

  • Frank Bria

    This is bigger than SMART, bigger than breaking big goals up into chunks.

    This is “find the ‘how’ behind your goal and do *that*.” Brilliant.

  • maxparm

    The only way I was able to achieve goals was by setting up daily systems or routines. The desired outcome if a system is the goal. Any tools for this? Daily/weekly checklist?

    • Aaron Wright

      I’m currently developing a tool that does exactly this. ( You start by setting a goal, then you can organize it into a to-do list of steps to reach that goal. For example, if you want to learn a language, you could set that as your goal, then plan out the steps, which are then compiled into a to-do list. You can even make the steps repeat, such as if you wanted to study flashcards every day. I just rolled out a new feature that allows people to discuss goals with other people to get help or advice. My objective is to help people not only plan their goals, but also lower the friction and remove obstacles that prevent them from achieving success. Is that the kind of tool you are looking for? I would love to hear your feedback.

blog comments powered by Disqus