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Mental Models
Featured Models

Systems vs Goals

If you want to climb a mountain, don't just obsessively dream about the view from the mountain top. Instead, be an obsessive climber and let the rest take care of itself.  The Systems vs Goals model encourages you to focus on daily and ongoing systems rather than on long term and distant goals.  SYSTEMS, GOALS: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? Scott Adams offers a simple and useful definition to explain these terms in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: "If you do something every day, its a system. If you're waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it's a goal." Others describe goals as statements about what you want to achieve, usually relating to long term objectives or changes.  PROBLEMS WITH GOALS. There is some debate over the ideal nature of effective goals and I'll be adding models exploring that but, for now, here are some of the main criticisms of them:   Goals are inflexible. They lock you into a fixed outcome as you try to navigate a complex, changing world.  Goals can encourage unethical behaviour: Research in corporate settings have shown that while goals might boost performance, they can also lead to lower engagement and unethical behaviour. See links in Origins & Resources below for more.  Goals make you a failure, most of the time. When you set a goal you're immediately positioning yourself in 'failure state' until you reach it, which can be a draining, even demoralising place to be.  THE POWER OF SYSTEMS.  By contrast, systems are more immediate choices, processes and habits. They're the daily routines that might not have a fixed outcome or goal but are helping you improve or move forward in a broad direction that you value.  Adams explains: "With a system, you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity." You might want to commit to specific systems or ones that lend themselves to be adaptable and better set you up for success. So, rather than saying you will jog every day, you might commit to being physically active every day which provides more flexibility and is more achievable.  FOCUS ON THE JOURNEY.  Systems vs Goals is essentially a call to action to focus on the journey, and let the destination look after itself. For example, rather than having a goal of writing a novel, you could focus on a system of writing something, anything, for an hour every day. Doing this might lead you to write a book, but alternatively might lead to writing a successful blog or syndicated magazine column, thus resulting in a future where you are happy but never bother publishing a book after all.  Here's Scott Adams again: "Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system." A BALANCE? Consider how far you want to take this model and whether you want to replace Systems vs Goals with 'Systems and Goals'. For example, rather than ditching goals completely, you might still use goals to identify a broad direction or even make use of more short term goals.  James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, describes this well with a rowboat metaphor. He compares your goals to the rudder, and your systems as your paddle, explaining that: "Goals determine your direction. Systems determine your progress."   IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.  Systems vs Goals works extremely well with Habit Loops and Temptation Bundling to help embed daily habits and systems into your life. It's also a reminder of the power of marginal gains and continuous improvement using Compounding and the Domino Effect.  This model adds new depths to the Happiness Model and Ikigai, in terms of striving for daily satisfaction versus waiting for a future point of happiness.  You can also use this model to embrace an iterative approach to life and progress akin with Agile Methodology, which sets you up to better adapt using Feedback Loops. On that point, if your focus relates to developing complex skills, be sure to combine your system with Deliberate Practice or for continuous learning more generally consider Double Loop Learning.  And finally, you might want to consider how Hyperbolic Discounting can explain some of the limitations of goals. 

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