Systems vs Goals: What Is the Path to Success?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do they say to focus on systems vs goals? How is creating a system different from setting a goal?

If you are into personal development, chances are you are already familiar with the systems vs goals concept. A goal is the end result you desire. Systems, on the other hand, are the processes that lead to the result.

Read about why it is important to focus on systems vs goals, according to personal development speaker James Clear.

Systems vs Goals

In every facet of life, there are winners and losers. Whether it’s a game, a job, an award, or an achievement, there are always going to be those who succeed and those who fail. But both winners and losers start with the same goal, so what makes the difference between the two? The answer lies in the priority put on systems vs goals.

A goal is the end result you desire. If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal may be to make the Fortune 500 list one day. Systems, on the other hand, are the processes that lead to the result. As an entrepreneur, your system might be to hire competent staff, launch a major marketing campaign, and form high-profile partnerships. If your processes are successful, you will eventually attain your desired result.

If you place your priority on systems vs goals, you can avoid the problems associated with prioritizing goals that follow. 

Problem #1: Attaining a Goal is a Momentary Action

Doing what is necessary only to achieve a temporary goal is like treating symptoms without addressing the cause of the illness. But goals have an expiration date. When you focus on achieving a goal, what happens when that goal is achieved? Do you set a new goal and go back to square one? Do you lack the motivation to put forth the energy to attain another goal? Goals are about winning the game. Once the game is won, there is nothing left to do.  

Problem #2: Goals Can Delay Happiness or Feelings of Satisfaction 

Goals promote a feeling of failure because it may take a long time to reach them. And if your only path to changing your life is attaining your ultimate goal, you’re delaying personal gratification. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket. If that goal is never accomplished, you never feel happy. Changes in systems, however, are immediate and reinforce feelings of achievement. 

For example, if you want to publish a novel and focus only on that action, you will only be satisfied when your book is published. The act of writing a book, which requires time and energy, is performed solely for the end result.

However, if your goal is to create a writer’s life or find a better balance between work and writing, the sheer act of changing your behaviors to write each day will feel rewarding. Over time, those daily pages will accumulate into a book, which will serve as proof of your accomplishment in forming better writing habits. You may still want to get published, but the act of finishing a novel will be satisfying, even before submitting it for publication. 

Problem #3: A Focus on Goals Narrows the Possible Paths to Achieve Them

Think of prioritizing a goal as placing a finish line at the end of a long tunnel. You only see one way forward, or one way to achieve your goal. But if you focus on the systems vs goals, the number of possible paths to success becomes immeasurable. You may find that certain processes work better than others and lead to better processes. There are several paths that lead to your desired destination, but if you have tunnel-vision, you’ll miss seeing them.

When you fail to achieve a goal, the problem does not lie within you. The problem lies within your system. When it comes to habits, no habit is too big to change as long as you have a good system in place. Prioritizing systems vs goals leads to inherent, continual, and positive behaviors that remain even after the goal is achieved. 

Systems vs Goals: What Is the Path to Success?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of James Clear's "Atomic Habits" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Atomic Habits summary:

  • The 4 Stages of Habit Formation you can use to transform your life
  • How more than half of your daily actions are automatic
  • Why some habits stick and why others won't

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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