I always found it a bit embarrassing having the yearly performance talk with my previous employer. Most of the conversation involved talking about the goals in the prior year and how I missed them. Then we set new goals that I didn’t care about and would miss the following year. Strangely enough, my employer and clients were pleased with my results. So much that they one year just said: “whatever you are doing, just continue doing that,” and I finally got freed from the goal-setting.
Goals have never worked very well for me. I’m having a hard time coming up with them, following them, and reaching them. How does that work in a very goal-oriented society?
I make systems or micro-strategies. I put one foot in front of the other and focus on that. After doing it enough times, I’m suddenly at the top of the mountain. I don’t focus on the view at the top or what my time is going to be. The strategy is to get out of the door and move the feet, preferably faster than yesterday.
One thing I’m relatively consistent at is training. I do it more or less every day. I have a lot of systems for getting to work out almost daily instead of goals. The problem with goals in training is that not reaching them can become demotivating. Reaching them can be just as bad. We all know people having running a marathon as a goal and stopped running the day after.
My first system for training regularly is probably more of a mindset or a rule: I break a sweat every day. It doesn’t matter how much or how long, as long as I break a sweat. It’s just like brushing my teeth —something I do every day.
A second system is to place training in the calendar every day. I rarely train at that time, but I have seen that there is room for it in the schedule and thought about the training that day. If the days are hectic, I’ve also noticed that beforehand and probably found a way to break a sweat.
A third system is to have a training program. I want as few hurdles as possible between me and the training. Knowing what I’m going to do each time I work out makes it more effortless to see progress.
The good thing about all these micro-strategies is that they don’t take much time. All of them can be performed separately, but they have more effect the more you stack on top of each other.
I also know that it will be easier for me to train if the barrier is lower. Therefore I’ve invested in a home gym. This way, I can walk downstairs and work out without being bothered by bad weather, what equipment is available, transport to the gym, or being away from the family.
It all made sense when I read Atomic Habits by James Clear. The book’s main point is that if you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. Just like I have been doing for as long as I can remember.
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.
Another central idea in the book is to build identity-based habits. You should focus on the type of person you wish to become rather than the outcome of what you want to achieve. This way, you won’t stop because you’ve reached a goal, but continue. I, for example, see myself as a person who works out. That means that I work out even though we’re on a company trip, or there doesn’t seem to be that much time.
You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.
– James Clear
Goals aren’t as important as we think. Try working without them for a week. Turns out, you can do amazing things without goals. And you don’t have to manage them, cutting out on some of the bureaucracy of your life. You’re less stressed without goals, and you’re freer to choose paths you couldn’t have foreseen without them.
– Leo Babuta
Goals often rely on extrinsic motivation, while systems become habitual and automatic after a while. Yes, goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short term, but eventually, a well-designed system is a winning formula. What makes the difference is committing to the process and not the finish line. As James Clear point out, winners and losers, after all, have the same goals.