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Developing A System Is Better Than Striving For A Goal

By Hybrid Gym LA

The prevailing wisdom says that the best way to properly transform your body, and health — whether it be through weight loss, muscle gain or improving overall quality of life — is to set specific, actionable goals. This notion of goal setting, while good intentioned, falls short with the majority of people. For example, according to the U.S. News & World Report, the failure rate for New Year’s Resolutions is said to be around 80%, with most people losing their resolve by mid-February. From this we can surmise that goal setting on its own is an ineffective strategy for achieving what we want and even worse for producing long lasting results. 

Goals have the ability to steer us toward short-term results. Yet, because they are inherently self-fulfilling, once they are reached, much of their power quickly dwindles. Most of what was necessarily done to create change — nutritional awareness, monitoring calories, increasing exercise, etc. — to achieve the goal is disregarded or lost. Solidifying any newfound change driven by passion is bound to fail if you’re not thoroughly invested in the process.

The fundamental problem arises as goal-oriented people are seeking to become someone they aren’t. Acting in a way that suppresses the current version of yourself — e.g. eliminating cookies and cakes therefore putting you in a calorie deficit — will allow you to arrive at a weight loss goal, but without a system put into place, willpower can only last so long. By employing measures that restrict them from who they are, without improving upon who they wish to be, in effort to deliver them to a result derived from sacrifice, the inevitable result is that they fall back to the person they were at the start of the process. Success hangs on their ability to overcome the challenges that brought them to their current impasse. As Scott Adams put it in How to Fail Big; “goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things don’t work out.”

In effect, if your goal is to lose 30lbs, you would spend every waking moment until you reach your goal focused on numbers instead of processes, thinking as though you were a failure if things didn’t progress as planned because you are an overweight person who wants to be thin. Until you usher in a system that allows you to think and make choices like the thin version of yourself would make you will inevitably be fighting against progress and exist within a constant state of failure. Because willpower is an easily fatiguable muscle, without a systems-oriented mindset, it can only last so long before delaying gratification takes its toll, and you succumb to failure. 

Goals are a complete-it-and-be-done situation. A specific objective you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. Being goal-oriented is short-sided if long-term change is the intention. Its approach is driven by sacrifice, deprivation, and blindness to the overt desires of the self you wish to reinvent. Alternatively, a system is something you do everyday to increase your odds of fulfillment throughout the life of the system. A system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that following it will provide you with the body and/or quality of life you desire, ultimately becoming the “after” version of yourself with the implementation of the process.

Simply put, if you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future it’s a goal. If you’re doing it everyday, it’s a system. 

Losing weight is a goal; eating right is a system. Gaining muscle is a goal; training with purpose and intensity is a system. Improving any specific blood marker is a goal; “eating whole unprocessed foods, getting outside in the sun, moving a lot, sleeping like you’re on vacation, and surrounding yourself with loving relationships” is a health promoting system espoused by researcher and author Robb Wolf. All systems lead to desirable results, but all goals do not provide desirable systems, hence their unsustainability. Goals are about the results you want to achieve, whereas systems are about the processes that lead to those results. 

To achieve a goal, you only need to exhibit a momentary change, but what happens in the long run? Failure. Remission. Relapse. As an illustration, take this example from author James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits: “Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room — for now. But if you maintain the same sloppy pack-rat habits that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation.” Fundamentally, you’re left with the same outcome over and over again because you failed to change the system behind it. 

Results that last have little to do with goals and everything to do with systems. In the above example, you can see that the symptom was treated without addressing the cause. Much like an overweight person with a weight loss goal who has emotional issues with food — dieting will help them achieve a healthy weight, yet doesn’t address the real issue. Their achievement only changes their life momentarily because they were focused on a goal instead of fixing their system. We don’t need better results, we need better systems. Solving problems at the results level is temporary, instead, in order to create permanent change in peoples lives, we need to start solving the problem at a systems level because with the wrong approach to change people aren’t going to rise to their level of goals, they fall to their level of systems. 

None of this is to say that having goals doesn’t matter. It is important to recognize that the power of goals is derived from their ability to provide direction in our journey to become who we want, and live the life we want. This begs the question if you completely ignored your goals and solely focused on the systems your future-self used, could you still succeed in becoming the person you want to be? For example, if you were a coach and completely ignored the goal of winning, and instead focused on improving execution of what your team does in practice each day, would you still get results? Absolutely, because practicing a system to the point of excellence is akin to mastery. The goal of any sport is to finish first or with the highest score. Establishing a system provides a way to out maneuver, out strategize, out power, and out play your opponents. No one enters the arena wanting to lose, but because we are what we consistently do, plenty of teams approach competition with a flawed or suboptimal system. Singularly having a goal of winning, without a system to get there isn’t enough. Those are the coaches who get fired mid-season for staring at the scoreboard wondering why their teams score isn’t higher.

Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama football team, has what he calls The Process. He encourages players by saying; “Don’t think about winning a Championship. Think about what you need to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment.” The Process is about focusing on the task at hand. The ability to apply your system to what is directly in front of you. By existing in the present, not the distant future we can commit ourselves to excelling in the habits that will take us toward the person we wish to become. 

So, are goals useless? No, but they should be identified as having limited utility. Goals are good for setting direction, but systems are best for making long-term progress, and sustaining the health or life goal you have captured. Without a system — founded on the principles of becoming healthy, lean, and strong — goals can restrict our overall happiness. The implicit assumption behind any goal is this; “once I reach my goal, then I will be happy.” The problem with this goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone. 

There once was a great archery master named Awa Kenzo who did not focus on hitting the center of the target with his students, instead he focused on teaching technical mastery of the bow. He spent almost no time instructing his students how to think in a way that would deliver the results they desired — hitting the center of the target. You can fire randomly at a target and hit a bullseye eventually, much like you can follow any dietary program and achieve results, but in a world based on vanity no one wants to hit their target and walk away, they want to keep their target, and the happiness that comes along with it. Fulfilling results come from enacting a system that allows for the target to be continuously hit, with minimal effort, consistently, until a new target is decided upon. While the goal of archery is to hit a bullseye, Kenzo pressed the fact that “the hits on the target are only the outward proof and confirmation of the adherence and trust in the process.” He wanted his students to get so lost in the process that the result wouldn’t be the focus. He wanted them to give up their notions of what archery was supposed to look like. He was demanding that they be present, not focused on their past failures or future outcomes. The process, or systems-first approach, that allows one to become a proficient archer — much like what it takes to become the version of healthy, lean, and strong that you desire — is realized through consistent and purposeful action. 

Body transformation is similar to archery in that you are looking to hit a certain target. You can try so hard on a particular variable that you end up overshooting your target, manifesting more issues and frustrations. While all targets are achievable, the energy you’re spending aiming the arrow is energy not spent developing your system to consistently deliver the best technique. If you’re too conscious of the technical components of shooting, you wont be relaxed enough to deliver the desired result. As marksman say these days, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Because we are what we repeatedly do, a practice of excellence put into action is the surest way to maximize our trajectory and deliver us to the body, health, and life we want. 

A systems-first approach can improve the trajectory by providing us with a structure to follow. If you are not who you want to be it is because the error of your ways has led you astray from the person you want to become. Generally this due to an accumulation of errors. Over time, small decisions can accumulate into large consequences. Think of it as the 1% rule, whereby repeating a 1% error day after day by replicating poor decisions, tiny mistakes and rationalizing little excuses all compound into toxic results. It is this accumulation of too many missteps that eventually lead to larger problems down the road. 

To make this more relevant, in his book Why We Get Fat, author Gary Taubes states that over consuming roughly 1% on your calorie intake over a 20 year period will equate to a 20lb increase in weight. “Since a pound of fat is roughly equal to 3500 calories, this means you accumulate roughly 7000 calories worth of fat every year. Divide that 7000 by 365 and you get the number of calories of fat you stored each day and never burned — roughly 20 calories.” On average, we consume around 2700 calories a day, so matching energy in to energy out, with the 20 calorie mark equates back or our 1% rule. {reference (}

Making a choice that is 1% better or worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of a lifetime, or the course of a journey toward your goal, small choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, success is the product of implementing a good system, not a singular focus on a distant goal. 

With a systems-first approach, trajectory can be fully applied and set toward gaining the healthful life we all desire. Let’s use a Global Positioning System (GPS) as an analogy for a systems-fist approach to get what we want. It is a literal manifestation of a system designed to get you where you want to be. By allowing the goal to set the direction, we can trust the system to align the course.

  • A GPS gets you to your destination faster and with less stress. Not knowing where we are going and without help we can get lost quickly. Trusting the system can alleviate the stress of trying to navigate on your own.
  • A GPS provides constant feedback. By constantly assessing your progress, it will keep you aware of where you need to turn and how far you are from your desired destination. 
  • A GPS foresees upcoming obstacles. It has the ability to reroute you around roadblocks and anything else that will deter you from arriving at your destination. 
  • A GPS will help you get back on track if you happen to deviate from the path. We all have missteps in our journey, but any wrong turn can be righted by rerouting and correcting course.

Whether you want to lose weight, get stronger, or save money, it pays to incorporate  systems-first approach. Without it, you may find yourself lost, confused, and failing over and over. 


Goals Set The Direction, Systems Get You There

Goals Are Impermanent, Systems Are Permanent 

Goals Work On Sacrifice, Systems Work On Fulfillment

Goals Say I Want To Look Fit, Systems Allow You To Be The Fit Person

Goals Are About The Results You Want, Systems Are About The Processes That Lead To The Results

Goals Provide A Picture Of Who You Want To Be, Systems Allow You To Become That Person