Our society is obsessed with goals. Whether it’s losing X pounds, boosting revenue by Y%, or getting into Z university, we tend to view goal setting as the deciding factor between the ambitious and the unmotivated among us.
And it’s a real shame. Sure, while setting a goal is bound to raise a toast and garner a round of applause at the New Year’s Eve party, focusing on the result of your labor instead of the way you get there often ends up doing a lot more harm than good.
While goals may help motivate us, they also distract us from what’s most important: putting in place a system that will sustain us to the end, whatever it may turn out to be. It’s the difference between the journey and the arrival, the path and the destination, the labor and its fruits, and the goal and the system you use to get there.
When you focus on the path, you live in the moment and act mindfully. When you focus on the destination, you rush through everything and delay your happiness.
Now, don’t get me wrong, setting goals is important — they point you in the right direction. But what’s even more important is taking one step after another each and every day, even if you end up in a slightly different place than you had originally planned.
So, what does all that mean? Let’s cut past the metaphors and the cheesy “journeys of a thousand steps start with one” aphorisms and get straight to the point — how can you and your business start enjoying the journey and getting the results you want?
The difference between goals, systems, and habits
To start, we’ve got to define a little vocabulary here.
A goal is any result or destination you set your sights on. Do you want to write a novel? That’s a goal. Do you want to increase your sales figures? Goal. Do you want to visit every country in Europe? Yep, that’s a goal.
A system, on the other hand, is the process you use to achieve that goal. So, if you’re writing a novel, your system might be sitting down at a coffee shop and writing for three hours straight every day. If you’re trying to increase your sales figures, your system might be running and split testing ads every day. Or, if you’re trying to visit every country in Europe, your system might be saving money every day and planning out the logistics for an hour each week.
Systems usually require you to have some type of short-term goal in mind. If you’re training for a marathon, your system might be running every day and slowly increasing your distance. Clearly, that’s a goal in itself, so what really differentiates systems from goals?
The difference is that systems are not results oriented, but goals, as we typically use them, are. So, the success of your goal of running a marathon is dependent on whether you actually make it to the marathon and finish, while the success of your system of running every day solely depends on whether you get out there and run. Even if you don’t make it to the marathon, you’ll still have made progress.
When you’ve been working within a system for long enough, it becomes a habit. While some habits, like smoking, are bad, others, like writing for three hours every day, aren’t too shabby.
In fact, 40% of all our actions are based on habits, not conscious decisions. So, if you’re in the habit of getting up early every morning to run, or sitting down at exactly 7 pm to write, that means you’ve got your system on lock.
In some ways, habits can be viewed as the end goal of a system.
Benefits of systems
So, why should you focus on systems instead of goals? Here are a few compelling reasons for you to mull over.
1. Systems help you live in the moment
Goals are sneaky. When you set a goal, it sounds like you’re talking in the present: “I want to finish my book.” That’s present tense, right?
But really, there’s an implicit future past tense going on. In reality, when you set a goal for yourself, what you’re really saying is that at some point in the future you want to have done something. That means that when you say you want to finish your book, you’re really saying, “in the future, I want to have finished writing my book.”
However, when you talk about a system, you really are talking about the here and now. When you say, “I want to write every day,” you’re saying “I want to write today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.” It’s open ended, so there’s no point at which you could ever be talking about a finished action.
The success lies in the action, not the result. And in the end, that helps you live in the moment, and be happier.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Think about anything you enjoy doing, be it having a great meal, enjoying a conversation with your friends, listening to a piece of music, or traveling to a new country.
Now, imagine if you said to yourself, “I want to have eaten a great meal, I want to have enjoyed seeing my friends, I want to have enjoyed listening to a piece of music, and I want to have enjoyed traveling to a new country.”
How much fun would any of that be? While you’re eating, you wouldn’t be experiencing the flavors of the meal, you’d just be thinking about getting through it so you can have eaten a great meal. When you have a conversation with your friends, you’d just be thinking about how you’ll feel afterwards. At no point would you really be experiencing and enjoying any of these because you’d be too focused on having enjoyed them after they’re over.
I don’t want to make you gag with a cliche about how living in the moment is the key to happiness, but hey, it’s something to think about.
2. Systems help you stay flexible
As much as we like to think that we can achieve whatever we want with enough dedication, it’s simply not the case. You could be a marathon runner and sprain your ankle the day before the big race, or you could be writing a book only to realize halfway through that your story is better suited for a screenplay.
If you’re focused on the result, well, you’ve failed.
But if you’re focused on the system, a.k.a the experience of getting to that result, then nothing has changed. You’ve still succeeded in running every day, and you’ve still succeeded in writing. Even if you didn’t reach the goal you set out, you’ve made progress, and that progress will help you reach your next goal, whatever that may be.
Systems help you stay flexible in rapidly changing landscapes and markets, and that’s vital for any business. Just imagine being a fidget spinner seller who forced yourself to stick to your goal of selling ten thousand of spinners after the fad died. Yikes.
Implementing systems in your business
Ready to start focusing on the journey? Here are some ways to make that happen.
1. Stop thinking about sales figures, start thinking about sales techniques
If you’re an ecommerce brand, for example, instead of setting a sales goal, figure out some great sales techniques and build on them each and every day. Focus on incremental improvements, not long-term goals.
If you develop a great sales system, you might end up with more profit than you would if you stuck with your original sales goal.
2. Focus on consistency
Some people say content is king, but I say consistency is king.
There’s a great anecdote from Stevie Wonder’s life where someone asks Stevie, “how did you write so many hit songs?”
His answer? “I write five songs a day, some of them are bound to be hits!”
This story could just be music legend and lore, but the point still stands. If you’re writing 1,825 a year, 28 number one hits over a 56 year career doesn’t actually sound that impressive anymore (ok, it still does, but you get the idea). That’s just 28 out of 102,200 songs, or 0.03% of all the songs Stevie wrote.
The key to Stevie’s success was clearly sticking to a system that helped him improve day after day. The results came naturally from there.
So, instead of focusing on having a viral Instagram post, just focus on making posts consistently. Some of them are bound to be hits.
Related: Need some Insta inspiration? Check out our article on What to Post on Instagram.
3. Build your relationship with your customers day by day
Throw out the numbers. Sure, it’d be nice to have an email list of one million people, but forcing yourself to focus on that is just going to constantly make you feel like you’re failing every day you wake up and see your email list falls short.
Instead, work with what you have. Send out emails, see how your customers react with analytics tools, and try to make the next email have marginally better results.
Don’t try to go from three sales to three thousand sales over night. Just try to make it from three to four, then five, then six, and so on.
The key to success is falling in love with the process. Love what you do, and the rest will follow naturally.