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Productivity / Processes

Systems 1, Goals 0

Having previously proudly described myself as ‘goal-oriented’ I am now convinced goals are a crock. Here’s why.

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Three separate lessons on the topic of systems versus goals have come to my attention of late. How fortunate to recognise the synchronicity around article deadline time. (Writers, I know you’re hearing me right now.)

Anyway the first two lessons came courtesy of this INC article on goals.

Now you and I know as sure as eggs are eggs, whenever a New Year hits, publications everywhere spew forth a slurry of advice around goals and how-most-are-broken-in-a-month and how-to-make-them-stick by breaking-them-into-chunks. But INC approached it from a different angle. Their contribution to the conversation had me nodding as if my head were on a spring.

Lesson 1: Systems trump goals

INC suggest you totally disregard goals (e.g. ‘get more customers, lose weight’) and instead focus on systems (e.g. ‘make five cold calls a day, only eat whole foods’).

Around that time, I got very convincing proof of this in action.

In August last year I committed to practicing 45 minutes of yoga per day courtesy of the amazing online service Yogapad. (As it turns out, I’ve ended up doing it roughly six days a week. But the important thing is I started doing it and have kept the practise up to this day.)

"You train each day to meet your goal of running a half marathon, but once you’ve run the marathon, what then?"

In the early days I remember being awestruck by teacher Jeanette’s ability to move from plank to upfaced dog (basically a slow push up). “How does she do it?” I wondered. I lacked the core strength and the upper body muscles to contemplate doing the hard version, so consistently did the easier, knees-on-ground variation offered.

Then one day, I could do it. I was elated. I hadn’t once consciously said “I am going to nail that pose” but nail it I did, all thanks to my simple adherence to a system.

Lesson 2: No goals, no post goal-achievement letdown

Another of the INC article’s many insights was the fact that some goals are at odds with long term progress. For instance, you train each day to meet your goal of running a half marathon, but once you’ve run the marathon, what then?

This is where I point you to the other ‘achievements’ that have come out of my regular yoga practise. At the outset I did not state “I want to revert to the weight I was 20 years ago” or “I want to be able to fast walk the Byron Bay lighthouse track with ease.” Yet I now can tick both these boxes. I suspect if I’d specifically set out to ‘achieve’ either of these things (or the aforementioned pose), there would have been a sense of “what now?” that followed.

Instead, I find myself quite curious as to what will unfold in the coming months (but will try not ruin any surprises by speculating.)

Lesson 3: Systems help create a culture

The above two revelations brought to mind a line (credited to management guru Peter Drucker) that once heard, I could not get out of my brain. It said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

It occurred to me that you could easily replace the words ‘culture’ and ‘strategy’ with ‘systems’ and ‘goals’.

My experience is that systems, when adhered to willingly, create a culture that supports the system, and a virtuous circle ensues. For instance, in the old days I’d unwind with a beer or two once the kids were in bed. Now I unwind with yoga. I used to do endless research before reaching a decision, now I will sit with it while I meditate.

I did not explicitly state “I will drink less beer” or “I will listen to my intuition”. But because both of those outcomes are supported by my yoga practice, (which is now an intrinsic part of my personal culture), they’re outcomes anyway.

Yoga has changed my life after an annus horriblis involving cancer in 2013 (which you can read more about here, I am all fine now.) I am humbler, calmer, stronger physically and slightly more dull person than I was, but I’m happy in the true sense of the word.

Systems versus goals. What do you think? Has synchronicity struck for you the week of a deadline? Share all here.

Sam Leader

is a former director of Flying Solo and the co-author of Flying Solo - How to go it alone in business.

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