Goals vs. Systems: the Outcome or the Process?

Making a list of the things you need to get done on a Sunday is fairly easy. You know what you need to do, why you need to do it, and when you need to get it done by. Setting long-term goals is a bit tougher. Society tells you that you have to think big, so you set your hopes high. That’s where you hit one of two snags: 1. You begin to work towards your goal, become overwhelmed by how much hard work it’ll take, and give up, or 2. You figure, “I’ve got my whole life to do this! What’s the rush?” And you procrastinate.

Now, this doesn’t happen to everyone. You might be one of those people who works better when you’re thinking of the finish line. But if you have trouble with big picture goals, maybe try this new approach: don’t set any.

That’s what James Clear suggests in Entrepreneur. No, he’s not saying that you shouldn’t do anything; he’s saying that if you really want to make progress, focus on the system rather than the goal. In other words, don’t say, “My goal is to lose 20 pounds.” Build a system (in this case, a diet or a regimented and consistent exercise schedule).

The truth? It’s pretty simple-minded to imagine that systems and goals can really be separated at all. Clear himself even admits their unavoidable linkage when he writes, “I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.” If you ask me, every system that he describes is built on some sort of goal. For example, when he discusses his system of writing two articles each week, one on Monday and one on Thursday, this is dictated by the unspoken goal of being a prolific and successful writer.

Still, his main point is a good one: focusing on the process rather than the intended outcome will result in more progress and happiness. Otherwise, you end up stuck living in the future, which will leave you unsatisfied with the present and less motivated to actually work at something.

Now the tricky part comes when you try to apply a system to the job search because it’s so goal-driven. When you go for a run, you log miles and burn calories. When you sit down and write, you end up with words on a page. When you apply for a job, you might not end up with anything other than an updated resume. It is a process in which hard work can be invalidated by an outcome. Sure, you could say it’s “good practice” but it’s not the same as with other activities. Going on a rough jog or writing a bad story can help someone grow as a runner or a writer, but the job applicant isn’t trying to grow as a job applicant; he or she is trying to become the jobholder.

So, am I doubling back and saying to forget all this stuff about systems and goals as they apply to the job search? No way. I’m just saying that applying a system to the job search is harder than to a lot of processes like the ones Clear lays out in a few simple sentences, and that’s why I’ll talk more about it in a full post next week. In the meantime, check out the article and we invite you to take our poll at the top of our sidebar to tell us how you feel about systems versus goals.

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