Build a system, not set goals


Every year around this time, we find ourselves in a cycle of looking back on the past year and making plans for the year ahead.

As the new year begins, we often set New Year’s resolutions, hoping these goals will transform our lives, only to realize by the year’s end that we haven’t accomplished any of them. Have you ever considered that real change starts not with setting goals, but with something we often overlook – systems?

The Shortcomings of Setting Goals

Setting goals is a familiar process to us all: we aim to lose weight, get out of debt, learn new skills, etc. But how often do these goals remain just out of reach?

There are several reasons for this.

First, setting goals can lead us into the trap of “positive fantasy,” where we get caught up in imagining our success without considering the hard work it requires.

Second, goals tend to focus solely on the outcome, ignoring the development of the necessary skills and habits to sustain those results.

Lastly, setting goals can create a “failure mentality,” making us believe that happiness is only possible upon achieving these goals, setting us up for disappointment.

The Strength of Systems

In contrast to setting goals, a system isn’t about reaching a one-time achievement; it’s about ongoing processes. Systems keep us engaged in every step of the journey, not just the destination. This means we can still learn and grow, even if we don’t fully achieve the goal.

For instance, if you aim to write a book, an effective system could be writing two pages every day. Regardless of how the final manuscript turns out, you’ll have developed a consistent writing habit.

Building Your System

Moving from setting goals to creating systems requires more than just willpower; it requires a concrete plan. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you build an effective system for any goal.

Step One: Define Your Goal

  • Specifics: Begin by detailing your goal as much as possible. Instead of saying “I want to lose weight,” specify it, like “I want to lose 10 kilograms in six months.”

Step Two: Understand Your Motivation

  • Analyzing Motivation: Consider why this goal matters to you. Understanding your motivation can keep you driven in the face of challenges.
  • The Five Whys: Employ the “Five Whys” technique to uncover your true motivation. Continuously ask why to each answer you provide, doing this five times.

Why #1: Why do you want to be the best professional football player in the top four clubs competing for the championship in England and Europe? Answer #1: I feel undervalued. I want to prove the doubters wrong. Why #2: Why do you want to prove yourself to the doubters? Answer #2: So they won’t write me off in the future. Why #3: Why don’t you want to be written off? Answer #3: It undermines my confidence. Why #4: How does it undermine your confidence? Answer #4: Because I care deeply about how others perceive me. Why #5: Why do you care so much about others’ opinions? Answer #5: I struggle with self-esteem, and it hurts to feel like I’m letting others down.

Step Three: Identify Key Actions

  • List Actions: Write down all actions needed to reach your goal. If you’re aiming to lose weight, this could include planning healthy meals, exercising four times a week, etc.
  • Prioritize: Decide which actions are most crucial and which can wait. Choose the actions that will most effectively drive you toward your goal as your key actions.
  • Plan: I will [action] at [time] in [location].

For example: → I will exercise for an hour doing aerobics and strength training at the gym every weekday morning from 7 am to 8 am. → Whenever I use Apple Pay, I will log the item purchased and its price. → I will spend 2 hours working on my Medium blog in my home office every day from 4 pm to 6 pm.

Step Four: Implement Your Plan

  • Concrete Plans: Make detailed plans for each key action. Specify when, where, and how you’ll execute these actions. For example, “I will exercise at the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings from 7 pm to 8 pm.”
  • Supportive Environment: Adjust your surroundings to facilitate your actions. For instance, to reduce phone usage, charge your phone in a different room instead of beside your bed.

Step Five: Evaluate and Tweak

  • Monitor Progress: Track your progress using a journal, apps, or spreadsheets. Note which actions are successful and which aren’t as effective.
  • Periodic Evaluation: Regularly review your progress and experiences, weekly or monthly, and adjust your action plan accordingly. Don’t hesitate to drop strategies that aren’t working in favor of new methods.

Helpful Tips

  • Celebrate Progress: Acknowledge every bit of progress towards your goal. These small wins can boost your motivation and keep you on track.
  • Be Adaptable: Systems should be flexible. Life changes, and your system may need to evolve. Stay open and adaptable to new challenges and opportunities.

By following these steps, you can build a strong system for achieving any goal. Remember, the value of a system lies in the process and consistent effort, not merely in the outcome. Let each day’s actions bring you closer to your goal.


It’s vital to enjoy the journey. The true advantage of systems is that they enable us to appreciate every moment now while working towards long-term ambitions. So, don’t just set goals. Develop systems that make every day a step on your path to achieving your dreams.