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Why "goals are for losers" (and what to do instead)?

2016-12-11 10:28:40

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The name "Scott Adams" creates an assortment of reactions depending on who you're talking to.

Until recently, he was usually "that Dilbert cartoon guy", but these days he's more often referred to as "the one who told us from the start that Trump would win". To many, he's also an expert in understanding and explaining the art of persuasion.

Occasionally – when his viewpoints are misinterpreted – he's "the misogynist". But for the purposes of this email, I'm going to focus on something else entirely: his counter-intuitive opinions on goal-setting.

Yup: all that preamble for the lame-arse topic of goal-setting. But bear with me, because I think he's onto something.

In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott says that goals are "for losers": "...if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach that goal (if you reach it at all) feeling as if you were short of your goal." In other words, you "exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that [you] hope will be temporary."

He goes on to explain what happens when you achieve your goal: "... you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure."

So if we want to achieve anything, how do we go about it? Scott's solution is to be a "systems person" instead. Losing ten pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. Making a million dollars is a goal, but vowing to say "yes" to entrepreneurial opportunities is a system.

The benefit of this method? "Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do", whereas "the goals people are fighting discouragement at each turn. That's a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction." And, importantly, systems people are also more likely to achieve the sorts of goals that goal-oriented people are so desperately aiming for: "if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals".

Looking back at our own lives, I can see that we've tended to be most successful when we've had systems rather than goals. For example, when Rob started up the Property Geek blog, his sole commitment was to write one blog post a week. He had no aims or grand plans – he simply enjoyed learning and writing about property investment, and he created the system of "one post a week" to make sure he followed through. From that system has emerged what I can accurately (and proud-wife-ily) describe as an empire: an online property investment community with 13,000 members, a thriving lettings and management agency, the UK's most popular business podcast, and a fledgling property finance company.

To give a vastly different example, for the past 16 years I've woken up every day at 6am and brisk-walked approximately five miles – purely because I enjoy it. Today I have legs of steel (plus the content of 7,000 hours worth of audiobooks and podcasts stored somewhere, I hope, in my brain).

When you're systems-oriented, you can feel yourself growing more capable every day, no matter what the fate of the project you're working on. For that reason alone, it's worth considering. But when you factor in the idea that you'll actually become more successful as a result... well, you might want to make "systems" your New Year's Resolution.

By Mish

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