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Goals vs Systems: How Atomic Habits Work to Improve Your Life

Why systems build better habits for long-term progress and success

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“Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine.” – James Clear


Top psychologist Adam Alter has described goals as “a broken concept.” That’s because most of the time you’re not achieving that goal, so you’re in a failure state, he says.


Atomic Habits author James Clear also emphasises the value of shifting from a goal-oriented mindset to a system-oriented approach.


His New York Times bestselling book, with 15 million copies sold, took the world by storm with its revelations of the power of making small, incremental changes to our daily routines to bring about lasting personal transformation.


But we're continually told to set goals. As you read a summary of our recent events with James Clear, let’s delve into the key differences between goals and systems and explain why James Clear believes building effective systems is essential for long-term progress and success.


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The difference between goals and systems


“I’m going to run a marathon.” “My company will be profitable by Year Two.” “I’m going to write a book.” “Our website will be up and running by the end of the year.”


Goals


Goals are specific outcomes or achievements we strive for. They provide a sense of direction and purpose, giving us something to aim for. And, while goals can be motivating and inspiring, they often come with several limitations:

·       Outcome-focused: Goals tend to be centred around the end result, which can lead to a fixation on reaching the destination without fully appreciating the journey.

·       Binary nature: Goals are typically binary—they are either achieved or not. This black-and-white mindset can be demoralizing if progress is slower than expected or if setbacks occur.

·       Short-term focus: Goals are often set for the future, and their achievement is seen as the ultimate measure of success. This can result in neglecting the daily actions needed for consistent progress.



“I’m going to walk around the block every morning.” “We are going to call 3 customers before our stand-up.” “I’m going to write a page in a journal every night.” “I’m going to spend an hour with our website developer every afternoon.”


Systems


Systems, on the other hand, focus on the process - the daily habits and routines that lead to progress. One of our favourite quotes from James Clear in Atomic Habits spells it out:


"Ultimately, it’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress."


Rather than fixating solely on the end goal, systems emphasise the importance of building sustainable and effective practices:

·       Process-oriented: Systems prioritise the journey and the actions required to achieve the desired outcome. They shift the focus from the end result to the habits and routines that support continuous improvement.

·       Iterative approach: Systems acknowledge that progress is rarely linear and that setbacks are a natural part of the journey. By focusing on the process, systems encourage learning from failures and making necessary adjustments.

·       Long-term perspective: Systems are designed to be sustainable and adaptable over time. They foster consistency and gradual improvement, leading to lasting changes rather than temporary successes.






Benefits of Systems over Goals


“Success is the product of daily habits not once-in-a-lifetime transformation." – James Clear


According to James Clear's Atomic Habits, getting just 1% better every day for a year results in being 37 times better at the end of the year.

By adopting a systems-based approach, individuals enjoy the compounding effects of daily actions, and can reap several benefits that support sustainable progress and long-term success:


Consistency


Systems prioritise consistent action, enabling individuals to make incremental progress every day. This consistency builds positive habits and reinforces desired behaviours, leading to compounding and long-lasting results over time.


Adaptability


Systems are flexible and adaptable, allowing individuals to adjust their routines and habits based on changing circumstances or feedback. For example, if life gets in the way and you miss your daily run, you can get back on track the following day.


This adaptability ensures continued progress even when faced with challenges or unforeseen circumstances.


Continuous growth


Systems encourage a growth mindset by focusing on learning and development rather than fixating on a single outcome. This mindset enables individuals to embrace setbacks as learning opportunities and persist in their pursuit of excellence.


Sustainable habits


Systems help individuals develop sustainable habits that become ingrained in their daily lives. By focusing on the process, systems make it easier to maintain progress even after the initial goal has been achieved.


Summary


"Forget about goals and focus on systems instead." – James Clear


Pardon the pun, but James Clear couldn’t be clearer.

While goals provide direction and purpose, it is the systems we build that truly drive sustained progress and success.


By prioritising the daily actions (“atomic habits”) that support our goals, we can establish a solid foundation for long-term growth.


Embracing a system-oriented mindset allows us to cultivate consistency, adaptability, continuous learning, and sustainable habits - ultimately leading to the achievement of our goals and beyond.

As James Clear highlights in Atomic Habits, the journey matters just as much as the destination.


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