In my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, I talk about using systems instead of goals. For example, losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can't maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

Expanding on that point, let's say you have a choice between pasta and a white potato. Assume you enjoy both foods equally and you want to choose the best one for your waistline. Which do you pick?

I recently posed that question to a crowd of ninety senior managers at a huge tech company. About 88 of them chose the potato. That's the wrong answer because pasta is only half as high on the glycemic index. The two people out of ninety who knew pasta was the better choice wouldn't need to use as much willpower later in the day to stay within a good diet range. Studies have shown that if you use your willpower resisting one temptation you have less in reserve for the next. The systems approach to weight management is to gradually replace willpower with knowledge, e.g. knowing pasta is better than a potato. (The book describes more ways to replace willpower with knowledge in the diet realm.)

Here's another example. Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don't enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment - especially if you overdo it because you're impatient to get results.  When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself "too busy" to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don't want to do it anymore. And if you do manage to stay with your goal, you use up your limited supply of willpower.

Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov's dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it - no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That's a system.

By the way, it is only in the past few years that you could replace willpower with knowledge about diet and exercise and get a good result. That's because much of what science told us in those realms was wrong. When I was a kid, science told us to eat plenty of Wonder Bread. I think we have finally crossed the tipping point where following the recommendations of science will get you a good result.

One of the systems I use but didn't mention in the book is what I'm doing right now: blogging.

When I first started blogging, my future wife often asked about what my goal was. The blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn't make any real difference in my life. It seemed a silly use of time. I tried explaining that blogging was a system, not a goal. But I never did a good job of it. I'll try again here.

Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicing on a regular basis. I didn't know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that's what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).

The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different "voices". I have my humorously self-deprecating voice, my angry voice, my thoughtful voice, my analytical voice, my half-crazy voice, my offensive voice, and so on. You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn't.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. Those articles weren't big money-makers either, but it all fit within my system of public practice.

My writing for the Wall Street Journal, along with my public practice on this blog, attracted the attention of book publishers, and that attention turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests that are embarrassingly lucrative. So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn't know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.

My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.

There are obviously some special cases in which goals are useful. If you plan to become a doctor, for example, and you have the natural ability, then by all means focus. But for most of us, we have no idea where we'll be in five years, what opportunities will arise, or what we'll want or need by then. So our best bet is to move from a place of low odds to a place of better odds. That means living someplace that has opportunities, paying attention to your health, continuously upgrading your skills, networking, and perhaps dabbling in lots of different areas.

The systems vs. goals idea is only one through-thread of my new book, but readers and reviewers are consistently mentioning it as the thing they found most useful, saying it is both fresh and obvious at the same time. That's a rare combination.

I'm curious if any of you have systems you'd like to share?


How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.



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Dec 9, 2013
Good stuff.

I use Agile Results as my personal results system.

Impotent goals are useless.
Compelling outcomes are inspiring.
It's "pull" vs. "push."
System are how we get there
... in a sustainable, and enjoyable way.

The real key, though, is this:

The value is in the change.

Otherwise is "status quo", or same ol', same ol'.

And the key to change is figuring out the precise behaviors we want to START, STOP, or CONTINUE. And the key to sustainable change is to link behaviors to good feelings.
(And thoughts are behaviors, too ;)

Systems help us get better, faster, cheaper in a "systematic" way and they move us up the stack ... but I might be biased because I'm a systems kind of guy.
Dec 3, 2013
Thank you so much for your book. When I had my daughter people- always nonparents- offered helpful advice. So, finally - (hey I had read 1 book) I told them this- "I'm using the oriental method of child rearing." See now that system justifies it all- doesn't it. So now all the political action and activism I'll call it a -- system. I have been calling it "just showing up,'
Thanks for your thoughts on your Dad. My Mom flies back in Thursday and she is 85. We will see. She is actually less feisty but still routinely beats me in an argument. That will be sad for me when she can't and you have my sympathy.
As one techie to another isn't techiness just this- fun? Part of my system (I think I need a name for it) is to be relevant. This reference has that techie humor. So, i thought of you. (well right after Carl Hiassen cause see he lives in Miami.) http://oada.dadeschools.net/VAM Information/ForTeachersVAMFAQsv4.pdf
Nov 30, 2013
When I started homeschooling, I worried (a lot) that my lack of organizational skills would doom the project - and my children's futures - to failure.

Then I developed a system. It did not come out of the blue. I have a teaching certificate - and, while I did not learn anything useful in any official education classes, I did do a fair amount of reading on my own - and spent time theorizing with other students.

That background gave me the confidence to try my own approach. Some homeschoolers actually recreate the school day from the pledge of allegiance to passing periods between "classes". Others go totally organic, counting everything they do in the course of the day as education - without making any real effort to direct the process. Most follow some sort of program - with books, worksheets, etc.

I knew I could not follow a program. The worksheets would bore me - and I would not grade them. My kids would have figured that out instantly - and filled them out just enough to look as though they'd made an effort. We never went there - but that is exactly how it would have gone down.

I also could not go the unschooling route. I needed a structure that enabled my kids to do interesting, engaging work - and also ensured they were making real progress in each academic area.

I can't recount the entire system here, but essentially I broke the day up into hours. We always read for an hour every day, first thing. That hour was the baseline minimum for reading for the day. The kids could choose the book - as long as it had educational value - and was appropriately challenging.

We'd then spend some time talking about what they'd read. I'd read something out loud - either from the paper - or from a book, and we'd talk about that.

Math was usually next. They had to spend an hour on it every day. They were working through Saxon math. We would go through the explanation together, then they would work through problem sets on their own. They would grade their own work as well. Roughly once a week, there'd be a test. That was the only thing I graded. If they got below 80% on the test, they had to redo the problem sets. That was enough to motivate them to master the material without my constant oversight.


Did it work? I think so. They all reentered the public school system in high school and did quite well. The oldest is a West Point cadet. The middle kid attends Stanford - and the youngest is applying to schools this year. I expect him to do very well no matter where he goes.
Nov 26, 2013
I have not read your book, but your system above goals approach reminds me of another popular book called 'Work The System', by Sam Carpenter. Actually, your explanation on the benefits of systems made sense and compliments the content in the WTS book.
Nov 23, 2013
Someone else has a similar idea...

Nov 22, 2013
Quick question on books which tell you how to do things. A relevant quotation...

“Consider the thousands of different books on management/success/leadership. If any of this were real science, all managers would learn the same half-dozen secrets to success and go on to great things. The reality of the business world is more like infinite monkeys with typewriters. Sooner or later a monkey with an ass pimple will type something that makes sense and every management expert in the world will attribute the success to the ass pimple.”

Does this mean that everything in Scott's book should be disregarded?
Is writing books like this simply an exercise in making money out of gullible idiots who are looking for a direction because they can't make their own decisions?

Was Scott wrong when he wrote this quotation, or when he wrote the book?
Nov 21, 2013
In 1937, a man named Napoleon Hill wrote a book titled, "Think and Grow Rich." TAGR was inspired by a suggestion from Hill's friend, Andrew Carnegie. As of 2011, it had sold over 70 million copies worldwide. Seventy years after it was published, Business Weeks' Best-Seller list ranked it the sixth best-selling paperback business book, at least according to the research I've done.

Why do I mention it here, you ask? Good question. I mention it here because (and this next statement will probably cause frissons of joy to travel up and down Scott's spine) I am currently reading his new book! OOH! I'm about 1/4 through it, about to start the chapter titled, "Managing Your Attitude," in case anyone is curious. Or even if you're not.

The reason I mention TAGR is that it reminds me a lot of Scott's book. If you haven't read TAGR, you should. The original 1937 edition is now in public domain; you can download a copy for free.

Hill had a different take on what Scott calls 'affirmations.' Hill's view of the human mind is that it is akin to a machine that is attuned to the universe, and if you direct it to perform a task or set a goal, your subconscious mind will find a way to do it. Hill recommended setting goals and hammering them into your subconscious (he called it 'autosuggestion').

Hill recommends using as many of your senses as you can to get the message through to your subconscious: write your goals down and read them out loud twice a day, then let your mind go to work to provide you with the necessary steps to meet your goal. To quote Hill directly: "By following these instructions, you communicate the object of your desire directly to your subconscious mind in a spirit of absolute faith."

Where (IMHO) Hill and Adams differ is in the system versus goal focus. Hill believed totally in setting specific goals; Scott does not. Hill's goal was to help you get rich; Scott's goal seems (so far, at least) to be to help you live a better life. Perhaps I'm off on that, having not finished Scott's book yet. So I'll reserve further judgment until then.

In any case, my system is a modified Hill 'influence your subconscious' strategy. I don't know if this is common, but here is something that I have noticed. Let's say I think of a person from my past, but can't recall his or her name. Just before settling down for the night, I'll cue my subconscious by thinking, "I want to remember that person's name," and visualize a situation where that person and I are together. As I think it, I also absolutely believe that my mind will give me the answer.

When I wake up in the morning, my first thought will often be that person's name. It doesn't come to me as "Susie Smith." It comes to me as a recall of a situation in which I, or someone else, mentioned that person's name. I have heard some people theorize that everything you ever experience is stored in your subconscious. If this is true, then what I'm doing is setting my mental computer to scour the archives until it finds a snippet that answers my question, and then my subconscious pipes it up the line to my conscious.

I have even done it during the day. I'll direct my subconscious to bring me that person's name, and then I'll consciously forget about it. After minutes or sometimes hours, that same kind of flash message will pop up in my mind: a conversation where that person's name was mentioned.

So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Not very grandiose, but at the very least, interesting.
Nov 21, 2013
I read your book solely to hear about the "Systems vs. Goals" approach.

Personally, I am very much goal-oriented.
Professionally, I am... (wait for it...) a "Systems Developer".

While reading your book, I connected the dots. I am now more in tune with recognizing systems already around me. And I definitely see the drawbacks of my goal approach.

It's easy to get caught up in S.M.A.R.T. goal thing. But I'm loving the idea of a simple system.

The criteria for my system is:
1) Make it simple
2) Make it sustainable
3) Eliminate the need for willpower and decision-making

My new diet-system tailored to me is simply:
- Eat breakfast every day
- Eat whole grains every day
- Eat a raw fruit or vegetable every day
- Drink a glass of water every day
- "Every day" means at least 5 days a week

The reasoning for the above is simply to improve my eating habits.
(I routinely go weeks without doing any of those things. Think: Coke and Bacon Cheese Burgers).

This works because it's simple, it's not restrictive, and it totally leaves room for anything I want. Everything can be completed before I leave the house in the morning.

And when I start the day this way, I continue the day in that mindset. And THAT is the key element. As you have described in this post, a "natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity".
Nov 21, 2013
PeterJ57 is right.

Scott: "And you can easily test it in one day by eating a potato for lunch and seeing you you feel at 2 pm."

The answer is "just fine." You see, I haven't been convinced by whatever has convinced you, and so I don't make myself feel bad.

Anyone who starts a new way of eating -- Paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, whatever -- generally reports feeling much better on the new diet. It's a perfectly natural and normal side effect of believing that we are now giving our bodies better fuel.

That doesn't mean systems designed to lose weight can't work. Of course they can, and they often do. That doesn't magically make pasta better than potatoes, though. We can lose weight by avoiding carbs, by avoiding fats, avoiding sweets, and in many other ways. We can also have a more positively oriented system of seeking out lean meat, seeking out high-water vegetables, etc. *All* of these things are fine, even though some of them contradict the others.

Swapping in pasta for potatoes isn't going to work, though. Both are carb foods, so neither counts as avoiding carbs. If the calorie content in the portions is the same, no real change in diet has been made. The person might feel better because of his beliefs, but no weight loss will occur. The "wrong" majority simply had sense.

If someone loses weight by ditching potatoes, it's probably because that person had a tendency to overeat potatoes. There's nothing wrong with avoiding tempting foods, but it *will* require willpower at some point. When we avoid what tempts us, we usually begin craving it.
Nov 21, 2013
Great advice, Scott. Thank you.

Using the concept of system, to me, resonates more than calling it smaller, easier achieveable goals.

I will ask my wife to get your new book for me for Christmas.

Also, I will give your blog and new book a plug at my Boy Scout troop's Court of Honor in December. As the scoutmaster, I get a chance to do a scoutmaster minute. I will use this post and then one where you talked about your success and what it took to get there.

New affirmation: Be more like Scott.
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Nov 21, 2013
Speaking about willpower; you go on about it here and in the book, e.g. about the fact that we have only a limited amount of it. (If you use too much of it on a given day for a certain task, then you don't have so much left for other tasks that follow shortly after that.)

Then I remember a blog post only a couple of weeks ago where you insist that willpower is only an illusion.

Ha! Willpower is real. q.e.d.

Back to systems and goals. Fact is, you can't have one without the other. Fact is also that selfhelp-books, tv-shows, etc have been focusing on goals too much in the the last 10-20 years, i guess in a false sense of simplification. (it sells better?) Thinking about it, i realize also that goals are being misused in a big way in the corporate world (goal: make xx dollars more profit, vs system: make good products and satisfy customer). So your advice to focus on systems makes good sense to me. It is good to be reminded of what is really important.

(finished the book, and I already changed my daily routine)

Nov 21, 2013
My best use of a system is my exercise plan. I hate exercise for the sake of exercise; I go on 3-5 day backpacking trips several times a year, but I can't run on a treadmill for more than 10 minutes. The problem is that I can't distract myself away from the fact that I'm not actually accomplishing anything; it just feels so pointless because I'm not GOING anywhere.

Recognizing this, I build my exercise system into accomplishing other things. I ride my bike to work, so that my commute becomes exercise; and at work, I always take the stairs instead of the elevator (seven story building, and I have to move between floors a lot).

The interesting thing to me is how this spills over into other things. I think having a car makes you lazy. It's easy to go whenever and wherever you want, and carry loads of things that you may or may not need. The only time you are truly outside is the 30 seconds you are walking from your house to your car. Consequences are minimal -- there just isn't a lot of effort involved in running back to the house because you forgot something. You can get to and from work virtually without a thought.

Riding a bike, on the other hand, requires PLANNING. You're exposed to the elements, you're more vulnerable to traffic, it takes longer to get to where you are going, and you can only carry what you truly need. You have to get it right, because there is a very high cost to turning around and starting the trip over. What I've found, though, is that all that planning sharpens me up the rest of the day, as well. It's not just physical exercise, it's mental as well.

The other unexpected bonus of riding: it's my best thinking time of the day. There are no screens; no interruptions from coworkers; no urge to check messages. In a car, you focus on getting there. On a bike, you have to focus on the trip itself. Time and again, I've found that I have some of my best ideas during the hour I'm cycling, because I can really devote time to thinking deeply, without fear of distraction.
Nov 20, 2013
I'm a psychologist. A lot of research in psychotherapy these days focuses on identifying goals, and providing manualized treatment. A huge amount of research effort goes into identifying the most effective techniques. Yet technique only explains 15% of the outcome in psychotherapy. A far bigger piece of that pie belongs to the therapeutic relationship: The more comfortable you are with your therapist, the more understood you feel, the more you believe your therapist genuinely cares about you, the better you're likely to do in therapy, whether your therapist is cognitive behavioural, psychodynamic, or having you do energy tapping. That accounts for about 50-70% of the outcome. So as a psychotherapist, I have the following system: I take the history (get to know the person). I describe a range of treatment options (gauging their reactions and preferences). (We might never get around to using all these techniques, but describing them instills hope, and gives us something to do while we get to know each other). I develop rapport, and I focus on maintaining a good, effective therapeutic relationship. And it works.
Nov 20, 2013
My goal was to become smarter this year. Nailed it.

Also, Craig Groeschel blogged about this same theory a few years ago in a post called, "The death of the five-year plan"

"When I started in ministry two decades ago, everyone I knew made five-year plans. While planning is wise and biblical, I’m changing how I plan.
Instead of planning for specific buildings, campuses, staff roles, and outreach, I’m planning to be prepared for opportunities that I can’t name today. We are creating margin and planning to respond quickly to ideas that we don’t yet have.
Speed, agility, flexibility, and financial margin are far better than a detailed road map."

Nov 20, 2013
Here's something I thought about last night that I'd like to toss out there.

In the Old Testament, God put forth a lot of rules to follow. These were goals. Of course it was 800 BC so the idea of systems would probably draw blank stares. Another part of it was 10 minutes and 8 acts of God after being freed from Egypt, the Isrealites started worshiping a cow. So let's say people weren't ready for a system yet and just needed some goals.

Then later God comes as Jesus and tells everyone to be nice to each other. That's seems like a system to me. If you are nice to God you respect him and dedicate some time to him. If you are nice to other people you don't try to take their things, or kill them, or bloop their wives and post it on twitter. Or take the sermon on the mount, that seems like system stuff to me. Things like being meek, being merciful, and trying to make peace sound less like hard goals and more like a system to work at.
Nov 20, 2013
In a talk I heard forty years ago, the point was made that if you flip the inside letters of goal you get gaol, the old spelling for jail - and the either/or nature of goals puts you in a kind of jail. The alternative offered was to set ideals instead. That's always stuck with me. It's especially helpful to realize that the person setting a goal may well have changed/become more aware by the time the goal is reached, and by then the goal might be beside the point of real personal growth.
Nov 20, 2013
I never thought of it as "systems", but I have done the same thing. I always framed it in terms of putting myself in an environment that is conducive to success.
Want to learn a language? Go to a country where they speak it.
Want to exercise more? Ride a bike or walk to work. Better yet, get a job that involves physical labour.
It can require major lifestyle changes, but if you are adventurous, it's no problem.
Nov 20, 2013

It is true that systems/goals/rules etc all overlap to some extent. But for somebody who has not really realised this by his own experiences, Scott's pointing out that a system oriented approach can be more powerful than a goal oriented approach, is worth many times more than the price of the book.

As I see it, a system-oriented approach has major advantages:

a) If you have a goal, you may fail to attain it, get depressed and quit. A system is more understanding of failure, which makes it more robust, which will probably let you achieve more in life than a series of short-term goals one after another.

To give a stock market analogy, I have read (I think in one of Nicholas Taleb's books) that the disappointment that comes from a losing trade is twice the satisfaction that we get from a winning trade. This makes stock trading very hard on the nerves and almost impossible for someone to engage in long term.

Likewise, the less short-term goals we have, the more we take away the grief from short-term failure. This makes it easier for us to keep plugging away long-term.

b) I have realised after about thirty years of adult life, that I have largely had the wrong goals in life. If you have a wrong goal, even achieving it does not gain you much. If its a long term goal, half your life will be gone before you realise how foolish you have been.

c) Being focussed on a goal made me ignore many other opportunities which could have been equally fruitful but they were simply not what I was aiming for at the time and were ignored. If I had only a general direction in mind, rather than an absolute target, I guess I would not only have been more successful but also have enjoyed life more.

Self improvement books, management education, etc are all full of setting goals and targets and achieving them. But this is the first I have heard somebody make this very valid point that short-term goals may not be so important and it does not matter if you can't achieve a few. It is more important to be consistently heading in the right direction than to be achieving minor goals at regular intervals.
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Nov 19, 2013
I read your book right after it came out. To be truly, truly honest, I was a little disappointed.


I took on board your recommendation of using a system rather than goal for diet and exercise. I am 15 lbs down already, and am far more active than I've been in years.

So I have to say, thanks a lot, Scott - I really appreciate it!
Nov 19, 2013
What about pasta sauce? No one eats plain pasta. Also does the potato have any vitamin benefits that pasta doesn't?

[Vitamins are mostly bullshit. If you eat a normal, so-called healthy, balanced diet, you won't come anywhere near your daily recommended vitamins and minerals. And it won't make much difference to your health. -- Scott]
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