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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Nov 19, 2013
One useful example of systems vs. goals is food journaling. A friend turned me on to an app called "Lose It". It is a free weight loss app - there are a bunch like it. It does start by asking how much you weigh and how much you want to lose per week, which is somewhat of a goal, but not a fuzzy long term one.

The important part is that it gives you a daily calorie allotment, and deducts from that allowance each time you enter something you ate (via barcode scan, lookup or direct entry). In my view, it is the system of entering everything that you eat that generates the results. When you have to enter the item, and see how much of your allowance you just consumed, it has a significant impact on your willingness to eat.

I have been using it for a few months now, and I find that my weight gain / loss correlates very strongly with how consistently I enter information into the app. Even when I overeat, the simple act of entering the information can stop a binge in mid-stride. Conversely on the few days where I have blown off entering the information altogether, I am way more prone to go seriously overboard.

[I've never met anyone who kept weight off with food journaling, although it works to lose weight in the short run. Sounds unsustainable to me, compared to simply learning enough about diet and how to cheat the need for willpower until weight maintenance is automatic. -- Scott]
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Nov 19, 2013
Good clarifications.

"poor soggy nugget" - near coffee spiller!

Nov 19, 2013
I am amused by how many people haven't seen the obvious misconceptions in this piece.

Californians live in a bubble, constantly bombarded by pseudo-science about their health and the food they eat. No-one, no matter how objective, can resist this constant pressure to conform on the "right foods", the "right way to eat" etc.

In reality they are simply being put into play by companies who profit from making people neurotic about their health and academic establishments whose budgets rely on sensational media headlines based on non-statistically significant differences in diet (people are notoriously hard to experiment on as you can't kill half of them to provide an LD50).

The truth is that people all over the world eat all sorts of things, yet have roughly the same mortality rates by income sector. Any food differences can just as easily be ascribed to a host of other factors - climate, medical care, lifestyle etc.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a psychological difference. We are highly susceptible to both confirmation and outcome biases. We also hate to go against the herd - so if someone else says they get a benefit from standing on their head with a carrot in their ear, we will try it and report positive results too.

When I was young I remember how the "fit" ones grabbed the moral high ground and told the rest of us off as doing our bodies harm. Now 40 years later several of them have gone and the others have hip, knee and back problems - none of which afflict me. But everybody truly is different. Some people get huge rushes of endorphin when they do something like exercise, some don't. Don't assume everyone gets the same benefit (or use it against others).

So if Scott wishes to believe that pasta is good for him and potato isn't, then it will probably make him feel good to tuck into his pasta snack and he'll feel more productive because he doesn't have cognitive dissonance telling him he's done something wrong. But that's psychology, not food science.

[I would have agreed with you up to about five years ago when the science of diet finally got more right than wrong. I think you'll find that the science behind the glycemic index is sound. And you can easily test it in one day by eating a potato for lunch and seeing you you feel at 2 pm. -- Scott]
Nov 19, 2013
"Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal"

If that is your idea of a goal, I understand why goals do not work for you. I see that as more of a system, although not a good one, because it doesn't specify what you do when you are there. Without a goal in mind, it might be difficult to determine what kinds of exercise you should pursue while at the gym. If you have a specific goal, perhaps to increase upper body strength, then this would lead you to the system of exercise that is best to achieive this goal. Goals and systems generally work together. Knowing what you are trying to achieve is very helpful in developing a system. I am not certain how you would conceive of a system without knowing what the system is meant to achieve. On the other hand, a goal without a system to achieve it is just a dream. I guess I just have a problem envisioning one without the other.

[The goals vs. systems dividing line is gray. I discuss that in more length in the book. And I would have no problem calling 3-4 days at the gym more of a bad system than a goal. -- Scott]
Nov 19, 2013
I gave this some thought and I think some outcomes require a goal and a plan - other outcomes require a system.

To reach a final endpoint you need to set the endpoint as a goal and develop a plan to get there. If your endpoint is to get a Ph.D. in mathematics and become a supply chain consultant then there are a series of steps and barriers that you have to overcome. But there is a clearly defined path to do that and at some point you have to make a plan to get there.

But if the outcome you are trying to achieve involves repetitive behaviors of daily life then what you need is a system to get to the outcome. Eating - and dieting - is a fine example. The behaviors needed to get to the outcome are repetitive and you need a system to evaluate choices and motivate action. You also need a yardstick to measure progress - and determine if the system is working, or not.

But another fine example of an outcome that needs a system is writing.

So I like what I read about goals and systems but I think there are really separate kinds of problems here - and you need to get to different outcomes in different ways. I see the point about goals because I think people set meaningless goals that are unrealistic and unachievable and this sets them on a path of action that wastes time and energy. "To be President of the United States" isn't a realistic goal.

But I also think that sometimes you have to take a wrong turn to get where you are going. Goals are useful. Systems are useful. And sometimes - mistakes are useful. It is how you process a mistake that determines what good comes of it. And sometimes a "mistake" can set you on a completely different path - and mistakes can be opportunities.

[I agree that there are special cases in which a goal is a perfectly good thing to have. The important point is that seeing the world in terms of systems is powerful. -- Scott]
Nov 19, 2013
Potatoes have a ridiculous number of valuable nutrients, and the gluten in pasta is highly inflammatory, so I think potato is the right choice from a health perspective. Although that varies by individual. Some people tolerate gluten better than others.

If you're analyzing it from a "waistline" perspective, the only thing that's relevant is the number of calories. If you eat an equal number of calories of either choice it should have the exact same effect on your waist.
Nov 19, 2013
I love to concept of systems instead of goals, though I agree with some of the others that you have to have both. Goals are inefficient in that they cause you to ignore things that don't keep you moving toward them, even if that detour ends up getting you there faster. On the other hand, without a goal in mind, you can end up wallowing in the process and never actually achieve anything.

Driving by GPS is a great example. A typical GPS is very goal-driven, but left to its own devices, can lead you into trouble because it is trying to take the most direct route there. However, if you layer systems on top of it, such as "take highways whenever possible" or including traffic data, it becomes a much more effective navigator. But in the end, without a goal to move toward, all the navigation efficiency in the world is meaningless.

My current job is owning the engineering infrastructure for a team of several hundred people. I took it because creating tools that enable people to be more efficient makes my brain happy (and with 20 years of experience in software development, I have a pretty good handle on how to do that). Typically, I have to begin building systems before anyone is ready to use them, so they are ready when my customers are ready. The problem I face, though, is that I end up with a lot of questions along the lines of, "Why are you doing that?" and the best answer I can give is, "Because I know Team X is going to need it, even if they don't yet." Of course, Team X says "we didn't ask for that" and I get cr@p for wasting resources -- until they start using it a month later.
Nov 19, 2013
Haven't you also discussed blogging as an example of skill-building? And your system as a set of interconnected skills that turn out to be synergistic when you find the right goal?

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Nov 19, 2013
Every morning my system requires me to sit in bed with a pot of tea, my MacBook and read Facebook posts from the last 24 hours. While the vast majority are skippable, every now and then I see a post (in this case yours) which also helps me meet my goal of finding a nugget of information which makes me think. This doesn't work for many people who don't have the luxury of starting their days by thinking, but for us (wife and me) we own an award-winning medium size B&B in Carlisle, PA - and my goal each morning is to find that piece of information which will help conversation flow over breakfast, and will ensure that our guests leave feeling both well-fed and stimulated to face the day.

Thanks! I can get up and start making our fabulous breakfast quiches now!
Nov 19, 2013
Help me out here: I am young, constantly exercise, eat healthy, floss, do groceries, laundry, dishes, sleep at least 7 hours, meditate, read books, have few hobbies, constantly try new things and am in general pleasant and grateful person - all the "important" stuff I see all the poeple try to accomplish and thus improve their lifes. But I don't understand how my life is better because of this.

What I want: to have a lot of friends, to have a lot (yes, not one) of hot girls, to live in expensive part of town, to have a sports car, to have $100,000 monthly source of income and my own business. Call me shallow - I don't care. Right and healthy lifestyle doesn't bring anything of this to the table. Nobody seems to appreciate it. Moreover I don't see how having will power/doing what 90% of people dream of, can bring me what I want (shallow, materialistic pleasures).

So Scott Adams himself, or thoughtfull and wise persons in comments: what system, daily, weekly actions should I incorporate into my life, to increase my odds of having what I want?

P.S. I didn't go into detail, but I can write the precisest description of what I mean by hot girl, what flat I want, what assemblage of my car should be and in which business I want to be - it's just seems that all these systems/be grateful/willpower/knowledge - everything is bullsh*t and the only thing you need - is MONEY. Even to start generating money (starting my own distribution network) you need MONEY to launch it. You need money to buy the goods. You need money to buy a car. You need MONEY for everything. What is the right system to have what I want, but to avoid mindless grunt at office job, if you don't have rich relatives, bank doesn't give you credit and you are young, without much experience or capital, but full of energy and determination..???

That's why I call it bullsh*t. I have everything what middle aged, old people want, but I don't have the most important thing. Money. Prove me wrong. Give me a system.
Nov 19, 2013
Systems are better than goals, I agree, much because goals are future situations that you might change your mind about, not present things on your to do list. Verbs beats vague. But the killer for all who try to achieve is 'doing'. I should be 'doing' right now instead of commenting, which is fun not work. And fun beats work. What to do? Knowledge is good, as you know, and I think the answer is to understand the pain of work. If you've got a day in the field ahead of you, you know that will hurt. The same way, if you got two hours of writing to do, that will hurt too. Sure, some of it will be nice, but all that thinking will hurt your poor soggy nugget. But you'll do it anyway cause you're a winner ;)
Nov 19, 2013
(About halfway through the book!)

I wonder if chess grandmasters think the same way. That is, instead of having a specific goal (apart from winning or at least drawing, of course) they just attempt to increase their odds with each move. For example, each move might increase their range of possible options (or decrease those of their opponent).
Nov 18, 2013
When you think about it, a system is really a set of loose, easily attainable goals that together work towards a greater, not necessarily definite, greater goal. A system is simply a more logical way to go about it. A long term goal is only useful for wishing; it does not provide any help on how to get there. A system, on the other hand, shows an efficient and plausible way to achieve things that you would otherwise be wishing for.
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Nov 18, 2013
I don't think having goals and systems are mutually exclusive. To me the system is the means by which I'm going to achieve my goal. If I decide I want to be able to play Beethoven's 5th symphony on the accordion, that's my goal. Taking lessons and practicing everyday is my system for achieving it. I do agree that having a good system is more important than a goal, I may never be able to play Beethoven's 5th, but with a good system I'll still likely learn to play a mean accordion. And achieving your goal without a good system would make the task much more difficult. Now if you'll excuse me I'm late for my accordion lesson...
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Nov 18, 2013
"being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise"

I'd consider that a goal too, just a better goal than going to the gym X times a week...
Nov 18, 2013
How do you know your system is working, or has ever worked, if you don't have a goal?

I have a system for procrastination: I wait until someone else does it or it becomes impossible to do. Then I don't have to do it. Success!

It works for me, but I probably don't have the same goals as you.
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Nov 18, 2013
I entirely agree with your systems approach, as goals do not work for me. As I try to achieve goals, more goals get added and at a certain point they get too overwhelming. The thing I hate about goals is that they predict my life too much. I don't want to know what I am doing every second of my life weeks ahead.

Systems work for me. If I get something into my routine, it no longer feels as effort. Like brushing my teeth. You just do it and don't think about it. It's routine.

One simple system I have, and can recommend, is to use the power of RSS to get myself informed in my industry. I have made a small effort in setting up the best feeds, and now for years in a row already, I reserve monday evening for going through it all. It does not feel like much effort at all, yet I am super informed about what's going on, and my knowledge grows incrementally.

This example is fitting, as I have no concrete goals here. It's a system that brings benefits by improving odds.
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Nov 18, 2013
I am in agreement (since it didn't involve robots saving the world) with Scott's observations here. The nuclear age touted the "specialist" but in the centuries before being "well-rounded" or a "man-of the world" meant intelligent dabbling in many things.

My own experience was highly risk-focused (goals) in my youth, but around 30 I switched lifestyles to pursue a wider variety of interests (systems) in a more dilettante manner.

Since then, I've enjoyed (and sometimes not) trying out things that put me way outside my comfort zone. This "system" has allowed an experience to make possible another, and magnetically leads to even more interesting opportunities. The only measurement of success now is to face a dragon and learn something about myself from the experience. The wider viewpoint continues to be invaluable.

Recent years has me pursuing some creative interests, because I've always admired this way of life but never thought myself "inclined". I'm now writing a story cycle of speculative fiction, periodically reviewed by my wife, who is a professional editor. Now I see why her clients keep coming back - a kind, talented taskmaster. It has been humbling, frustrating..., and very satisfying when a rough patch smooths out and snaps together. As the project moves forward, I've also come to better understand and further respect my wife during this experience. A valuable remuneration.

It seems to me if I would have squashed many of the best experiences if I pursued them in a rigid goal-oriented manner. That most of the readership here is techies, this might be counter-intuitive, but that is were the gold resides.
Nov 18, 2013
I'm also an expert procrastinator.
Douglas Adams said that the way to fly was to "throw yourself at the ground and miss".

In the same way, if I want to do something I have to invent something else urgent.
Then I do what I really need to do while avoiding my big urgent task.
Nov 18, 2013
My system involves learning as much about finances and investing as possible, despite it not really making sense since I've never had the "big money" necessary to use certain strategies. By practicing at a small scale with many ideas, if/when I end up with substantial assets I feel able to manage them well. So far, the knowledge has helped me fund a long sabbatical and also opened small-scale opportunities such as writing apps that use my practices. It still hasn't paid off big, but considering that money will likely be a major consideration for the remainder of my life, knowing how to manage it effectively is 2nd only to managing my health.

Note, I'm extremely skeptical of most of Wall Street and sucker strategies such as Dollar Cost Averaging, so much of my study is figuring out which elements of financial "education" are actually BS or worse.
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