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 18, 2013
I have a system for when I'm procrastinating instead of working for too long.
It's called "Do something mode".
It works like this:
When you realize you are procrastinating and you're wasting time on tv or internet, you stop and start doing little things that have been lingering, finish one after another nonstop until you finish what you needed to do on the first place.
E.g.: I have a complicated report to do and I'm avoiding it by watching Netflix. I have no willpower to just go to work on the report so I start by going to the post office to mail that package, then I pass by the supermarket and buy the dishwasher soup that ran out, then I arrive home and clip my nails, then I shave, then I do my laundry and while waiting I clean my room, then at this point the report looks way easier.
I figured it works for me because every little accomplishment helps me feel productive which makes me feel better and with high energy.
Then it becomes an addiction and I just want more stuff to finish and that drives me to eventually do the report.
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Nov 18, 2013
I'm the Director of Operational Excellence at a hospital, and a major part of my job is to increase the problem-solving skills of the people in the organization (nurses, physicians, administrators, etc.). To do this, we teach a system of problem-solving called the Toyota Kata. Like Scott Adams' system for writing, this system is not focused on specific outcomes/goals, but on creating habits that drive learning and build skills. In the problem-solving/process improvement arena, especially when consultants are contracted, the norm is to have a laser focus on goals: improve productivity by x%, reduce cost by y $ per month, etc. This leads to a narrow view of what's important and precludes the emergence of unforeseen opportunities. Our approach, however, is more concerned with how we go about improvement as opposed to what we're actually improving. That's weird to say when we're talking about hospitals, because the "what we're actually improving" piece can be pretty critical. Nonetheless, the "how we go about improvement" part is even more critical in the long-run, because maintaining the integrity of the system is what drives the ongoing learning, skill-building, etc.
Nov 18, 2013
I think Nick Saban would agree that what is important is the system and not the goal, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for him. He regularly preaches that philosophy.

***Disclaimer - ROLL TIDE!!!***
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Nov 18, 2013
I created a 'fit by forty' system that is still working at age 43. It started two years prior to turning 40. I'm male, no physical disabilities and live in a medium / small city with lots of recreational options. Here is the system:

4 pillars:

- muscle mass (weights)
- cardio (moving)
- energy (eating)
- mobility (flexibility)

Cardio was the easiest to start the process with because I can walk, run, cycle, climb stairs, ski, stand up; etc... The key was to start every day figuring out when I was going to move.

Energy was an easy 2nd layer because I had to start drinking lots of water to address the dehydration caused by moving around every day. I also started eating more times a day and smaller amounts each time I ate because I had to find pockets of opportunity to move and couldn't afford to be without energy or too much stuff in my gut.

Mass was the hardest to layer because: it required specialized equipment (gym) and therefore timing, location & expense. The solution came in the form of the YMCA. In my town it is a very nice facility, low price for membership and has a pool, weights, B-Ball courts, etc... so I could alternate moving & lifting and not increase the total required commitment.

Flexibility is the last pillar that I have not yet found a great solution for. I tried yoga (timing & expense issues) and specialized training (expense & expertise) and sitting on the floor in front of the TV (timing & desire); so I still need to make this work better so I can tie my shoes at 70.

All in all, I miss lots of days due to work / travel / hang overs / vacation / cycles of the moon / election day / Monday Night Football... but to the point made in this post, I have a system that let's me plug in every day as if I never missed a beat.
Nov 18, 2013
I think the financial planning industry makes a big mistake with goals vs. systems. They start out their process by figuring out the astronomical and often unattainable amount of money you will need to retire, which simply drives prospects to shove their heads in the sand and/or avoid meeting with them in the first place. Instead, they should emphasize setting up a monthly program to set aside a feasible amount of money, and then let the chips fall where they may regarding how much you'll have at retirement.
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Nov 18, 2013
Meditation, namely, vipassana and metta practices.

If your goal is to reduce stress, you will fail.
If your goal is to keep your mind from racing/worrying, always trying to figure things out, you will fail.
If you find that you are always trying to avoid whats happening now and are always in your mind on your way somewhere else and your goal is to stop that process from happening, you will fail.
If your goal is to bring peace to the world and be kind to yourself and everyone, you will fail.

All that stuff is hard work if you try to force it to happen.

Meditation is like a system. It is a practice where there is no goal, really. But if you do it, you will start to find that things just start to spontaneously happen. Like, you will reduce stress. You will be more calm and happy. You will start to feel more alive and awake and ready for the here and now. Your mind will be more focused. You will start to be more kind to yourself and others. Do it enough and you may even start to feel at one with the Universe.

Nov 18, 2013
I guess I will also say that the way I found your blog was by reading the WSJ.

I read your piece about the impossibility of building an eco-friendly house and loved it.

So your blog is in synergy with the other things that you do. As a system - it worked. I respect that. There are many other positives here and I continue to follow your work.
Nov 18, 2013
Low carb diet. I combine it with the Mediterranean diet and it works. It's also delicious but you have to learn new tricks when you cook.

Where it goes wrong is whenever you go out to eat - because very few restaurants follow the rules. And they load their food with carbs and large portions.
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