“I don’t have goals because I want to be free. I only apply systems.” - Naval Ravikant
We all have goals. I'm sure you have one too. Goals tell who we are. They define us.
Some have goals of travelling around the world. Others of starting a business. Or taking up cycling. Writing a book. Retiring on a beach. Learning to speak fluent French.
Every now and then I stumble across people who claim about the importance of systems instead of goals. One in particular, is Scott Adams. He said, “Goals are for losers! Goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. If 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. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do and feeling good about it. That's a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”
That said, should goals always be the one we are striving for? Or should we forget about them and instead, focus on systems?
Goals vs Systems
There is a distinction to be made when talking about goals and systems. Goals are specific objectives that you either achieve or do sometime in the future. Systems are the set of routines you do on a regular basis.
If your goal is to build a multi-million dollar business, your system is the sales and marketing process.
If your goal is to write a book, your system is the writing schedule you follow each week.
If your goal is to run a marathon, your system is the running schedule for the month.
The things you do every day is your system. But if this is something you’re waiting to achieve someday in the future, it’s a goal.
Of course if you're not pursuing your goals, the real question is what's stopping you?
Ready, Aim, Fire!
“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is heading for, no wind is the right wind." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Many of our goals are too nebulous. They lack specificity. We do not know what to achieve and why. As Aristotle once said: “Are we not more likely to hit the mark if we have a target?”
In his book Seeking Wisdom, Peter Bevelin writes, “Meaningful goals need to be backed by reasons as a way of testing that we set the right goal.” He even compiled a step-by-step process to comprehend them:
1. Clearly define your goals. Don't say: “I want to be financially independent.” Be concrete. For example: “I want to have a net worth of $1 million dollars in five years.”
2. Focus on the outcome you want.
3. Be realistic and logical - what can and can't be achieved? Low goals may produce low performance and unrealistic goals may cause people to cheat. As Seneca once said: “Never work either for useless goals, or impossible ones.”
4. Measurable aim.
5. Tailor the goals to your individual needs.
6. Stay flexible. Ask: “Given the present situation, what is the best course of action to take?”
When we are able to comprehend our goals, they become clear. They give us direction. They also allow us to focus our time and set daily priorities. We feel powerful and confident. We can visualize what we have accomplished. Without them, we drift and fall into a meaningless life cycle of working, eating, sleeping, exercising, and watching television. And after a while, it becomes an existential ennui.
By having clear goals, we feel motivated. They empower our lives with purpose because we know exactly what we want. However, outlining goals is one thing. Achieving them is another.
Goals with a System
At this point, it is the end for many of us. We simply just plan! How many New Year’s resolution have you written and realized you had no progress at year's end? Maybe you’ve decided to keep the same goals for the following year, and ended up with the same outcome - again. By the third year, you’ve probably given up writing your goals.
Are you one of them?
Believe me, I’ve been in those shoes before. I constantly lament about achieving some progress, even for just a little. But I got nothing! I didn’t have systems to help achieve my goals.
After giving the matter more than a little thought, I've decided to define systems as I see it. I make no claim this list is exhaustive. Nevertheless, this is what works for me.
First, I narrow my goals list down to four main goals. Think in terms of a long-term personal growth and development goal, a long-term health goal, a long-term wealth-building goal, and a long-term personal-relationship goal. These are my top priorities, my bottom-line objectives. You can pick your own top priorities.
Next, convert these into annual goals and then break them down further into manageable, weekly objectives.
Then spend an hour once a week, establishing your priorities for the next seven days.
Finally, spend about thirty minutes each evening organizing tomorrow's objectives.
Was that hard to understand? Language is messy, I know. So let’s take a closer look.
I’m always fond of my personal growth and development. And for a while now, I realized that I love writing a bunch of words. Some friends called it a talent. But for me, it is a way to express my thoughts and communicate with myself and to others who share the same ideas. Most of my writings are experiences and things done, but they are also important failures I’ve learned. I only wish to share my stories so you would not make the same mistakes as I did.
One of my student asked, “William, when will you finish your book?” And I said, “You’ll know when it’s done.” The truth is, writing a book is not as easy as what some people think. I can’t sit around and write everyday. I’m not the depressing gloomy type. And even if I could, I can’t possibly create excellent essays everyday. A good essay needs to be drafted, checked and re-checked again before publishing. So I write when I have breaks in between lectures, while commuting, sometimes during meals. And I publish biweekly. It is my system. As long as I keep writing essays like this every two weeks, I should have enough words to cover an entire book in less than three years.
Health is another matter that is important to me. Many would agree physical exercise is a primary factor to maintain a healthy body. Exercises such as running, swimming, and cycling are beneficial for building and maintaining cardiovascular health, weightlifting for increasing bone density, and yoga for great flexibility. My system is to do at least one of them daily. Then there is the concept of nutrition: “Our bodies are mirrors of what we eat.” In other words, eating healthful foods equal to a healthy body. Yet, we still make poor food choices. There are numerous literatures on nutrition systems and other authors are better experts than me. So it's best to leave this part for your nutritionist to explain what is appropriate for you.
However, the most common dilemma in today’s society is the lack of restoration. We focus too much on work, exercising or other daily things that recovery gets overlooked. Like a car that is constantly running but never visits the mechanic. To tackle this, I spend about two hours every morning tinkering and restoring my physical, mental, and spiritual being. From meditation for mental clarity and spiritual well-being, to tai-chi for physical dexterity and qigong for longevity, I harvest them all. Fundamentally, there is no need to worry about being healthy because the system puts me in a healthy state each day.
And who doesn’t love money? It is one of the oldest stories ever told in human civilization. Let’s be clear, there is no need for a day off. I can’t remember the last time I took a day off since I became a teacher. But the good news is, I DO take mini-retirements every two or three months to recharge. If you truly love what you do, then do it every day, and money will find you. Soon, you'll be on a beach, lavishing your retirement. Perhaps, once you’re able to put food on the table for your family, care for them, and fulfill other needs, you will realize money is just a story after all. Sadly, people’s addiction to money have completely enslaved them.
“The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time,” said Yuval Noah Harari. “It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”
What about personal relationship and family time? Well, we should set aside some time for them. For the past several years, my wife and I never missed our conversation time every evening because we both understand that twenty minutes every day, compounds to something big over a decade. This is pertinent when building relationships with any of your loved ones. When someone carps about their shortage or lack of time, it is because they are doing too many things for someone else’s goals. And what is life if it is not yours?
I’ve said a lot. But it’s very simple. Define it. Systemize it. Achieve it.
And let me teach you The Secret. You know, the secret that makes mastery easy and success a given. That it was obvious made me wonder why it’s such a mystery to some people: “Do it every day and try really hard.”
Tragedy to Triumph
Contrary to what Scott Adams claimed, initially we should define our goals to have a clear vision and purpose as well as a sense of direction. Having goals is like a tool in the moment. We use it as a medium. To change who we were into who we want to become.
I do agree that achieving your goals is not the destination, however. Once we are able to systemize our priorities, goals become irrelevant. It can be put aside like we set down a hammer when the problem is no longer the nail. When we are transformed, naturally we must use new tools to carve a new path ahead.
Unfortunately, some of us never made an attempt to take that first step. It is because our fear of failure. Even though we may actually gain something much larger, regardless of whether we actually achieve our goals. Henry David Thoreau once said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
“The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal,” said African American minister Benjamin Mays. “The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It isn’t a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim, is a sin.”
So follow Thoreau's advice and live the life that you've imagined.
As Mark Twain observed, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”