Goals vs. Systems OR The right way to make New Year’s resolutions

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Goals vs. Systems

What it is:

It’s that time of the year. We’re all thinking about past resolutions we couldn’t keep, and resolving to be more faithful to our resolutions for the coming year.

Most of our resolutions are of the form: “Next year, I will do X”. Where X could be: “lose 10 pounds”, “run a marathon”, “get up at 5 am everyday”, “hit a million dollars in revenue”.

But point goals such as these have a number of disadvantages:

  • The focusing illusion: When you focus on your goal, it becomes more important in your head than your primary objective (e.g., “to be happy”). Till you realize one day – it’s not making you happy at all.
  • Dependence on outcomes extrinsic to you: Extrinsic goals tie your self-worth to factors that you don’t have complete control on. This (a) reduces intrinsic motivation, and (b) increases irrational risk-taking, as a Harvard study shows.
    Think running a marathon despite a niggle, only because you’d resolved to 9 months ago.
  • Goals can seem overwhelming and amorphous: Sure, you want to get to a million dollars in revenue, but where do you start?

And, as Scott Adams says:

OK, so what should we do instead?

Focus on process. On systems.

 

What does that mean? Break down your goal into its constituent parts – the specific actions you’d take to achieve that goal. Focus on those instead.

Such an approach gives more opportunities for daily victories (“I exercised today”), and sustains motivation.

But more importantly, it also prevents tunnel vision. If something else comes along that’s better than your previous goal, your mind is free to notice it.

Thus, a systems approach takes you from low odds of success to much higher odds.

From “I need to achieve this specific goal, else I fail” to “I’m building skills and creating options, and I’ll take advantage of whatever comes”.

 

Examples in business:

  • Career Planning: Don’t “plan” your career, as Marc Andreessen says in his career guide. Instead, make choices that maximize your future options / upside. Go where the action is.
  • Starting a company: Don’t over-invest in the solution you’re building. Instead, start with the customer. Identify the problem, and experiment with different solutions till one “catches fire”.
    Hypothesize > Test > Rinse and Repeat till you succeed. This is not novel – it’s the Lean Startup approach.
  • Marketing: Don’t try every single new marketing channel to get to 1 Mn users. Instead, use the Bullseye approach – prioritize 3 marketing channels, and experiment with them. Once you saturate them, unlock the next ones.
  • Any risky endeavour: Preserve and generate optionality. Understand how you can maximize potential upside and minimize downside risk.

Stack the cards so that you come out ahead even if you fail (e.g. learn unique / hard-to-replicate skills, build a strong network of influencers, etc.). Plus if Lady Luck smiles, you rake in a windfall.

 

Rules to follow:

  1. Focus on inputs (which you can control), not on outcomes (which you can’t). Create a process for success. Follow the process.
  2. Ask the question: How can you take key extrinsic risks out of the equation? How can you increase the odds of your actions having the desired result?
  3. In any decision, choose the path that creates the most options.

TL:DR: Success is a system (take several high reward / low risk bets), rather than a goal (I want to get rich).

Further Reading:

 

Linked to: Focusing illusion, Antifragility

Filed Under: Decision-making

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