The Anti-New Year’s Resolution: Systems, not Goals.

I ended 2013 uncharacteristically grumpy. I felt on the brink of tears or anger for much of the last couple of weeks of the year, without really being able to identify why.I found it depressing to look back at the year, knowing I didn’t accomplish all I wanted to, finding small solace in the few milestones that I could recollect. I’m not quite sure where I think I should be by now, but my feeling of dissatisfaction lingered and made me an unpleasant person to be around.

What, I wondered, will make 2014 any better?

Chocolate is the first thing that comes to mind, but I know that is only a temporary solution. And unfortunately, one that runs counter to my larger intention to make healthy food choices.

Ok, ruling that out, I got serious thinking about what was causing this funk and how to make a shift. I recalled a chapter in Scott Adams’ new book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” The book is an insightful and entertaining read in which he describes his trek to success. (Spoiler alert: fail until you succeed.) Along the way, he discovered things that worked for him, one of them being using “systems” rather than having “goals.”

He writes that “a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.” For example, “in the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system.” He acknowledges that the distinction between “goals” and “systems” can be murky, so he says, “let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done-with-it situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life.”

What really struck me was his oh-so-true-for-me description of what it’s like to have goals and why they don’t work: “Goal oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their system, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.”

A personal example for me is that some years ago I got tired of feeling like crap after a night out because I had too much alcohol. Even with all my good intentions to drink in moderation, my judgment would begin to falter as I imbibed. (As we know, judgment does not get BETTER when one drinks more.) So I would end up drinking too much and paying for it the next day. I knew that I could have up to two drinks in a night and feel fine the next day. Two drinks were plenty to be able to enjoy myself and not feel deprived. Yet time after time I would drink two, say “what the hell” and order the third.

Eventually I figured out that if I started my night with a non-alcoholic drink and then alternated my drinks from alcoholic to non-alcoholic that I could still, say, enjoy a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and not feel the desire to drink more. After reading Adam’s book, I realized that what works about this is that it’s a system. Every time I apply the system, I feel fine at the end of the evening and normal the next day. Any time I don’t apply the system, I feel sick. Having the “every other” system in place means that I don’t have to make any decisions when I’m in no frame of mind to do so about whether to order that next drink.

Here’s another reason that goals don’t work. Often goals like, “I’m going to lose weight!” come at moments such as when we are standing on the scale and don’t like what the number says. We then make declarations about future action like eating healthy at a time when we are not actually faced with the feeling of hunger or the offer of homemade cookies from a co-worker. And once we are faced with those experiences, the sting of the scale has worn off and we can’t relate to why it was so important to eat only vegetables all day. No amount of pre-socializing promises I made to drink moderately, or post hangover regret was ever enough to carry me through while I was in the social situations where I demonstrated poor judgment. One reason for this is because those moments of agony and subsequent declaration come from external, temporary motivators based on how you feel in the moment. Later, when you feel differently, you won’t have the same motivation.

An added benefit of using systems is that if something goes awry and I don’t apply the system as I would have liked, I can simply look back and say that the reason that it didn’t work was because I didn’t apply the system, NOT that I am a loser who can’t ever keep promises to myself. Usually, we will look inward to find the flaw that causes us to not achieve our goals. Then we put an effort into fixing that flaw. The breakdown in this logic is that there’s not actually anything wrong with us, so attempting to fix ourselves is futile. Instead, acknowledging that it didn’t work because you didn’t apply the system you know works is a neutral way to allow you to recommit to applying the system next time.

Even though I know that the new year is a time concept made up by mankind, one tiny blip in the eternity that is our universe, there is something powerful about the turning of the page to one that is fresh and new. It gives us the opportunity to let go of what isn’t working and embrace new possibilities. This year, set yourself up to win. For each goal or resolution you might have set, think about a system that you can put into place instead. Put those systems into practice and over time you are sure to experience success.


If you have aspirations to create great things in 2014 – and your life – then plan to attend the next Extraordinary Living Series seminar “New Year’s Resolutions: Friend or Foe?” Here are just some of the things you’ll learn at the event:

• How systems – not goals – will ensure your success
• Why the amount of time, money and resources you have has no impact on what you can accomplish
• One simple trick about asking that can make all the difference
• Why setting goals to “fix” something about yourself is pointless
• Eight common ways we sabotage our success

Date: January 15, 2014
Time: 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM (Doors open at 7:15 PM)
Location: Ripley Grier Studios; 520 8th Ave., NYC, Room 17A
Tuition: $10

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