Lose 15lbs. Finish a triathlon. Write a best-selling novel. Hit a million dollars in sales. It seems like at any given moment, pretty much everyone I know is working towards a goal, both business and personal.
Setting ambitious goals and constantly pushing ourselves to be better in some way is something that’s completely ingrained in our country. From a very young age, we’re taught the more we achieve, the better we are.
So we set goals for ourselves without really stopping to examine our motivations. WHY are we setting these goals? Often times, we set goals because we feel we’re not good enough as we are. We feel we need to be better, faster, stronger, and setting a goal will help get us there.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about wanting to better ourselves, but there’s definitely something wrong with thinking we’re not enough as we are. The self-limiting belief that we’re in some way flawed creates a vicious cycle; because we feel we’re lacking, we don’t hit our goals. And because we don’t hit our goals, we feel we’re lacking. So we end up walking around with endless to-do lists of things we want to accomplish and spinning our wheels only to find ourselves further away from achieving them than when we wrote the list.
But what if I told you that the key to achievement – and happiness – isn’t setting goals? That setting goals can actually hold you back from performing and achieving at your highest level? And that goals, even when you hit them, might actually be keeping you from feeling truly happy?
YOU are not the problem. It’s your belief that setting goals is the way to get where you want to go. There’s a better way to accomplish everything you dream of – and be happier than you could imagine along the way.
My research led me to seek out how top athletes and performers in the world behave differently, and they all have this one thing in common: they don’t focus on goals. They focus on systems.
So what do I mean when I say “systems?” Well, if the goal is the finish line, think of the system as the road map to get you there. It’s the pattern of thoughts, behaviors, habits actions, and reactions that take you from point A: where you are now, to point B: where you want to be.
So, if your goal is to lose 15lbs, then your system would be your daily meal plan and exercise program. If you wanted to finish a triathlon, the system would be the time you spend each week in the pool, on your bike, and on the road. So, if the goal is the end, the the system is the means.
And when you focus on the means, it gets you to the same end – it’ll just be a faster, better performing, and happier ride.
So, before we jump into how systems can drastically improve your level of achievement and happiness, let’s take a look at the problem with goals.
We’ve all been conditioned to set goals. Setting goals is something that’s associated with top performers, with high achievers, with people that get things done. In our minds, there’s a direct link between success and setting goals.
But we’ve been conditioned to follow a flawed system. Because goals don’t actually help us achieve more. In fact, they might hold us back.
Goals set you up to feel like you’re lacking. Because you haven’t achieved the goal, you’re not good enough as is. James Clear summed this up brilliantly in his article on goals:
“When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”
The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.”
Self-love is an important component of both success and happiness, and if you start from a place where you’re already perceiving yourself as not-good-enough, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Being hyper-focused on a goal also takes the enjoyment out of the process. It becomes about the destination, not the journey.
When all you think about is hitting a goal, you don’t really slow down and experience the growth and joy within the process of getting there. So, for example, if you’re only focused on finishing a triathlon and getting that medal, you’re not going to fully experience the quiet contentment in those early morning training runs or sunset bike rides with your training team.
You might also be sadly surprised when you hit your goal that it doesn’t make you as happy as you thought it would. Hitting goals can cause momentary spikes in happiness, but the real joy comes from all the little moments of growth you experience on the ride.
When all you care about is the destination, you miss out on all the beauty in the journey.
Another problem with goals is that once you hit them… that’s pretty much it. Because you were so focused on achieving that specific goal, once you get there, there’s really nowhere else to go. You’ve essentially put a cap on your own potential for growth.
So, setting goals isn’t the answer to achieving your greatest potential for success or for happiness.
But systems are.
By switching your focus from your goals to the habits you need to cultivate in order to get there, you’ll not only improve your performance (and, as a byproduct, hit your goals), but you’ll be a much happier and more content person along the way.
Strong systems are the secret sauce that the best coaches in the world use to inspire the best performance from their teams. Tony Dungy, one of the most celebrated coaches of all time, based his entire coaching method around systems and instilling habitual responses in his athletes, which was the key to the Colts victory in Super Bowl XLI. Systems are what elite athletes use to constantly raise the bar on what’s possible. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, follows the exact same race-day regimen every time he swims.
Systems increase performance. But how?
By establishing a system of habits, you’re actually programming your brain and body to react automatically to certain stimuli. So, instead of thinking “how am I going to run this race?”, your system triggers an automatic response, allowing you to do, not think. This “flow state” is what will have you performing at your highest level and outperforming your competition, whether it’s on the field or in the workplace.
In addition to increasing your performance potential, systems can actually increase your happiness, as well.
Just setting goals can hold us back from happiness. They place happiness just out of your reach at some distant point in the future.
But when you shift your focus from the goal to the process of reaching that goal, you get to live in the present. You get to celebrate the journey without worrying about the destination.
So, going back to the triathlon example, if you shift your focus from the goal (finishing the triathlon) to the system (training for the triathlon), you get to enjoy and celebrate all the milestones along the way – the first time you swim 400 meters without stopping, the amazing trail run you discovered, or increasing your bike time by a minute.
Happiness exists within the present. If you keep looking for happiness in the future, you’ll fall short. But when you focus on systems, you get to discover all the happiness that exists in every moment.
By shifting your focus from goals to developing habitual systems, you’ll be able to increase your performance, reach your highest potential at work and in life, and find much more enjoyment and happiness along the way.
Takeaway: Life isn’t about the destination (the goal). It’s about the journey (the system).
Action Item: Take a look at your goals list, and then reverse engineer them to come up with your daily systems. How can you shift your focus from your goals to your systems and change your daily routine to increase your happiness and performance?
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