Goals vs. Systems: An Example

Note to my future self…

A goal is to wake up at 5am every day. A system is to go sleep by 9pm every day.

Lately, I’ve been investing a lot of time in shifting my energy from a goal-oriented to a systems-oriented approach. The purpose is to focus my time, energy, money and other resources in building habits, processes and systems that will over time time increase my happiness baseline. If I do this correctly, achieving specific goals will be inevitable.

There are also many problems with over-relying on goals including:

  1. Once you achieve your goals you have nothing to look forward to and this can create a substantial emotional dip and a lot of cognitive dissonance. This can explain why a lot of people gain back weight if their goal was only to reach a specific weight. It might also explain why people that want to make a lot of money feel a huge void once they do.
  2. Goals make you feel like a looser. If my goal is to loose 10 pounds or make $10 million and I don’t have a system to get me there, then every day that I am not 10 pounds lighter or $10 million wealthier I feel terrible. This might sound extreme but think about it. Your brain has nothing to feel good about because it feels that it hasn’t accomplished anything.

Now the point of this post is to highlight a specific example of how I switched from having a goal to creating a habit.

So for a while now I’ve been trying to improve my sleep specially the time at which I wake up. I’ve realized that waking up early is one of those decisive moments in my day that has tremendous downstream effects throughout my day. For the last couple of months my goal has been to wake up at 5am. However, this week I decided to change my focus and try to be in bed by 9pm. You could argue that this is also a goal and it is but it’s a lot less arbitrary than waking up at 5am. If I have to be in bed by 9pm I know that there are a couple of steps (a system) that I have to take in order to get there. For example, I can start reading in bed so that I stop using my phone and I can give my brain some time to associate reading in bed with going to sleep. The outcome is essentially the same but how I get there is quite different.

A big reason to adopt this new method of going to sleep by 9pm is that it makes the process a lot less stressful. If I go to sleep at 9, I will wake up early no matter what. It’s quite effortless. On the other hand, there is nothing that requires more willpower than waking up at 5 if you’re tired. You just want to stay in bed “5” more minutes. This is also one of the main appeals of adopting systems over goals. If done correctly, having a great system in place should be effortless so that you can use your cognitive resources for important decisions.


Turn your goals into systems. If done correctly, your core behaviors should feel effortless. I still haven’t nailed down going to bed by 9pm but I am making some progress. I will report back with any updates.

Now back to work…