Think systems, not goals

As the end of the year draws closer, our attention turns inevitably to what we want to achieve in the twelve months to come. It might be a personal goal or a professional one. Or perhaps something for our team. Or for the organisation as a whole. But setting ourselves goals and targets might not, it turns out, be the best way to go at all.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman suggests that goal setting and performance targets do little other than set us up for failure. If we meet our targets or achieve our goals, then that’s great. But if we don’t, we see ourselves as having failed. And if, as Burkeman says, we ‘approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved’, we risk living ‘in a state of near-continuous failure’.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t much relish the though of living in a state of near-continuous failure. So I was relieved to see that Burkeman has a solution. And the answer, he says, is to focus on systems, not goals. By system, he means ‘something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run, regardless of the immediate outcome’.

So rather than trying to get fit and setting a target of running a marathon in four hours, Burkeman suggests, just resolve to take some form of exercise each day. You won’t get the surge of adrenaline that comes with achieving your running goal, but you don’t run the risk of feeling a failure, either, when you cross the line in 4:05:00. And you’ll still achieve the fitness that you were looking for in the first place.

I’ve recently experienced an example of this exact phenomenon in my own running activities. My brother-in-law and I each ran a (different) half-marathon last October. His aim was to finish in under 1:50, while mine was to run well and to enjoy myself. We both finished in about 1:52. He was inconsolable. I had a great time.

That said, I’m not entirely convinced that we can do away entirely with our goals and targets. They do, after all, still have their place from time to time. But I would agree that we don’t always need them. So rather than aiming to respond to all emergency ambulance calls in eight minutes, for example, how about just trying to get to all of them as quickly as possible.

I mean, it doesn’t change what we actually do (i.e. getting an ambulance to someone quickly), but it does mean that we don’t beat ourselves up if we fail to meet an abstract target that someone dreamed up just for the sake of having a target. After all, we only ever talk about performance targets when we’re not meeting them. And perhaps it’s not the activity that’s the problem, but our ability to set reasonable targets (and allocate sufficient resources) in the first place.

So as you start to ponder what you want to do in the New Year, try thinking systems rather than goals. Don’t set grandiose targets that sound great but translate poorly into reality, just choose what you want to do and keep chipping away at it. You’ll get there in the end. And you won’t feel such a failure in the process.

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