Which is More Important: Goals or Systems?

Consider This

Picture this scenario. There are three men stranded in the ocean each on his own row boat. The first man realizes that he has to make it to land or his supplies will run out so he starts rowing. Unfortunately, he does not know how to row a boat so he picks up a single oar and ends up spending his days rowing around in large circles. The second man also realizes that he needs to reach land and so he sets out in the direction that he had initially been traveling rowing strong and he makes land in 30 days, 5 days after all of his food ran out. The third man, in the same plight as the other two, through careful consideration knows that he came to this spot from the east only two days ago and so he sets off towards the rising sun and makes it to land in 5 days. (For those considerate few, this man sent a rescue party back for the first and all of them survived.)

How does this relate to systems and goals? Well think about it such that rowing is a system to accomplish the fairly obvious goal of getting to land.

All three men had the same goal and used the same system. What happened then that they all had different results? Well the first man is an example of focusing on his system but failing to realize his system was flawed in that it was not getting him any closer to his goal. The second man had a good system but failed to clearly define his goal which would have contributed to the success of the system. The third man had a clear goal and created a system that achieved that goal as efficiently as possible.

A Few Definitions

What’s all this about? I read an article earlier called “Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.” and actually rather enjoyed it. On the flip side, though, I felt like something was missing from the post. Even though the article gives examples of systems and goals, the author never went into an exact definition of such. The American Dictionary of the English Language defines a goal as “the end to which a design tends, or which a person aims to reach or accomplish” while a system is “a whole plan or scheme consisting of many parts connected in such a manner as to create a chain of mutual dependencies.”

Though these might be a bit wordy, I feel like everyone has a general feeling of what these ideas are. Goals are those things that we set down to accomplish and systems are the methods that we use to reach those goals. However, if you break systems down, what are they if not a set of cohesive, successive goals? If you think about it, systems are merely sets of micro-goals that lead up to some type of macro-goal. Macro-goals given purpose and direction to micro-goals. While micro-goals give traction and form to macro-goals.

The author states towards the end of his article that “goals [macro-goals] are good for planning your progress and systems [micro-goals] are good for actually making progress.” This sounds really good, but ultimately focusing on your systems is like building a house without laying a foundation. It may look good, but when it comes down to it the house is doomed to falter.

Why Both Matter

Your goals in life matter and how you accomplish those goals matters. However, what matters far and away more is what your goals actually are.

The author gives examples of goals as winning a championship, writing a book, running a marathon, or building a million-dollar company. These are all great goals, but as the author points out there are flaws in these goals and that is that they are not ultimately satisfying.

If you wrap your whole self into these goals it may be electrifying to achieve them, but they will, in the end, leave you dry and wanting. You can try to avoid the problem by focusing on your systems, but in reality you will actually end up in the same position. You see, the problem is not that these goals are not big. The problem is that they are not big enough.

Many of us go through life focusing on the big outcomes, but usually we neglect the things that matter most in life. What if instead of focusing on the championship, book, marathon, or business, we focused on using the time, talent, and treasures we have been given to make an impact on those around us through our leadership, words, efforts, and skills?

How you do something definitely matters and I strive to do everything I do with excellence. But it is the reason behind and the object of that striving that matters so much more than how I actually do it. The important distinction is that I am not pursuing excellence. I am, however imperfectly, pursuing Him who is excellent.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Paul (Philippians 3:14)
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