Can You Abandon Goal Setting … and Still Achieve?

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What do Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie and Brian Tracy have in common? They’re all accomplished professional speakers and authors of best-selling books on goal setting. But could simply focusing on a system of behavior rather than the goal itself help us achieve just as much? Some people think so.

If you want to achieve something, you should set a goal. We’ve all heard this. Without these targets we will be directionless, we are told. Additionally, we are encouraged to write our goals down, to segment them into short- and long-term objectives and to eliminate things that distract us.  

  • “A goal properly set is halfway reached,” said Zig Ziglar.
  • “Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement,” said Brian Tracy
  • “People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going,” said Earl Nightingale.

Yet a looming list of goals can be daunting. Can we achieve without them? Does this goal-setting approach work for everyone? Does it make us so intent on the goal that we miss signals telling us to adapt?

Systems instead of goals?

James Clear, writer at, believes that by focusing on systems rather than goals, we can still get great results, with less stress. He explains the difference between goals and systems: “If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.”

He suggests that focusing on long-range goals actually keeps us from being happy today. “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”

This is somewhat contrary to psychological research. An article for Psychology Today maintains that the “psychology of action and personal goals clearly indicates that the successful pursuit of meaningful goals plays an important role in the development and maintenance of our psychological well-being. To the extent that we’re making progress on our goals, we’re happier emotionally and more satisfied with our lives.” (Psychological research does mention breaking down goals into smaller tasks to help ensure that we do make progress.)

Clear suggests that choosing a goal actually puts a huge burden on your shoulders. He suggests that by focusing on a process or system instead, you simplify your life and cut stress. And you can better enjoy the moment.

Clear further advises that goals can actually diminish long-term progress, because once achieved we stop the behavior that got us there in the first place.

Finally, Clear is a proponent of a system of progress checks. His solution: Evaluate periodically to make sure you’re still headed in the right direction without attaching a number. Positive motion indicates you’re doing something right. Flat or negative progress means you need to adjust.

No two people are exactly the same. Tightly defined goals work for some people. But for many, hard work in a systematic way will take us far in moving forward and keep us happy in the process.


Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.