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Here’s What Scott Adams Says About Goals

“A person making a checklist in a notebook” by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
Scott Adams: Creator of Dilbert By Mike Cernovich — Mike Cernovich Twitter, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68568727

Goals are for losers.

That’s according to Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

He puts his success down to an alternative approach to goal setting.

Early in his career, Adams built a system whereby he created in public — and gauged how the public reacted.

Examples of his creations include businesses, different types of writing and comic strips.

In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, he wrote, “By being systems oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project I happened to be working on.”

The Problem With Goals

Goals give you something to work toward, but accomplishments are fleeting.

What’s more, if the goal is particularly difficult to achieve, working on it without seeing tangible progress induces feelings of stress. You also might not be able to control the outcome of a goal because of changing circumstances.

For example, an executive could set a goal of becoming a manager within a business only for the company to rearrange itself due to financial cutbacks and reduce the number of managerial roles.

This puts achieving the goal in question beyond the executive’s reach, at least in the short- and medium-term.

Adams wrote, Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”

What A System Looks Like

Systems are a lot like habits in that they represent things you do consistently. They’re the manifestation of your values, beliefs and vision.

For example, a runner might set the painfully ambitious goal of running a marathon in under three hours. Or he could create a system whereby he trains four to five times a week at specific times and logs the results of each session.

Similarly, a coach might set a goal of finding 10 new clients for her online business by the end of the month. Woe betide her if it’s the twenty-fifth of the month and she hasn’t found any leads.

On the other hand, she could create a system whereby she sets aside an hour each day for sales calls, sending relevant emails to engaged members of her email list and working on her coaching offer.

How To Create Your First System

You don’t need a PhD in psychology to create a system. Instead, track your output and activities and review what’s working and not working.

Spreadsheets work particularly well for systems. For example, let’s say you want to write a nonfiction book by the end of the year. You’ll need a system to track what and how often you write, as well as the status of each book chapter.

So create a spreadsheet tracking these metrics in individual columns. You could also add a column to your spreadsheet with notes about your progress and refine your system over time.

Similarly, the coach could track the number of sales calls she makes each day, and our runner could track his or her daily runs in a log.

Testing Your System

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, advocates holding a weekly review.

He wrote:

…the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again. It’s going through the five phases of workflow management — collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding involvements — until you can honestly say, ‘I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.’

This review is the ideal time for identifying what’s working and not working within your system. Our ambitious coach might decide to contact five instead of three clients each day.

And our procrastinating writer might decide to increase his daily word count from 300 to 500 words daily.

As your system develops, you won’t need to spend as much time tracking activities, and you should naturally progress in areas like fitness, finances or your business.

So, Are Goals Really for Losers?

If you work for a company goals are almost impossible to avoid, and you’ll need to set some if you want to advance.

So rather than abandoning goals altogether, combine them with a system, and then experience the best of both approaches.