Goals used to be my best friend. I would chart them out for the next day, write them down again in the morning, and then spend the rest of my day hacking away at the tasks on my list, one-by-one.
Sounds sexy, right?
Our culture is into setting goals now. For a brief time, I too was obsessed with this intentional culture. We, as people who love goals, flock to those who have mysteriously turned their life around by following their bucket lists. We love our goals—from the way they make us look to how they make us feel (when they’re accomplished that is).
But now, I doubt my goal setting did much for my productivity.
I’ve been helping many people set effective goals, but if I’m honest, I don’t set that many goals anymore. What I do instead is build effective habits and systems, and see where they take me.
The truth is, there is a greater advantage to building a habit than there is to setting a goal. Knowing this advantage might line you up for continual success rather than the ephemeral thrill of accomplishing goals.
Jesus Didn’t Set Goals
During my time of obsessive goal setting, I was shocked to see that Jesus never set goals. He never woke up in the morning and said, “OK, I’m going to heal 30 people today.” There was no quota or list He had to meet.
So can we still say Jesus was intentional?
Of course we can. In fact, the way we see Him lead His life and perform His actions are very intentional. The difference though, is that He didn’t do much planning—not like we do today at least.
Jesus wasn’t goal-minded; He was mission-minded. And the mission of Jesus was full of healthy habits, not achievable goals.1
He had the habit of following teaching with action. He had the habit of adhering to His mission no matter what. He had the habit of affirming the disciples in their faults. All these habits led to an effective system.
Systems are the actions you set forth by habit. For instance, you can have a goal of becoming an A-student, but the system in doing this is building a habit of studying every day between 5 and 8. If you build the habit and system, the results will eventually come. You don’t need to set a goal.
In fact, Jesus never set goals. Instead, He focused on the systems He had in place—things such as healing in each town, equipping the disciples and teaching in public places. These were habits that moved together, like gears in a machine, to form an effective system.
What’s Wrong With Goals?
The reason I became disenchanted with goal setting was largely because I felt controlled by my list. It had way too much pull on my emotional state. Whenever I couldn’t cross a goal off my list, I felt guilty about it. Not only that, but I also felt disappointment whenever a goal didn’t go as I would’ve planned.
So I ditched my goals.
In my time away from goals, I stopped measuring my days, and it was relieving. I instead poured my efforts into building healthy work habits that would result in highly effective systems.
I built a habit of writing each morning from 5 to 7. I added more time by reworking my habit of checking my smart phone. I made the habit to look for inspiring content each morning. All these added together placed me in a system where I kept creating. Goals wouldn’t have done that.
Here are some other things I learned about goal setting:
1. Goals limit possibilities.
When you build a system, a number of things can arise out of it. But when you have a goal, you’re not going to be happy unless you accomplish it and move on. Expand your possibilities with systems.
2. Goals are more short-term.
Systems set you up to continually find success. Goals, however, give you a short-term success that eventually fades.
3. Goals are about being disciplined for a long period of time. Systems are about being disciplined only long enough to build a habit out of something.
This is why so many people burnout from their goals. They try to be hyper-focused all the time to accomplish them. And then, they give up. Systems, however, only require you to be disciplined for a brief amount of time, until you establish a habit.
4. Goals eventually end. Systems keep you doing.
Once you accomplish a goal, you can either stop, or plan another goal. It gives you a brief victory. On the other side, you never really stop once you have a system in place. You instead keep working, which is really what any endeavor needs for success—continual work and commitment.
Goals have a short battery life. They can help you, but they’re not the example we have for living a meaningful life. An effective life is one with the right systems in place, not one that pursued the right goals.
My habits are what’s keeping me productive now—not my goals. I never once doubted my decision to focus on habits. I hope you can say the same thing for your productivity.