Is Goal Setting The Best Path To Success?


Almost everyone tells us we should be setting goals.

SMART goals.

BHAG goals.

Choose a definite chief aim.

But does it work?

Is setting and pursuing goals the best way to achieve success?

I was reading Scott Adam’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life recently (Adams is the creator of the successful Dilbert comic strip).

It’s a great read, and full of useful insights.

Adams is against goal-setting.

He thinks there’s a better way: systems:

“My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals … If you know some extra successful people, ask some probing questions about how they got where they did. I think you’ll find a system at the bottom of it all, and usually some extraordinary luck.”

From goals to systems

A system need not be complicated. For example, it could just be “try things until something works”:

“The smartest system for discerning your best path to success involves trying lots of different things—sampling, if you will. For entrepreneurial ventures it might mean quickly bailing out if things don’t come together quickly.”

Why does Adams reject goal-setting?

For Adams, the biggest issues with goals are that:

  • Goals create a sense of lack until you achieve your goal. And when you do get there, the feeling of success wears off rapidly.
  • Focusing on achieving goals doesn’t build momentum for what happens after achieving the goal – except by setting another goal.

Adams writes:

“… if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.
If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

Adams is not alone in taking issue with goal setting, and advocating for systems.

A quick exploration in Google brought up some interesting perspectives.

For example, in relation to sport, Justin Brown writes in ideapod:

“I once ran a marathon in 2012, which I consider one of my greatest achievements. About six months before the marathon, I set the goal of finishing it.

I started running every day, quickly improving my fitness levels. All of my efforts were focused on achieving this goal.

Finishing the marathon is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. Yet after I achieved that goal, my running ground to a halt. I didn’t have the goal to motivate me anymore.

Instead, if I had have been focused on the process of running every week, I may still be running today. I may have run many more marathons in the last 5 years.”

Brown explicitly advocates for systems, in all areas of life:

“If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your process, would you still get your results?

My proposition is that you would. In fact, you would more likely achieve success.”

Psychologist Adam Alter also advocates systems over long-term goals, for the same reasons that Adams does.

He suggests that if you are writing a book, then having a system to work on the book for a certain number of hours each day or write a certain number of words each day is likely to lead to greater long-term success.

Of course, systems and goals are related. We might create a system with a goal in mind, and working in a system might develop goals as we go.

Adams acknowledges this:

“You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose.

All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power.

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess 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.”

From a scientific point of view, Goal-setting is a complex area. There’s been a lot of research undertaken into what works, when it works and why it works, and what doesn’t work.

If you’re interested, much of it the lessons psychologists and others have learned about pursuing goals “the right way” have been summed up by Heidi Halvorson in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

In the meanwhile, Scott Adams’ idea of a system for success is a strong one and worth some reflection and application.

Let me know what you think.

About Me

I am passionate about activating human potential – helping make the world a better place.

I work with smart, creative leaders – transformation leaders such as coaches and consultants, thought leaders such as speakers and authors, and change agents and difference-makers –  to help them make a bigger difference through their work.

I focus on the areas of strategy, alignment, and full-expression – turning your ideas and expertise into messages that cut through and programs, services or products that make a difference.

I do what I can to improve the thinking and tools we have available in our industry and in the world.

You can learn more about me from my home page 

Connect For Updates

Like this article? Would you like to get updates about new articles and subscriber-only content?

Subscribe for regular updates from me at You can opt out at any time.

You can find me on LinkedIn at

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *