Systems Not Goals

Friday, December 11, 2015
By dreeves

Cover of Scott Adams's book, *How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big*

My cofounder and I are proud to be featured on the latest Sources & Methods podcast. One of many things we talk about in that episode is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s claim that goals are for losers. We’ve decided that our response to that needs to be its own blog post.

So, for those just tuning in, here’s our response: Adams is absolutely correct. Goals are the worst.

What you want is systems for ever-increasing awesomeness. That’s what the most successful people use, at least the ones Adams knows. By “system” Adams means “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”

In fact, let me quote Adams at length to nail down the differences between systems and goals:

If you do something every day, its a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. […] 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. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good everytime they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

Don’t you rave about “goals” 1700 times all over Beeminder?

Yes, but this is a mere terminology problem. Beeminder is the very embodiment of systems over goals.

“Beeminder is the very embodiment of systems over goals”

If we want to salvage the term, we can clarify that we’re talking about S.M.A.R.T.(E.R.) goals, which are quite immune to Adams’s criticism. I often refer to Beeminder graphs rather than Beeminder goals, to emphasize the data-oriented process of continuous progress, rather than an eventual end state.

The classic example of weight loss drives home the distinction. Better than a goal of losing 10 pounds is to have systems for living healthier. In fact, most Beeminder goals don’t have success criteria. They’re things like “work out at least 3 times a week, forever” or “spend an hour a day writing, forever” or “keep my weight below 100 kilograms, forever”.


Image credit: Scott Adams’s book, obviously. Which I should confess I haven’t actually read but I did read Scott Adams’s article in the Wall Street Journal about it.

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  • Simon Melhart

    “Beeminder is the very embodiment systems over goals.”

    Are you still giving prizes for typos? Just keeping you on your toes. :)

  • Daniel Reeves

    Nice catch! Thank you! I offer $20 typo bounties for my Messy Matters blog. For the Beeminder blog that might seem an imprudent business expense so instead we would love to send you stickers as a small token of our gratitude. Just send your smail mail address to

    PS: It’s possible I’m confused about what prizes I’ve offered where. If I’m contradicting myself I’ll be very grateful to know it!

  • c6h10o5

    [just to continue this fancy trend of nitpicking] I think it should be either “snail mail address” or “smail address”, since “smail” = snail + mail

  • Daniel Reeves

    Ha, yes, and that was in fact a typo for “snail mail” but “smail” is a pretty good portmanteau!