We have all been bombarded with advice on setting goals and working towards them.
This isn’t bad advice for those who meander aimlessly, but can potentially be bad advice for some.
There is no shortage of people who set themselves the goal of losing 12 Kgs over the next year. This is a so-called SMART goal, isn’t it? Well, more than 90% of them fail and it is not because of intent or the lack of knowledge. Expend more calories than you consume, that is all there is to losing weight. No rocket science here.
The problem is with doing what it takes, not knowing what it takes. First and foremost, one needs to turn up and do the work consistently. Those 90% screw up here, irrespective of how high their IQ is or how competent and disciplined they are in other aspects of life. Anything that is worth achieving is not that easy to plan and execute.
Geoffrey Boycott once said this about Ashish Nehra – “He is a talented bowler but the problem is that he has injury issues and does not bowl enough. You don’t get any wickets if you don’t bowl”
A refreshing change from the emphasis on setting goals can be found in Scott Adams’ book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life”.
Goals are for losers. 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.
What people need are systems. 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.
“I want to lose 12 Kgs over the next year” is a goal. “I will turn up to exercise 5 times a week” is a system. The second one emphasizes the process, the first one emphasizes the desired outcome.
What if you do the work but lose only 8 Kgs instead of 12 Kgs? Does it really matter how many months you take to drop those 12 Kgs, so long as the trend is right? What if you end up losing 15 Kgs?
More often than not, the person who has a system beats the one who relies on goal setting and will most probably have a happier time doing so. Systems buffer for setbacks that one cannot predict, goals do not. They introduce needless stress and can turn an enjoyable pursuit into another rat race.
Scott Adams has this amazing ability to give your practical insights into how some very simple concepts work. The book has many more of such powerful but simple insights
What starts off well tends to continue well
It is difficult to be passionate about something that one is not good at. Passion is over rated and oft misunderstood
Willpower is in limited supply; you cannot have multiple pursuits that rely only on willpower without being backed up by systems.
This book is a must read for everyone.
A couple of instances where systems got the job done for me.
I always set the benchmark for the definition of skinny up till 2011 end, very few people could come close to my level of competence in this aspect. 60% of the girls in my class X weighed more than I did. As an adult at the age of 29, I was 5’ 10” tall at a weight of 53-55 Kgs. I would stand out for the wrong reasons, in spite of all my other positive qualities.
By 2011, I was smart enough to realize that one had to do some ground work before embarking on any endeavor. I spent 2-3 months reading a couple of highly recommended strength training books – Starting Strength and Practical programming for strength training by Mark Rippetoe. Coupled with some fundamental dietary knowledge, this enabled me to start training by myself in my clubhouse gym and not waste my time talking to the 12th fail trainers at commercial gyms.
The rules were very simple
- Lift 3-4 times a week, don’t train consecutive days
- Follow the routine of basic compound movements using a barbell. Squat, Overhead Press, Bench Press, Deadlift and Rows were the only exercises I would do for the first one year
- Eat 4-5 times a day and hit my macros (calorie and protein intake), no matter what
- Stick to this routine for the next 12 months, no matter what
In 15 months, I had gained almost 18 Kgs. I could squat 100 Kgs for a couple of reps and could pull 130 Kgs on the deadlift within 15 months of starting to lift. These aren’t impressive numbers by any means, genetically gifted people hit those numbers within 6 months.
All it took was disciplined execution of a well-defined system for 15 months to see results that I never thought were possible. The system drives off a fundamental concept called progressive overload resulting in overcompensation, if nutrition and rest are in order. Friedrich Nietzsche summed this up brilliantly – “What does not kill me makes me stronger”. It is the same principle at work here. The human body is antifragile, it gets better when you subject it to stress that it is not used to. Of course within realistic limits and if you give it enough time to adapt.
I still continue to train but not at the same intensity, maintaining my current weight of 75-77 Kgs at 15% body fat doesn’t take any conscious effort now. The habits are so well ingrained, I still get in my first snack of the day within 20 minutes of waking up. Systems rule, not goals.
If you have gone through the content on this website, you already have an idea of what my system looks like.
I have never had goals on how much return to generate, I do not have any net worth target either. My net worth since 2011 has compounded at almost 35%. If I were to change the starting point to Jan 2014, the number drops slightly to 30%. In simple terms it means that if I start a year at a net worth of 100, my net worth at the end of the year is 130.
This is easy to do when you have a net worth of 10 lakhs and an annual salary of 15 lakhs. You just save 3 lakhs during the year to increase your net worth by 30%. But when you start a year at a net worth of say 2 Cr, you need to add 60 lakhs to your net worth during the year to hit 30%. Assuming an overall portfolio return of 12% post tax, the savings from operating income need to provide the balance of 36 lakhs. For this to happen, the annual operating income needs to be > 65 lakhs which is easier said than done. The bar keeps going higher as your net worth increases.
I never planned on hitting this 30% mark, neither will I explicitly care about it going forward. It is just a metric that I track, it is not a goal. What I instead have is a system that ensures I do the work that matters on most days.
My system is scalable and replicable up to a point, there on the equation changes. Until then, the market may play its tricks once in a while but I manage to stay the course because I consistently do what it takes.
Systems keep you going, even after you end up with outcomes that are better than expected, goals do not. Goals can inadvertently limit the extent of what you can achieve.
Build scalable and replicable systems, do not waste too much time setting goals. Personal finance gets this aspect wrong. The next time your financial advisor talks of doing goal setting, do yourself a favor and ask him to take a walk. Unless the advisor is wise enough to emphasize the process and not the desired goal.