Sometimes I feel down. I am not where I want to be yet.

And the answer to that is: systems vs. goals.

This is a step forward, but it’s not everything.

Let’s take a look at Systems vs. Goals first.

Systems vs. Goals

I came across this reading Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) and James Clear (Atomic Habits), though the idea itself is not new.

Let’s say you want to get in better shape. Maybe those holiday desserts are taking their toll, and you’d like to lose 10 pounds.

The traditional goal-oriented model (being goal-oriented is a good thing, right?) says:

I’m going to hate my life and be upset until I lose those 10 pounds.

Two problems:

  1. Is that really a way to live? To be frustrated until you reach that 10 pound weight loss goal?
  2. What are you going to do once you reach your goal?

A different approach says, I’d like to become more fit.

This is more holistic and achieves a broader, directional goal.

But you have to pair it with something tangible. Otherwise, it’s not actionable and just a pipe dream.

This is where the System comes in.

In order to achieve greater fitness, I will walk 20 minutes a day, and I will cut back on junk food purchases by 50%.

The key things to note:

  • These are action-oriented steps (makes up the system)
  • These are ongoing (doesn’t end once you reach an arbitrary goal)
  • These are incremental (not too steep to start or maintain)

Where Systems Fall Short

With our weight loss example, I deliberately omit something that typically escapes the definition of our system.


How will we know if our system is working?

With a simple (not easy!) physical, tangible goal of weight loss, there is a clear metric to monitor how well or not well the System is performing.

If it is not performing to par over a certain timeframe, you can choose to recalibrate and reassess.

But what about abstract, less tangible goals, where even the process is less clear?

Goals like, “make more money” or “be happier”? What systems work for that?

The Trouble With Intangibles: Causality

How do you know whether something is working? How do you attribute progress, even if you are seeing it?

Well, if that’s the case, we need to break down that big goal into smaller goals, which can be more clearly supported by the systems we put in place.

The Problem With “Trust The Process”

But the fact is, the process can be long and unclear. We may have no idea whether what we are doing is working or not.

And we may not see results for a long time. The typical example is, say, trying to crack a big rock.

You hit the rock 100 times with a sledgehammer. Nothing visible appears. On your 101st try, the rock breaks!

It was not the 101st try that broke the rock. It was the 100 attempts that came before it.

What seems to be conveniently ignored is:

How do you know if you should keep going when you’ve seen no progress after 90 swings??

We need to have surrogate markers and re-assessment points.

Finding The Wins

There are two ways to look at this:

  1. Have I made any progress vs. what I was doing before?
  2. Have I made the most progress I possibly could have?

The first is about assessing progress against a baseline. It’s not fair to ask simply whether you have made any progress, but whether you have done more compared to what you were previously doing.

The assumption, of course, is that you were not doing a whole lot before.

But sometimes it’s a question of assessing whether a change in strategy has made a difference for you.

The second is about maximizing what you do. In my experience, this is a trap, mostly because this asks whether you could have done more. Even if you gave your best effort, one can always ask “what if”.

This is a useful thought pattern, but only to a certain extent. Use it to learn what “more” might look like, or to give you ideas on different approaches to try in the future. But don’t dwell. That will hold you back.

At this point, you need an honest assessment, something to tell you about progress you’ve made, even if the end goal continues to elude you. It tells you whether the path you are on is worth continuing, and the probability that you will ultimately prevail in a reasonable amount of time.

When quitting, there are actually two pitfalls: giving up too early, and not giving up soon enough.

Surrogate markers are about finding the wins.

There are wins you may not see, and maybe you don’t even want to attribute, because you are frustrated that you…still..aren’t…there…yet.

Let’s say you did not have a scale, on your goal to glory and fitness, or even a clock.

How would you know if you are making progress?

If you’re doing the same exercise and it feels easier, quicker…guess what?

You must be getting better.

So recognize it.

Arguably, “feeling easier and quicker” is a form of progress too. You just weren’t looking for it. But that tells you that whatever you are doing is working, independent of a clear, discrete, quantifiable metric.

How Long Should I Stick To This?

But to go back to our hypothetical example of hitting the rock 101 times (whew!).

Let’s say you really can’t see any progress. Now what?

Yes. There are such things in life. Many things are that way.

Have you ever seen the gif of the bear waiting in line?

Stay In Queue by Ferdinand Lutz

via Ferdinand Lutz

He keeps switching lines when it looks like one is going faster. In the end, he never quite gets there.

Though this is meant to be comical and exaggerated, the point is that you generally need to stick with things for some length of time before switching. Sometimes, you will switch, and you really should not have. But that’s always a risk. Less likely if you stick with something long enough.

What’s “long enough”?

Here’s my mental model for thinking about it.

Enough time and attempts that the probability that you’ve missed out on a progress indicator is low enough. That is different for everyone. You will miss. There will be those “almost made it moments. While that’s a data point to help you tweak your sense of what is long enough, it is also important not to let an attempt in one domain influence another attempt in another domain too heavily.

The other prerequisite is to decide clearly that you want to do something, and commit to it. The stronger and clearer the commitment and process is, the longer you can go without any indication of progress (though some surrogate marker is advisable).


If you’ve committed to something, and you are giving it consistent, solid effort, chances are you are making some kind of progress. Once you look past the frustration of not having yet arrived, you will probably find that you are actually well on your way. You just had to look.