Forget Setting Goals. Build Systems Instead.

Adam Westbrook
2 min readFeb 15, 2021

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is as good as everyone says it is.

With minimal self-help fluff, he presents a tangible and usable process for building good habits and getting rid of bad ones.

The big revelation for me was Clear’s distinction between goals and systems.

Our outcome-orientated society cares about goals. We are told to identify big glorious ambitions and break them down to manageable chunks in order to achieve. We complain when we don’t have any direction in our life and look enviously at people who are working towards some big dream.

“If only I had an idea for a novel, screenplay, album…”

But it turns out goals are not great motivators.

A big ambitious project is exciting at the very beginning but, as time passes and the goal remains distant it becomes less of a motivator and more of an albatross around your neck.

If you have ever felt the passion for a project fizzle out halfway through you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Clear suggests replacing single lofty goals with solid, reliable systems.

A system is a daily habit or sequence of habits.

It’s the difference between saying “I want to write an Oscar-winning screenplay” and “I’m going to write two pages of dialogue every morning.” As Clear says:

When you fall in love with the process rather than the product you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.

Yes, it’s the ol’ Van Gogh argument again.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Third Something, a weekly newsletter about creativity and visual storytelling by Adam Westbrook.

Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.