Systems Over Goals

A Personal System is a grouping of action items that you consistently do to improve your quality of life as you see fit.

Systems over goals

Benefits of a systems approach

  • Specific Goals are Unnecessary
  • Actually, Deliver Results
  • Personally Fitted
  • Provide Quick Accurate Feedback
  • Extremely Versatile


Getting Started

Make a list of action items on a piece of paper and track them every day.

If your thinking this is just a to do. You are correct, it's your custom-fitted personal growth to do list. Tasks on your current to do list will become insignificant after a few weeks of using a system.

Showing up every day and building up momentum is the first step. Even if your first and only action item is Track this item daily. You've decided to show up and begin building momentum in a positive direction.

Tracking is critical, it gives you the feedback you need to keep moving forward or expose the holes in your system that you need to patch up.

Working as a software engineer the past decade-plus, I've worked with, in, designed, and built my fair share of systems. Here is an example of a personal daily system.

Example Action Items

  • Walk at least 5 minutes
  • Eat at least one homemade meal
  • Read a book for 5 minutes
  • Say something nice to someone
  • No sweets other than fruit
  • Write at least one sentence
  • 1 hour No Screen Time

My Daily Improvement System

Action ItemSuMTuWThFS
Drink 2 Glasses of WaterXXXXXX
Show my Partner some loveXXXXXX
At least 5 minutes of learning SpanishXXXX
5 PushupsXXXXX
$5 Cash in an envelope or $5 in Savings AccountXXXXX
Write at least 1 paragraph for a Blog PostXXX

It’s ok to start small, I know I did. Your system will change over time, just like you. New habits will be formed, old habits will be defeated. Remove those action items from your system. Or level them up to be slightly more difficult. Either way, you're winning.

When my system initially failed, I briefly thought it was my fault. But quickly realized that I didn't fail, my system failed. I knew I could change the system to something that was a better fit for me. The action items were too ambitious for me at that point in my life.

Failure is just an opportunity for improvement.

One of my first action items was Exercise for at least 30 minutes. Only completed this one a couple of times a week. Tracking gave me the feedback I needed, I wasn't ready for that yet. The action item became Physical activity. Going for a walk, strenuous yard work, exercising, dance parties with the kids are all forms of physical activity. I Consistently complete this item six or seven days a week.

After a month I created another system. A weekly system with one action item, 20 minutes resistence training with a target of two days per week.

Failing often early is a good thing. It allows you to build a solid foundation that is less likely to fail in the future. Every person starts from zero when learning something new.


No Goals. No Problem.

Goals are not necessary for implementing a system. They do serve well as long-term targets. Specific or general goals both work extremely well with a systems approach.

Most goals boil down to three things:

  • Be Happier

  • Be Healthier

  • Be Wealthier

Creating action items that get you closer to any one or all of these, is the best recipe to put yourself in a position to help the people around you.

If you've made it this far you are absolutely capable of achieving any of these goals and more.

Systems are all about tweaking, adding, and removing action items based on feedback from tracking and self-reflection.

A surprise will be the quality of and amount of goals you'll come up with using a system.

One of my favorite and most productive action items is At least 10 minutes of brain activity. Writing, reading, designing, coding, researching something new all fall under that item in my mind. Combine them all and you are currently viewing my creative outlet. Publishing this site was a specific goal I came up with, and completed using my system.

In my short experience using a personal system, it has delivered goals in more ways than one.


Call To Action

Take advantage of the versatility of systems. Create a daily system or a weekly system, or both. Want to be a professional gamer, instagram influencer, ultra marathon runner, you name it. I guarantee you can make a system for it.

Be patient with results, but impatient with actions.

How we Think progress happens

Linear growth graph

How progress Actually happens

Exponential growth graph

You are only one or two habits away from success.

It's Tue Nov 17 2020 what are you waiting for!

Grab your notebook, or get personal system tracker. Give your system a name and create some action items. Start tracking them today, you’ll be glad you did tomorrow.

Thank you for your time. I hope you found this information valuable and actionable.

More Information

The concept of systems over goals and systems vs goals was created by Scott Adams. It was later expanded upon by James Clear. Much of the information in this article I obtained while researching these concepts. This article is my interpretation of those concepts. My conclusion is that Systems Deliver Goals.

During the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, I decided to try implementing a systems approach to my life. The World was looking bleak and I wasn’t taking great care of myself. After a couple of weeks of mostly failures, I decided to read Atomic Habits by James Clear. An amazing book, with tons of actionable information to work with.

I still needed to work out the personal system concept a little further. The result is what I am and will be publishing on this site.

Using a personal system helped me get my life back on a positive trajectory during one of the darkest times in recent history. I hope the information on this site can do the same for you.

References and Further Reading

Publishings by Scott Adams

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Goodreads Link) - Book - 2013

Goals vs. Systems - Article - 2013

Publishings by James Clear

Atomic Habits (Goodreads Link) - Book - 2018

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead. - Article - 2018

Publishings by Eric Jorgenson

Almanack of Naval Ravikant. A Guide to Wealth and Happiness - Book - 2020 - Free and Paid versions

Almanack of Naval Ravikant (Goodreads Link) - Book - 2020

About Me

Nathan Olmstead

My name is Nathan Olmstead. I live in Southeast Michigan.

I'm a Husband and Father of two young children. A formidable software engineer and mediocre designer. A retired Chef and hot sauce enthusiast. I enjoy wandering around in the woods.

Connect with me on TwitterTwitter @OlmsteadSystems