Guideline: make systems not just goals (or New Year’s resolutions)


February 4, 2019



When you set a goal or make a New Year’s resolution, don’t stop there. Decide specific actions, systems and habits you’ll implement to make the goal a reality.

Examples & stories

At the end of last year (2018) I watched the RTÉ Irish Sports Awards on TV. During the interviews I noticed a common theme.

Sanita Puspure, the winner of a rowing world championship last year spoke about her ambitions to be Olympic champion next year. Her coach, David McGowan said:

“We have a good routine now of just looking at session by session and not getting overwhelmed with the big picture and just focus on doing everything we can daily as well as we can.”

Later in the show, Sinéad Ahern the captain of the Dublin women’s football team said,

“If you want to stay ahead of the chasing pack, you have to improve, you have to innovate. If you start to look down the line you forget the things you have to do to get there.”

Earlier this year after winning the All-Ireland Hurling championship one of the Limerick players, Seamus Hickey said,

“we were trying to replace that emotion with regular dependable practice, stuff that you can rely on when things go bad.”

Aside: for readers outside of Ireland, hurling is an indigenous Irish sport, one of the oldest and fastest field sports. George Clooney and Bruce Springsteen are fans. Jason Statham’s character in the film “Blitz” describes hurling as “a cross between hockey and murder”. Beyond that, it’s hard to explain in a few lines so I’d suggest you watch this short video of highlights from Limerick’s win in this year’s All-Ireland Final.

As James Clear says, “winners and losers have the same goals.” At the start of an event, all competitors have a goal to win. The winners are usually those who put together the best “system of continuous small improvements” during the training, race, game or season.

In business, good sales teams focus on leading indicators. A leading indicator is a predictive measurement, for example; a number of demos, customer calls or new meetings. By contrast, “a closed deal is an outcome and a lagging indicator; it can’t be used by the salesperson or sales manager to improve future outcomes.”

Leading indicators correspond to things a rep can control and focus on day to day. A sales manager can then focus on helping individual reps and their own leading indicators: interviews, hiring, coaching & training.

In “Principles”, Ray Dalio speaks of systematizing his business, specifically:

  • Decision making
  • Models of markets, portfolios and economies
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Good management
  • Idea meritocracy

His concept of principle is similar to that of the guidelines we’ll be writing about on this blog. We’ll return to this in future posts.

In “The E-Myth Revisited”, Michael Gerber explains the importance of seeing a business as a system. He tells the story of how Ray Kroc “set about the task of creating a foolproof, predictable business. A systems-dependent business not a people-dependent business. A business that could work without him.”


Ryan Holiday’s lists a number of ways to build better habits and systems in his article “How to Develop Better Habits in 2019”. Here are three examples:

  • Think small - “Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day.”
  • Lay Out Your Supplies - “When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there”
  • Pick Yourself Up When You Fall - “tripping is inevitable… It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve.”

Niklas Göke recommends finding your “rational habit” for every goal.

“For every goal you can think of, rational habits exist. They either support it directly or make it more likely you’ll follow through on the actions that do… Motivation isn’t something we can properly maintain. Rational habits are. They’re rooted in action, not inspiration.”

I use an application called Things as a system to organise my projects and actions (tasks). I’ve set up recurring reminders, some are daily (triage email in two timeboxed batches), some are less frequent (clean the dishwasher filter).

I’ve also created simple processes/systems I follow. For example, when planning my day at work I:

  • Look at my “important” projects to find the "One Thing" that MUST get done and will deliver the most impact
  • Look at my calendar to figure out how much time I have between meetings to get things done
  • Prioritise tasks for today: the planned actions I didn’t complete the previous day, tasks from my prioritised projects and new reminders.
  • Then I prune the list to down to the things I’ll be able to do in the time I have available

James Clear has written a whole book on this subject “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones”. I’ve purchased a copy and added the book to my reading queue. When I read it, I’ll return and summarize the main guidelines.

If you’re a writer, Shaunta Grimes, recommends:

  • You have to actually write, and you have to do it regularly. Preferably, every day.
  • Choose your tools
  • Pick your place (but don’t be too precious about it.)
  • Remember who the boss is. Hint: it’s you.
  • Make a note - “after every writing session... write a note to yourself about what you’re going to write the next time.”
  • When you’re writing, write.
  • Do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day… Make a very small goal for yourself — ten minutes a day works really well for me ...

I really like Shaunta’s definition “a writer is a person with a writing habit”.

To create business level systems here are some books I recommend:


Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert wrote a number of articles about systems & goals.

“My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds.”

James Clear says, “goals are good for planning your progress … systems are good for actually making progress”.

  • Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
  • Goals restrict your happiness
  • Goals are at odds with long-term progress

The bigger picture

This is an example of a guideline that we use in this blog/publication. Guidelines are also known as:

  • best-practices
  • principles
  • tips
  • hacks
  • mental models
  • directives

In future posts, we’ll curate individual guidelines or glean collections of them from articles, books and other content. We’re planning posts on:

  • Productivity
  • Starting a business
  • Managing cash flow in a growing business

If you’d like to write for LearnShareDo, please send an email to (write at learnsharedo dot com).

Thanks for reading! If you have any other examples or feedback please comment/follow/share below or on: twitter, medium or linkedin.

Credits: photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

Disclosure: some links in this post may use Amazon affiliate links.


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