Don’t Set New Year’s Goals Without Changing Your System

It’s that time again! Every January we set new goals and resolutions for the new year. Yet, research says that 77 percent of us will stick to our new year’s resolutions in the first week but it drops to 46 percent after six months. So, how do we reach our goals this year while knowing these typical results?

These insights, many from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, can help reshape how you think about reaching your goals:

Laser in on the system v. just setting a goal.

A goal is a result you want to achieve. The system is the process to get you there. The football coach’s goal may be to win the championship. The system is how you recruit players, select and manage your coaches, design the plays and hold practice. Many great coaches, like Bill Walsh and Nick Saban, believe the score and results are realized when the system works. You make decisions about your system every day.

Our goals require the same laser focus on the system or the process. If you solve for just the results – it’s only a one time temporary fix. If you want to be more organized and clean up your email one time you haven’t changed your long term results. A change to resolve emails once or an hour each day to organize new information is a system change that can last.

Goals can hold your happiness hostage.

According to Clear, “The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: Once I reach my goal then I’ll be happy. The problem with this goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone. Happiness is always something your future self can enjoy.”

Clear also shares that goals can create an either-or conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. He explains that in a systems first mentality you fall in love with the process v. the outcome. You don’t have to wait for permission to be happy. Be satisfied when the system is running as you planned. Atomic Habits explains that you don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.


You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.


Small consistent improvements change outcomes. What is your trajectory? Are your small changes going in the right direction or undermining you? Clear shares, “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.” Spending too much creates a stressed financial situation or eating too much means you weigh more than you want to weigh. The goal doesn’t determine the outcome. A system of continuous small improvements changes your course.

Yet, research tells us that we are less likely to commit to a change without an immediate or at least obvious payoff. So, find the payoff for the small, immediate short term steps as they add up over time. The payoff could be as simple as I followed my system today.

Michelle Segar, writes in her book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, that it’s important people feel every little bit of self-improvement counts. Nobody can train for a marathon in a day, nor can they pay off their student loans with a single check; but opting for the stairs over the elevator or choosing to cook instead of eating out are small steps toward an ultimate goal. Small incremental steps put you on a positive trajectory.

Target identity, the system and the outcomes – in that order. In Atomic Habits, Clear explains that we change habits on three different layers.

  • First layer is changing outcomes. This level is focused on changing results: losing weight, getting promoted, or writing a book. This is where most New Year’s resolutions fall.
  • Second layer is changing your process. This is changing the daily habits and system to reach your desired outcomes.
  • Third layer and deepest layer is changing your identity. This is based on changing how you see yourself, your self-image, your world view and how you see others. And, I think this one is most often overlooked.

If you start with how you see yourself and work out to the process & outcomes rather than the other way around – you envision who you wish to become. Ask yourself ‘what would a healthy person do?’, ‘what would a leader do?’ or ‘what would a wise investor do?” See yourself in a new way that will drive decisions and ultimately daily behavior changes that reach outcomes. Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs. Any desired change will never happen if beliefs and actions are incongruent.

I highly recommend Atomic Habits. I’ve read many books about goals, motivation, and behavior change, yet this one offers many new insights for how to reach your goals. Focus less on the resolution and more on the system and process that will make it a reality. And, small consistent steps will put you on the right trajectory that will matter over time.

Happy New Years with cheers to your new system and becoming who you really want to be!

Originally posted in 2019 by PeopleResults.