Make an Action Plan, Not a Resolution (Part I)

hand building a cube

New Year’s resolutions come with the best of intentions. Gyms fill to capacity; fattening foods and sweets go in the trash; books replace TVs. Every year, promises are made. Every year, promises are broken.

There’s a reason resolutions dwindle by Groundhog Day, or more realistically, Valentine’s Day. Goals can be good, but they can also have a negative side. Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian (2014) explains, “When you approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved, you exist in a state of near-continuous failure.” In other words, consistently striving to reach the next goal implies that the current state is not good enough, and that you need to have more, do more, and be more in order to be happy.

While setting goals can be beneficial, there’s something else to consider if self-improvement is on your mind. Focusing on systems, or the processes and practices you put in place to achieve your goals, can lead to improved results and a happier you along the way.

Let’s back up. Focusing on systems over goals is not a new idea, nor is it a cure-all to the broken-resolutions blues. However, systems can help turn practices into habits, and habits will stick around after you’ve achieved the original goal. James Clear (2016) illustrates the difference between goals and systems. Says Clear, “If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day. If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.”

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and featured writer for The Wall Street Journal, is a big proponent of systems over goals, significantly noting the limitation, or short-sightedness, of goals. While a goal lets you zero in on achieving that one thing, there’s benefit in expanding your goals to a habitual practice that has long-term effects.

“You miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal,” Adams explains in How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big (2013). “Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.”

As you prepare to take on the challenges of the New Year ahead, consider implementing systems over goals. Follow along in this blog series to hold yourself accountable and turn your new practices into habits. 

Written by Kelsey Bober, Content Manager for Bridgepoint Education.


Adams, S. (2013). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Penguin UK.

Clear, L. (2016). Forget About Goals. Focus on This Instead. Retrieved from

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