Ditch Goals to Create a System of Sustainable Motivation

“Starting is the hardest part.” We’ve all heard this idiom, right?

However, for many of us, this does not apply—especially in the category of fitness.

Nearly everyone I’ve known in my life has started toward some fitness goal. Many of them have started several times. Far fewer have sustained their journeys over time.


Starting isn’t hard because external motivators are all designed to push that first wind under your wings. Your friend hypes you up to try a new class; you register for a new sport; you hire a personal trainer.

It’s January as I write this: the Month of Starting. Engulfed with the energy of others taking on the same task at the same time, you feel overwhelmed with motivation to begin your new journey. What a fantastic start, you say! And then it all goes down hill. Studies suggest that around 80% of people who set fitness resolutions fail to meet their own goals that very year (often much sooner).

Ask yourself: if getting fit is as simple as setting a resolution and starting things off in January, why is the goal of “finally getting fit this year” so overused it’s become totally cliché? That result can only mean most people fail their resolution, multiple times, even though they always start—perhaps even with conviction!—toward it.

The main issue lies in the fact that, while external motivation can boost a beginning stage, the sustainability of one’s journey over the long term is almost entirely up to them. Years of consistency and dedication must be summoned from within—and after such a seemingly effortless start, too. All to satisfy a goal that you may not hit, or hit and find it doesn’t instantly solve all your problems.


So does the key to success, then, lie in somehow developing infinite motivation?

That is not realistic for most. The good news is that tremendous potential resides within a simple change in perspective.


Scott Adams, cartoonist of the world famous Dilbert comic franchise, believes that goals are for losers. Instead, the famous author and speaker advises to create and follow systems.

Goals are rigid objectives. If we fail to achieve them, we become demoralized. And even when we reach them, we often feel aimless afterward, or disappointed by the event’s anti-climactic nature (often both).

Systems, meanwhile, are a strategic collection of habits and behaviour designed to move one in their desired direction while remaining flexible on the outcome. This method allows the most opportunities for success, according to Adams—and even allows for failures to be converted into success.

By this measure it is foolish to set a goal of losing X number of pounds, for example. We don’t know how many pounds we actually want to lose, after all, nor does that goal give us any indication of how to achieve the allegedly desired result. Sounds like it’s almost engineered to make us fail, huh?

Adams’ favorite example: “Losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.”

A system of eating healthy and portioned meals will automatically lower our body fat over time until we feel content or decide to make an adjustment. Add to this system the habit of working out multiple days per week, and your fitness journey looks great—no goals in sight.

In essence, instead of relying on motivation to achieve goals, apply discipline to develop a system. (Adams’ books How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big and Loserthink touch on this topic in much greater detail.) I’ll leave you with one more example from Adams himself:

Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one. When you associate discomfort with exercise you stop doing it. Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it—no willpower required.