You’ve probably seen it before: Someone tells you they’re “planning” to achieve some new goal. However, when pressed about it, they have no idea how they’re actually going to achieve it. Maybe you’ve been this person in the past. The problem is often people don’t think too much about the implementation. They feel content knowing they have a goal in mind. Unfortunately, famous French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Having a goal is not enough

It’s common for people to have goals, but not so common to actually achieve them. This is especially true for more ambitious goals. So if some people achieve their goals and others don’t, goals aren’t the differentiating factor between success and failure. Given this fact, what’s the point of having goals in the first place? You’d be forgiven for thinking this way. Some very prominent productivity authors and speakers have argued the same point.

In American author James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and on his website, he makes arguments against setting goals altogether. Now, Atomic Habits is my favourite book of all time, but I personally still see a lot of value in setting goals and I’ll explain why in my conclusion.

He is right that you should focus on a system of behaviours that will actually bring about the change in your life, though. This is because even in the absence of goals, a “system” as he defines it in the book will still net you progress.

A goal without a plan

What does a goal without a plan look like, exactly?

I’ll go with a rather common goal: Weight loss. A lot of us have wanted to lose a couple of pounds at some point or other. Simple, right? So you’ve got this goal, but no concrete plan. You’ll figure it out.

Every now and then, you might catch yourself craving junk food and opt for a salad instead, nice one! You also make the effort to drag yourself to the gym sometimes. After some months, you realise you’ve had this goal for a while now but don’t notice much of a difference. That’s demoralizing, right?

You’re not alone. The problem with this approach is you fool yourself into thinking you’re really working towards a goal when you really only wish for real change.

A plan without a goal

What about the alternative? Having a plan or system in place, but no specific goal.

Some of your friends are into running, so you decide you want to see what the fuss is about. You start going for a run after work five days a week. Some days, you go for your run and you feel pretty good! However, on days you don’t feel like running you just can’t bring yourself to do it. Why don’t you go when you don’t feel like it? Your motivation isn’t strong enough to overcome your inertia.

Now let’s say you had the goal of running a marathon at the end of the month. It’s much more likely that you would go for the run even if you didn’t feel like it. If you didn’t train adequately, you’d be doing yourself a disservice.

The dream team

So far, I’ve illustrated how neither having a goal nor having a plan is ideal on their own. The solution? Decide on a specific goal and come up with a system to back it up.

Goals serve multiple purposes. You’re much more likely to stay motivated if you keep sight of what you want to achieve. It’s also good to remember that your systems and goals are malleable. Just because a system works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. If you have a goal you can measure progress against, you can allow your goals to inform your behaviours to improve your systems. Similarly, once you reach a goal, nothing stops you from moving the goalposts. You can think of it as a milestone and set your sights even higher.

Take some time out today to think about your goals and plans. Do you perhaps have a goal with no plan? A plan with no goal? If you ensure they work in harmony, you’re likely to start reaching your goals faster than ever before. Good luck!