Dilbert comic strip creator Scott Adams has stirred up a bit of controversy with his new book, "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big." In a Wall Street Journal article about the book, Adams said anyone trying to accomplish something should stop thinking in terms of goals.
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That's literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal---if you reach it at all---feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.
His advice is to "forget about goals" and focus on systems instead, as he explained in an interview published in Forbes.
Writing a best-selling book is a goal, whereas practicing your writing every day for an hour is a system. Getting your boss's job is a goal, whereas continuously improving your skills and knowledge is a system. The problem with goals, in my opinion, is that they can be demotivating because progress is often imperceptibly slow. But if you employ a system, you'll have a sense of achievement every day. We humans need that to keep our energy and spirits high. And if you pick a smart system, you'll make it easier for luck to find you, possibly in ways that your goals did not anticipate.

Maybe it's not either/or

To a degree, I appreciate Adams' point. A week and a half ago, I ran a half-marathon. While I found having that goal in front of me extremely helpful in motivating me to find and follow a training system, I haven't run since then. In part, I'm giving a lingering foot injury time to heal. But if I'm honest, I have to admit I no longer feel as motivated to run. As Adams described, the goal gave me purpose and direction, and I felt great about accomplishing it, but now there's a letdown.

Still, I believe this isn't really an either/or proposition. A system without a goal can lead to mindless and meaningless obsession—a grind without a destination. A goal without a system is dreaming, wishing, hoping. It's helpful to have goals and systems.

If you'd like to have a large enough nest egg one day to provide sufficient retirement income, you need to be clear about the goal. How much will you need and by when? You need to have answered those questions before you can develop a system for getting there. By the same token, systematically saving money each month without a goal in mind may lead to hording, living ungenerously, or ending up with far less than you'll need.

What then?

It's also helpful to practice what I once heard Pastor Bill Hybels describe as "goal-setting through," or making sure to always have another goal beyond a goal. Once you have a retirement investing goal and a system for achieving it, set another goal beyond that one—a post-retirement investing goal. That was my mistake with the recent half-marathon. I didn't have another goal in mind. I'm working on that now, scheduling another half-marathon for later this year. For me, having a long, organized run on the calendar motivates me to run consistently.

What are your thoughts on the importance of goals, systems, and having goals beyond your goals? How are you using these ideas in your life, financially or otherwise?