Losers Have Goals, Winners Have Systems

I blatantly stole this line from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. So if you can get past my thievery, I think we’ll be ok for the rest of the day.

My philosophy is that losers have goals and winners have systems.

– Scott Adams

One of the most common mistakes I see entrepreneurs make time and time again is that they set goals for themselves and somehow expect that by setting these goals, it will get them where they need to go. They won’t. Let’s not beat around the bush about that.

This isn’t to say that goals are useless. Quite the opposite. Goals are a necessary part of the equation. However, in and of themselves, they’re sort of useless. Think of it this way.

No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you need three things:

1) A mechanism for moving in a particular direction
For physical travel, this could be a car, a dirt bike, a boat, a plane, a rocket ship, horse, etc.

If you’re driving traffic to a website, you need to determine whether your ideal vehicle is going to be paid advertising, SEO, blog posts, email newsletters, social networks, etc.

Whatever the mechanism is, it is your “vehicle”. In many cases, you will need more than one vehicle to reach your destination because it’s unlikely that the same vehicle is going to get you everywhere you need to go. Some vehicles are more suited to particular types of motion than others.

2) A destination
This is your goal. It’s where you’re going.

3) A feedback loop
The feedback loop tells you if you’re going in the right direction or not. If you get off course, you measure where you are in relation to your goal and make adjustments to get back on track. Without a feedback loop, you’re not taking into account your current location and use it to adjust your direction or velocity towards the goal.

I won’t bore you with any mathematical equations involving 3D vector-based math or control systems theory, but the problem with goals should be obvious at this point. Goals only tell you where you should eventually end up. They’re your destination and a single point on the map. They tell you nothing about what vehicles you should use to get there, nor do they give you an idea of whether you’re on the right track or how fast you’re getting there… or not getting there, as the case may be.

The Feedback Loop Is Not the Problem

In most cases, the feedback loop is rather obvious. If it’s related to physical directions, a GPS (or *gasp* a map and compass) can tell you whether you need to go further north or south. If your goal is 10,000 website visitors/month and you only have 2,000/month, then clearly you need more. Again, the measurements are the obvious part.

It’s pretty rare for people to set a goal and then do the exact opposite of what you need to do in order to reach that goal. Most people who set goals have a general sense of how to measure whether they’re moving in the right general direction and that makes sense because the vast majority of the time, the direction is fairly intuitive.

The Vehicle Is the Problem

Figuring out the direction you need to move to get closer to the goal is the easy part. Knowing what vehicle to use to move in that direction tends to be more difficult and thus, what is more common among entrepreneurs is to not move in any direction at all.

You see, when setting a goal, there’s a mental image we’ve created in our heads about where we want to be. The problem is that we haven’t given any thought to what we need to do to get there. And all too often, we procrastinate or don’t take the steps we need to in order to get to where we need to be because we haven’t put a system in place to achieve that goal.

Not having a system makes us think about our options and too often, those options are overwhelming. It’s more commonly referred to as “analysis paralysis”. When we set goals for ourselves, they are often perfectly reasonable. However without a system to move towards those goals, you don’t have a chance of meeting them.

Your System Should Move You Towards Your Goals

If your goal is to lose weight, set up a system to ensure that the calories you scarf down don’t exceed the calories you burn.

If your goal is to get more traffic to your website, then build a system to blog more often, do regular SEO & keyword research, create new pages, etc.

Want to make $10,000/month from your product? Put a system in place to regularly generate new sales. Bring people to your website, get them on a mailing list, email marketing, soft sales pitch, more emails, hard pitch, more emails, final pitch, and then fill the funnel.

Profitable Businesses Are Made Up of Systems

If you’ve ever looked at company X and wondered “How in the hell do they stay in business?”, then chances are really good that you’re overlooking the systems and systems they have in place for generating money.

It’s very easy to do. I’ve often wondered myself how companies like Oracle, Sun, and various others ever manage to make ends meet. But if you start to dig, you’ll see that there are a lot of systems in place that have been developed over the years to help those companies extract revenue from their customers. These systems may not have been perfect when they were first implemented, and may not be perfect years later. But over time they are tweaked and they get better at gathering that revenue.

Pretty soon, they’re extracting far more dollars than you could ever hope to out of a similar system. Building a business doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an incremental process and you need to start somewhere. It’s a lot easier to tweak an existing system after measuring how well it’s doing than to try to jump in feet first and bang out the perfect system for doing X.

Good systems take time. They take mistakes. They take feedback from those mistakes and make incremental improvements. Over time, they get better.

So now that we see that goals and systems fit so closely together, what should you do?

Build Your Systems

Start with your most recent set of goals and evaluate what systems you need to build to meet those goals. If you haven’t set forth any goals recently, then that’s probably the place to start. Once you’ve done that, look at each goal and ask yourself two questions:

  1. What are 3 things that I could do that would move me towards that goal?
  2. What are 3 things that I should be repeatedly doing to move me towards that goal?

These are wildly different questions, and here’s why. In general, the first question tends to be something that you can do once or twice but isn’t generally repeatable in the future to the same effect. The second question tends to be things that you can do over and over and will continue to yield the same or better results repeatedly.

If you’re trying to lose weight, then the answers to #1 might be:

  • Skip today’s morning latte, which is an extra 300 calories
  • Go to the gym on Friday after work because the kids have karate after school and won’t be home until later
  • Talk to a personal trainer to get some advice on losing weight

While the answers to #2 might be:

  • Skip my morning latte every day
  • Eat periodically throughout the day so I’m not so hungry at dinner time
  • Go to the gym 3x each week

If you’re trying to drive traffic to your site, then the answers to #1 might be:

  • Send out an email newsletter
  • Submit my application to a startup directory
  • Issue a press release

And the answers to #2 might be:

  • Hire a writer to send out regular email newsletters
  • Hire a VA to submit my application to every startup directory we can find
  • Build a content creation calendar so that we can identify when we should be sending out press releases for the next 12 months

Silver Bullets Only Work in Hollywood
(And possibly Transylvania…)

When it comes to business and launching products, far too many people pay attention to the answers to #1 because they’re looking for the quick wins. The easy scores. The silver bullet. As someone who runs three different businesses, I can tell you that without a doubt, there are none.

There’s no single thing you can be reliably done that is going to make your business an overnight success. Got an expo on TechCrunch? I’m sure you got tons of traffic. What about tomorrow? Landed on the front page of Reddit for a full day? Awesome. What about tomorrow?

This is essentially the difference between short term wins and long term wins. Question #1 identifies the short term wins. The things that can help move you forward quickly, but they’re not sustainable. They are short term speed bursts but don’t tend to last particularly long. It’s a one-time bounce.

Examples include: submitting your website to any of the various “Site of the Day” type websites, going on podcasts, or sending out an email blast. These kinds of things will give you an immediate boost, but it’s not sustainable and it’s really hard to build on it unless you’re constantly on the lookout for more, but even then this is going to eventually taper off.

Question #2 helps you to identify the things that will increase your overall momentum and even if you stop doing them for a while, you’re still going to see some of the benefits after you stop. If you continue doing them, they will help to maintain that momentum, potentially making it exponential. This is more of a flywheel. Once it gains momentum, it keeps going even if you stop for a little while.

Examples include: putting out new content on a weekly basis, building a mailing list, building links back to your website, building a following on Twitter, etc.

The reason you want to do both instead of just concentrating on the repeatable things is in part, to give you moral support for the long haul. It’s great to concentrate on the long term wins, but not all of them are going to pan out. So if you spend all of your time on the long term stuff, it can take too long to tell whether or not it’s working or not and therefore, a bit depressing. The short term bounces helps to give you an ego boost to help get you through the tough times when the long term flywheels don’t seem to be gaining momentum. This method of leveraging both short and long term wins is also a system! (It’s all systems and ball bearings these days)

Another reason for working on some of the short term wins is that it can get you bursts of publicity that can help you to understand whether or not your business is capable of handling large spikes in traffic. Problems you garner because of success are good and all, but if they compound and you’ve never had to consider how to handle them or that some things might even become a problem until it’s too late, they can sink your business.

Great, I’ve built a bunch of systems… Now What?

You have one job left: Fire yourself.

That’s right. Once you’ve built the process and have tested it to be sure a) it’s doing what it’s supposed to and b) has a feedback loop that lets you monitor it’s progress, you need to fire yourself from executing that process. Outsource it, hire someone part-time, hire an employee, use a virtual assistant, automate it with code, etc. Whatever the case may be.

If a process you’ve developed is functioning properly, then as the business owner, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Your job is not to build products. Your job is to build systems.

That’s how profitable companies are built.

Have a comment? Leave it below. I’d love to hear it.


  1. Eric - SAASquatchy on April 11, 2014 at 12:39 am

    I used to coach college tennis and when my payers set goals i would make them go back and set process goals, mini action goals that were critical to reaching their performance goal. Real similar to the systems. Great article.

  2. Bootstrapping Tech Founders | 4044 Walnut on April 20, 2014 at 8:42 am

    […] Mike Taber – Losers Have Goals, Winners Have Systems […]

  3. Nick on July 5, 2014 at 2:48 am

    I’m glad I read this. Between this and Ries’ Lean Startup; I’ll finally pull the trigger on ideas I’ve waited to make perfect.

  4. Harry @ GoalsOnTrack on July 17, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    This is very good goal setting advice for entrepreneurs!.

  5. Josh Lipton on October 27, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Have you read “Work the System” by Sam Carpenter? http://www.workthesystem.com/

    Its a great guide for really baking systems into a small business.

  6. Mike Taber on October 28, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Yes, I’ve read it. I agree, it’s a great book.

  7. […] Losers Have Goals, Winners Have Systems […]

  8. Ivan Tsukev on November 17, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Small daily steps are the key to big results in the long term. Not one time exposures (like the TechCrunch example).

    You need willpower to do this every day. But if you have the systems in place, you don’t need so much willpower and your systems save you energy.

    I like this “systems” approach.

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