We clearly live in a very unique and exceedingly odd time in human history. On the one hand, we live in a technological wonderland. Kings of old would marvel at the conveniences even the poor have at their disposal. We can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the planet. Diseases that once wiped out millions have effectively been wiped out themselves. Despite this, there seems to be little recent improvement in personal wellbeing, at least in the developed world.

To give a few examples of the advancements made, HumanProgress.com catalogs that, among other positive signs, life expectancy has increased 33 percent in the last 50 years while extreme poverty fell 50 percent since 1990. Literacy rates are at an all time high while child mortality is at an all time low. Problems surely exist, from issues regarding the environment to the national debt, etc. But overall, the improvement is hard to deny.

On the other hand, drug use, depression and suicide are all on the rise and the use of antidepressants has increased 65 percent in the last 15 years.  Approximately 40 million Americans (1 in 5) have severe anxiety. And a massive study of almost 150,000 people in 26 countries found that people in high-income countries were over three times more likely to have a general anxiety disorder than those in low-income countries.

Something is off here to say the least.

Obviously there is no panacea. The problems facing Americans (as well as much of the rest of the world) are multifaceted. Record high consumer debt is certainly one cause as is the breakdown of community as discussed by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone is certainly another. Yet one more is the social media induced-FOMO (The Fear of Missing Out) so many suffer from.

Social media provides well-curated versions of people’s lives that highlight everyone else’s good moments and hide their bad providing a very misleading view of how everyone else is doing in comparison to yourself. Indeed, studies have shown people usually underestimate other people’s problems. No wonder another study found that Facebook and social media use tended to decrease one’s happiness.

This social media-driven FOMO leads to an incessant list of things to accomplish; lose weight, get in shape, travel the world, start a business, date a supermodel, become rich, become famous and so on and so forth. Ironically, this mania falls right in line with one of the most common self-help tips around; namely to make and aspire to accomplish various goals. So, create a goal and go for it, right? 

Not so fast. If you look at a little closer at many such inspirational “accomplish your goals” quotes, there’s something much more important underlying that message. For example, from this list we find,

“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” 

—Earl Nightingale

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.” 

—Andrew Carnegie

Both of these quotes (and many like them) emphasize that the goal is―ironically enough―not the goal itself. The goal is to find a goal which “liberates your energy,” “inspires your hopes” and is a “progressive realization.” 

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame hits the nail on the head when he describes why goals aren’t the way to go. As he puts it,

“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of success until they bore you, or set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure” (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Pg. 32).

And presuccess failure is the best you can hope for. What happens if you don’t hit your goal?

Take for example the fact that something like 97 percent of dieters regain all the weight they lose within three years. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. A diet is something we force ourselves to do in order to accomplish a goal. The very definition implies, or perhaps even infers, that dieting is unpleasant and something we don’t want to do. How can anyone possibly not do something they want to do in perpetuity?

Furthermore, why would anyone want to do that to themselves?

Fortunately there is a better way. Willpower is great for short bursts, say running a 10K or finishing a project. But it’s not something that can be sustained over the long haul. (Nor is something you would want to sustain over the long haul.) The key is to find a way to live that is both healthy and enjoyable. Creating a framework for one’s life is, as Scott Adams calls it, a System as opposed to a Goal.

In other words, the key is to find a path you enjoy being on that leads you in the direction you want to go.

So, for example, Adams makes it a point to go to the gym each day. He doesn’t have to work out when he gets there, but he at least has to step foot inside the gym itself. Every once in a while he just leaves. But just by showing up, he usually gets on with it and works out.

Other examples of systems you might apply to living healthy include never eating out on your own, making it a habit to order the salad when out with others, refusing to buy food from convenience stores, bringing your lunch to work and only eating that, etc. And of course, buy healthy food from the grocery store. (Which, by the way, you should go to on a full stomach as studies show people buy healthier food when they aren’t hungry and jonesing for empty carbs.)

As I’ve applied these ideas to my own life, I’ve lost close to 30 pounds. Yet another example hits closer to home though and that is quitting smoking. Quitting smoking is notoriously hard. Indeed, the CDC puts the success rate (measured by those who quit for at least a year) at a paltry 7 percent.

But why? There are endless excuses that smokers give for why they like smoking, but we all know they’re nonsense; there’s nothing more boring than smoking, nicotine is a chemical stimulant so it doesn’t relax you, there’s nothing in a cigarette that aids concentration, etc. 

The reason people smoke is obviously because nicotine is addictive. But if that was the only reason, then why do so many people quit for months before falling back into the trap? The reason is, as Allen Carr discovered back in the late 80’s, is that people believe they are making a genuine sacrifice when they quit smoking. If you truly want to smoke, eventually, no matter how much willpower you have, you’re going to cave.

Indeed, the illusion of smoking as a genuine pleasure is really the only reason people have a hard time quitting because, as Carr has shown, even the actual withdrawal pangs themselves aren’t that bad,

“Most smokers go all night without a cigarette. The withdrawal ‘pangs’ do not even wake them up. Many smokers will leave the bedroom before they light that first cigarette; many will have breakfast first. Increasingly people don’t smoke in their homes and won’t have that first cigarette until they are in the car on the way to work… These smokers have eight or maybe ten hours without a cigarette—going through withdrawal all the while, but it doesn’t seem to bother them” (The Easy Way To Stop Smoking, Pg. 34).

The physical withdrawal pangs just start the process of wanting a cigarette. The subsequent feeling of deprivation is what makes not having one intolerable.

Carr’s method involves going through each reason smokers believe they like smoking and proving that it’s an illusion. Once smokers conclude they aren’t giving up anything of value, quitting becomes far more easy to do and sustain. Once the path of the nonsmoker appears enjoyable, it’s not that hard to stay on that path. 

One study found Carr’s technique had a one-year success rate of 51.4 percent. Another study put the success rate between 40 and 55 percent. Again, quitting with willpower has a success rate of only around 7 percent.

This mindset can be applied to virtually every part of our lives. Various apps such as Freedom can limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Or perhaps, for you, a better system would be to delete social media entirely. Creating a 401K can help force you to save. One study showed that consumers spend up to 18 percent more when using credit cards, so if overspending is a problem, perhaps using cash when shopping would be a better approach. Hal Elrond’s Miracle Morning has a lot of anecdotal support as a system that improves people’s lives. But what about that dreaded snooze button? Well, I’ve found a sunshine alarm to be a great way to help me get out of bed as well as taking a drink of water as soon I wake up. Others have found that setting the alarm on the other side of the room helps. 

Indeed, the possible systems one can make to set their life on the right path are nearly endless. We live in an age of endless choices as well as endless distractions. The myriad of technology we have at our fingertips offers endless possibilities, but also creates endless anxiety and stress. Goals are not the answer to this mess. Indeed, this mess of possibilities makes us want to create more and more goals that simply add more and more stress in an endless feedback loop from Hell. 

While goals may have a limited role to play within a system, the key is the systems themselves that we create for our life. Those systems put us on the right path. And to find a path (or many paths) toward success that you enjoy following will help you achieve more than any goal could and do so without the endless anxiety and stress that presuccess failure always brings along with it.