James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, makes a specific case about why systems are better than goals. Or rather, that “goals are for planning your progress and systems are for actually making that progress”.
In that sense, setting a goal is about deciding where you want to go and the system is about how you are going to get there.
There’s even a kind of anti-goal movement that highlights some negatives associated with excessive focusing on goals only. They argue that since it’s the systems that take you forward, all you need is to focus on said systems and the goals will happen automagically. The process is the way, so to speak.
I have more thoughts to share on goals vs process in another article. In this one I want to highlight a dimension that is often overlooked when talking about goals.
I tend to look at life in a way that I have borrowed from how theatres are run. In time, I’ve learnt that it’s used in larger businesses too. Namely: there’s a project scope and a line scope.
The project scope
The project scope are those things that have start and finish dates. Create this, do that, at that deadline. The aim is clear and the goal has an obvious finish line. These are also called telic activities.
In theatres and businesses, the projects are the productions and client project work, respectively. They have their own budgets and people involved that are responsible for things being executed on time with a successful result. A project is ephemeral and disappears when done.
Not all businesses are project-based. But even those who don’t speak of what they do in terms of projects are discerning between income generating activities and overhead. The project scope is what generates the revenue.
On a personal level, these are the projects and goals you set for yourself.
The line scope
The line scope relate to things that don’t really finish or have a clear deadline. Either they recur regularly (like doing the dishes and home chores) or the achievement is in the doing (like hanging out with friends). The latter activities are also called atelic activities.
In theatres and businesses, the line scope are things like HR and planning. All those things that provide the infrastucture for projects to be run at all. These people and processes are those that initiate the projects, and ideally takes lessons and learnings from previous projects and transfer them to the next (aka feedback loops).
The line scope is more permanent: it will still be there no matter which projects are ongoing. It includes that which is considered as overhead, activities that are needed for everything to function but not in themselves generating revenue.
On a personal level, this relates to your ongoing habits and routines. Your lifestyle choices – the standard areas of diet, physical movement, sleep, stress management, and recreation/fun. In a way you might call it the operating system of your life.
This distinction is important
I think there are too few people who recognizes and acknowledges these two different levels of operating. One of the reasons I appreciate Tiago’s PARA setup in his course Building A Second Brain is that it’s a structure that supports this reality.
He differentiates between “Projects” (project scope) and “Areas” (line scope). Tiago advocates making the projects that you track really small, ideally able to finish within one week. And Areas are the part of your life that never ends, an ongoing effort or responsibility you have.
For me, Areas become a way to keep track of my line scope. Areas can spawn projects, and then “harvest” the learnings from each project and bringing those lessons to the next one. If I want to maintain a habit, that belongs to an Area of my life. If I have recurring routines I want or need to do, they also belong to an Area.
The strength of your line determines the projects you can handle
The line is what supports you when you tackle your goals. A bit like a string that you can put beads on to form a necklace. The beads are your projects, and they follow each other one after another. The line scope is the string in the middle connecting it all together.
But you can’t make a neckless with any size of string. A too thin string will not be able to handle large or heavy beads, and your neckless will break under the load. Make the string too thick and you can hardly fit any beads on it at all, it’ll be impossible to pull the string through the holes of the beads.
Having an insufficient or unsupporting life structure means that you can’t take on challenging projects without breaking. That’s an obvious no brainer. In business, this is the danger of growing too fast: you won’t have the support structure in place to handle the growth.
But the other way around is true too, and a more insidious situation, because it comes from a place of good intentions.
You can’t setup your life with a gazillion useful habits. You can’t add an infinite amount of things in your daily routine. If your regular schedule is consumed with “maintenance” stuff, there will be no time and space left to actually tackle the projects!
I’ve fallen into that trap myself. There’s so many things that one could do, and all of them beneficial in some way or another. And often when I read about something that “only takes 20 minutes of your time each day”, there’s a part of me that automatically wants to add it to my own list of daily things. Right now. It’s just a small thing, right?
But I can’t do 30 minutes of meditation, 30 minutes of reading, 15 minutes of gratitude journalling and goal visualisation, plus some stretching and breathing exercises every morning before breakfast. Oh and I forgot about the morning run I should do. And the super nourishing breakfast, eaten with complete serenity and no stress. And the cold shower. And… – well you get the picture.
As with most things, there’s a balance to make between having enough support and avoiding creating a structure that gets in your way. You don’t want to create something that is a weight on your shoulders rather than a stable base underneath you.
In business, you simply can’t have too much overhead in relation to activities that generate revenue. It’ll quickly take you out of said business. Whether it’s virtual assistants or an office lease, you always need to be wary to keep it within acceptable range.
Making the line thicker will enable you to take on bigger projects. Make it too thick and it will eat up your profits and be a net loss.
Changing and adapting the line is a project in itself
My personal line scope is what runs everything else. It’s on as much autopilot as possible. If I want to change it, I would create a project with the goal of making that change.
Like a 30-day challenge of trying a new habit, or evaluating a practice or process and coming up with improvement suggestions. And when the project is done, the change will be incorporated into my habits and routines so I don’t have to do a lot of thinking about keeping it up.
The line scope is not all about the process
When I read others talk about systems vs goals, I have often translated it in my head to goals being the project scope and systems being the line scope. If the line scope is the operating system of my life, it’s very close at hand to associate it to whatever is referred to as “system”. But it is actually not an accurate translation.
Each goal need a process to get there. So even in the project scope you need to focus on the system, the way in which you’ll reach that goal.
And each activity you do as part of your routine and habits should ideally have a connection to a goal you have set. Whether it’s about being able to perform your best work, avoiding disease and premature aging, or simply enjoying your life a little bit more (and yes, it’s totally allowed to have a personal goal of enjoying life more).
The project scope benefits from having both goals and a process to get there. And the line scope benefits from the same things too. Everything needs both a what/why and a how.
Not a clear line between ongoing and temporary activities
What complicates things somewhat is that if you have a large or long term goal, it can sometimes be hard to turn it into a single focus project. Something where you put all else aside, work on until it’s done and then move on to the next. It’s just too big for that.
And other goals are not obvious whether they should be approached as a continuous habit/process vs focused deep dive.
How long term does an effort need to be in order to be classified as ongoing? And what kind of goals will be better suited to be treated through habits and small steps vs a heavy lift, one-time, big effort?
It depends of course.
When it comes to decluttering your home, conventional wisdom tell us to make a habit of putting away our stuff and spend 15 minutes everyday uncluttering. They say it’s the ongoing continuing effort that counts, making baby steps that over time will compound towards reaching our goal.
Then Marie Kondo comes around with her KonMari method and says that it never works, that you should completely unclutter your space in one go and you will never go back after that. No baby steps here, a big one-time effort, going all in and working until completion.
Building or renovating a house, learning a language or instrument, creating a business – these are all bigger endeavours that really need to have a well thought-trough approach about the best way to handle them.
And the question is – is there a best way to handle these? I think the answer partly depends on your personality, and partly on all other things going on in your life.
How much visible feedback do you need in order to feel like making progress? Perhaps little and often is demoralising to you because you can’t see the progress and things are happening too slowly. Or perhaps you prefer this way of working because you feel you are steadily moving the needle forward, one step at a time, while also working on other things.
How much attention can you give this goal right now? Can you put everything else aside while you make a big dent towards this goal, or do you have to use the small and often approach because there are other commitments that take up your time (hello parents)?
The answer to these questions will help you determine whether to put this goal under the project scope or the line scope. And the scope you choose will in turn affect the kind of process you choose to use to accomplish the goal.
The strength of combining approaches
No matter if what you do belongs to a project scope or line scope, everything benefits from having both a goal (a destination) and a process (a way of getting there).
Knowing which scope your particular goal belong to will help you determine the right kind of process to choose in order to reach the desired destination.
As for the bigger goals, I think that both scopes need to be worked on. In order to put a really big and heavy pearl onto your necklace, you need to make sure that your string can handle it. If the string is too weak, you need to work on that too.
Perhaps you need to work on both the line scope and the project scope in order to be able to reach that goal. It’s not necessarily an either-or situation, but rather a yes-and.