Systems are better than goals


During the London Chess Classic I was blessed by the occasional company of one of my favourite people in the whole world, my former student Sabino Brunello. Sabino had gone to London with the hope of qualifying for the Super-16, but as things turned out, even the magical 4/4 would not have been enough.

One of the things we talked about is the foreword for my Thinking Inside the Box, which Sabino has promised to write. I assured him that I would write the book before becoming pushy about it, and tried to give him some hints about what I would like him to write about.

To me, the most memorable incident from the six years we worked together was when Sabino told me that he would never be 2600. I am not sure if he was 19 or 20; something like this. One or two years later he was performing out of this world at the 2011 European Team Championship; his team captain Artur Kogan was calling him ‘Messi’, explaining that the others would just defend, leaving Sabino to secure the 1-0 (or 2.5-1.5 if you like) victory. After winning the decisive game in the last round, Sabino met Shirov in the lift. Being just a few points from 2600, Sabino was finally believing it was possible. What Shirov said threw him: “So Sabino, next stop 2700?!”

This Christmas I have finally come across a succinct description of something I have felt for a while. “Goals are for losers, systems are for winners.”

While the rest of the family has been building Lego City, Lego Friends and trashing the furniture, I have been reading Scott Adams’ book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” subtitled “Sort of the Story of my Life.” I got the book because of an email with a suggestion for a possible post on exactly this topic and I have to say that I am very glad I did. Thank you.

Let us get the review out of the way first:

The book is delightful. It is funny, informative, honest, personal and useful. Most people have learned some things in life that are worth sharing. Adams (of Dilbert fame) clearly has spent a lot of time thinking about success and happiness and shares without reservations, even when it makes him look like an idiot. If at all interested: buy it.

The strongest idea in the book is the systems>goals thinking.

Goals are perpetual failures, according to Adams. If you are trying to lose 10 pounds, you will have failed until you succeed. And in some cases the failure is permanent (certainly Christmas makes me feel this way at the moment!).

Systems are, on the other hand, a success every time they are applied. Adams’ system for exercise is to get dressed for exercise and go to the gym, giving himself the permission to turn around and go home, should he really not feel like it. It happens to him five times a year. This is not a failure; it is part of the system and he does not have to feel bad about it.

Thinking about chess, I am not sure goals have ever done anything good for me or anyone I have worked with. Sabino wanted to be a GM badly, but the last norm took years. I went to the British Championship “going for the title”, as I told John. I meant the GM-title, John obviously thought I should win the whole thing. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I told him… Two weeks later, I was ridiculously the British Champion.

The thing that always worked for me is finding the best move and playing it when I have made up my mind. Titles, goals, rating and so on have not worked for me or anyone I know. Doing the work and enjoying doing the work is what works. Setting up a system that helps you to do and enjoy this is the most effective course of action.

Here is a possible system for chess improvement:

1) Do half an hour of training every day

2) Have 2-3 different training methods to choose from (GM Preparation, Yusupov books, reading middlegame books, studying your openings, studying endings, playing training games with a friend, solving studies and so on… choose a few to focus on at the moment). Make sure you are not choosing more than 3 or it will become ineffective.

3) Choose whatever topic you feel most like that day. The variation and freedom to choose will hopefully make it feel like fun instead of work.

4) Think about ways to make your training more enjoyable before you start each day.

Obviously this is not a complicated system, but do you find that complicated systems work in your life?

Good luck, and if you haven’t already, then make the transition from reading about chess training to consistent training today.

(In the following weeks I will suggest a few other ideas from the Adams book that I already have come across elsewhere. Beat me to it by reading Adams’ book!)

23 thoughts on “Systems are better than goals”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree about the Scott Adams book. It’s a game changer and its only flaw is that it’s not published by Quality Chess 🙂 . Setting an unrealistic goal and then trying too hard led me to quit chess for a year. In the meantime I established a system and enjoy chess more than ever. To me the Scott Adams book and Axel Smith’s “Pump up your rating” were the two most influential books of last year.

  2. @wok64
    Except that the title of Axel Smith’s book is kind of formulated like a goal (‘increasing my rating’), whereas in ‘system-terms’ it should have been something like ‘The Smith Method – bringing the fun back in chess training.’ 🙂

  3. Michael Bartlett

    I am using exactly the method described by GM Aagaard right now. Splitting my time between POSITIONAL PLAY, Dvoretsky’s Tactics book and an opening strategy book which I am mostly using for noting tactical patterns. Having a great time and looking forward to bringing in the Axel Smith book to the party.

  4. Must admit that right now, I’m using several books but also only 3 themes:

    1. Loads of tactical training via Attack and Defence, The Giant Chess Puzzle Book by Franco and using the Tactics Trainer on which I really enjoy (super good for the Woodpecker method I think as Smith recommends in Pump).
    2. Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual
    3. Study of openings using Schandorff’s Caro-kann book and Petrov’s Benoni book + Avrukh’s 2 d4 books + Tait’s Nimzo-Larsen attack.

    70% of the time is used on item 1, 10% on item 2 and 20% on item 3. When Aaagaard publishes Endgame Play, item 2 will increase wildly, even though it must be a combination of item 1 +2…

  5. This also ties in to the very first blog post in the improvement series — “Why do you want to improve in chess?”

    Chess improvement is a goal. Having fun analysing several times per week is more like a system. Back in March I wrote “maybe I’ll stop playing the game some day, to concentrate on my new hobby: setting up a few chess positions to solve them each day” in a comment.

    Now I can’t say I still manage to do it daily (life got even busier) but I definitely play around with chess pieces in the evening a lot more than when I was just trying to improve my results.

  6. I think the main problem with setting goals (at least to me) is the “R” in the “SMART” acronym. It’s easy to try too hard aiming at too much. In that sense I believe the “system approach” in the end is a smart (pun intended) trick to set realistic goals. Basically the intention “I solve 20 chess puzzles each day” is also a goal. In that sense the “system approach” replaces long term goals by daily short term goals. And it’s much easier to have a “SMART” idea about what you can achieve tomorrow compared to what you may be able to achieve this year.

    That said it’s worth reading Jacobs April 2013 column on setting goals.

  7. I guess the big question becomes where are the lines are drawn. Like if you are studying Openings, is that one item of the 3, or some large number (depending on how many openings you study)?

    I’d consider what I’m going thru as being 3 things, but others may say I’m well beyond 3:

    1) Problems (GM Preparation – Strategic Play [Chapter 1] and the Quality Chess Puzzle Book [About 140 problems in], the latter mainly for when I’m either traveling in a vehicle but not driving, or right before going to sleep or right after waking up in a hotel room, the former for all other times) – Total of 40%

    2) Game Collections (Chess on the Edge Volume 1 [43 games in] and How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster in the World [Chapter 4]) – Total of 20%

    3) Openings – Wide Range (White: 1.e4, 1.d4, Black: 1…e5, Taimanov Sicilian, Dutch, Old Indian), also study complete games featuring whatever opening I’m studying that day or night – Total of 40%

  8. @wok64
    If “solving 20 positions is a goal” then you cannot distinguish between systems and goals. I think the point here is the emphasis. If it is on solving, it is a training method (aka system), if it is 20, then it is a goal (though it could still be argued to be a system :-).

  9. Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for the post; systems seem like a good idea as I failed to reach several goals I set for Q4 of 2013 :-/ Although Axel Smith writes about goal setting in Pump… it would be great if he’d like to chime in and comment on this topic 🙂

    I’m reading an interesting book right now – The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore. It’s about turning from procrastinating to “producing” as he calls it, and has several great ideas to do that (I’m about 50% into the book now, but I can recommend it from what I’ve read so far).
    He has one idea that strikes me as relevant for this topic – setting up an immediate reward after doing the quality work. His reasoning is that by having ambiguous and distant rewards for doing the work/training (such as “I’ll win more games and tournaments/increase my strength and rating/ get a FM/IM/GM title”), we make our intention to train consistently harder for ourselves whenever we don’t feel like it or when there are alternatives at hand that bring instant satisfaction (online blitz, anyone?). What he proposes instead (nothing new, I guess) is to promise yourself a reward immediately after training, I would say even if it’s unrelated to chess (worked very well for me today 🙂 ). That way, the mind has something to look forward to in the near future and the probability to complete the task at hand increases… hope I make sense 🙂

    “Good luck, and if you haven’t already, then make the transition from reading about chess training to consistent training today.” – Message of the month, at least!

  10. I make systems for myself. It never occurred to me that I’m, perhaps, ‘failing at almost everything’ but still, I’m curious to hear how I’ll ‘still win big’. (In truth, I’m more curious how ‘winning big’ will be defined).

    When a copy is available, send it along (with Chess Evolution 2!).


    The point of mentioned system is clear: in order to achieve goal you have to have good system, so setting goal is not enough! You have to have good and detailed system which will by default lead you to the success.

    Similar said Jesus Christ: “Look for kingdom of heaven, and everything else will then be added to you” 🙂

    Actually there is a slightly different point. The goal is an obstruction. If you have a goal, you are a loser till you get the goal; it has negative psychological effect. If you have a system, you are a winner every day you put it into effect.

    In psychology they call it goal or process oriented. Process is better in my experience.

  13. I used to have a copy of Boost your Chess 3 (Yusupov) but I lost it somewhere while I was transporting my stuff to my new department. Can someone please tell me what was the old game annotated in Defence chapter. Thanks in advance!

  14. The goal is to have a good process; the process is to have reasonable/realistic goals. I find it a bit similar to a chicken/egg problem. I think both are necessary and useful and not yet attaining a goal is not a depressive thing: all goals are things not yet achieved otherwise they would be called achievements and not goals. It is also a bit like using plans in chess: never play without a plan! Or: just play the best move in the position. Goals are necessary since they influence/motivate your system. You must have an answer to why you are using a system, and you must have a way to achieve your goals. But in the end behavior is more important than intention and therefore system is more important, I agree with that.

  15. @Indra Polak
    I like the comparison with Chess (of which I had not thought). Because I find that one of the big things I have to help my students with is to understand what their task is: to solve the problem at hand and not to worry about the result, because thinking of the result is almost ALWAYS reducing your playing strength.

  16. @A.Manninen,
    there are two old games in the chapter. Chigorin & Ponce – Steinitz & Gavilan, Havana 1889 and Winawer-Lasker, Nurnberg 1896

  17. btw Sabino opened the serie “Il Mentalista” on Sky Uno:
    hXXp:// (italian language)

  18. Budjonny, thanks for info.!I believe I was referring to Winawer-Lasker. In my view, its the “old dogma” of chess defence. The new dogma is, of course, that Anand-Carlsen game.

  19. Gosh, the Scott Adams book is incredibly entertaining. The only problem with this book is that it gives me less time to look at chess 🙂

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