How Not Setting Goals Allowed Us to Buy 157 Units in 2015 and 123 Units in 2016

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Back in 2013, we set the goal of buying 100 houses that year. We finished with 54. Not bad, but we failed to hit our goal, right?

In fact, I would say we failed in the opposite direction. Particularly in the latter half of that year, the deals we got were subpar, and our rehabs started to go way over budget. We later learned that our rehab coordinator was taking kick backs and doing a lousy job in general, which greatly contributed to the poor performance.

So, I would say that if anything, our failure was in buying too much, not too little.

Then, in 2015, we bought 124 properties with a total of 157 units, and in 2016, we bought 91 properties with a total of 123 units. Most of this was due to two large packages of houses we could not have foreseen (a package of 97 houses in 2015 and a package of 41 houses in 2016). In neither of those years did we set a goal at the outset for the number of properties we wanted to purchase, but in 2015, we exceeded our 2013 goal, and in 2016 we were very close (and exceeded it terms of units).

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Taking Advantage of Opportunities Instead of Setting Arbitrary Goals

Nassim Nicholas Taleb noted how difficult (all but impossible, really) it was to predict the future in his book The Black Swan. The title refers to highly improbable events (or events that we mistakenly thought were highly improbable) that can completely throw things out of whack. In the global sense, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis would qualify as Black Swans.

Related: 5 Highly Actionable Steps to Make REAL Progress Towards Your Investing Goals

Taleb also mentioned how important it was to be able to take advantage of Black Swan opportunities when they appear. Indeed, his recommendation is to literally “drop everything.”

But it’s not just Black Swans. Indeed, despite buying fewer one-off deals in 2015 and 2016 than 2013, the deals we bought were better, and the rehabs weren’t a mess. That was because we had our systems in place and were taking advantage of opportunities as we could find them instead of pushing for an arbitrary goal. We weren’t reaching. Indeed, we didn’t have anything like the necessary infrastructure in 2013 to take on the two packages we later purchased. That infrastructure was built up slowly, piece by piece and system by system.

Let’s use an out-of-left-field example to clarify this point: Why are decimal numbers—be it 10, 100 or 1000—so attractive to us for goals? (“I want to buy 100 houses,” “I want to get down to 150 pounds,” “I want to bench press 200 pounds,” etc.) In all likelihood, the only reason humans use a decimal number system is because we have 10 fingers. But it would make much more sense to use an eight-based or octal number system (that went 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10…) since eight is a round number. With our current system, you have 64 teams in the NCAA tournament instead of what would be a nice, even 100 in an octal system (64 in a decimal system would equal 100 in an octal system). An octal system would be simpler and less messy.

So, let’s say the United States adopts the metric system, the world switches to speaking Esperanto and we all move to an octal number system. Then we may have pushed for a nice, even goal of 100 houses, but that would only be 64.

In another example, let’s say you wanted to get your weight down to 180 pounds. But then maybe you get sent off to the new Mars base and now only weigh 67.8 pounds, which would be a rather odd goal to set.


The Trouble With Goals

The moral of the story is that the numbers we use for these goals are often arbitrary. Furthermore, things change, and often they change fast. What if we found in the middle of 2013 that focusing entirely on apartments or commercial would have been a superior way to go? Well, then our goal would have been completely useless. Or maybe it would have been worse than that as our goal psychologically pushed us to stay with what we were doing. The goal could act as its own inertia to prevent us from taking advantage of a Black Swan or other, more mundane opportunities.

This point was really driven home to me when reading Scott Adam’s—the creator of the comic Dilbert—new book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Here’s how he describes the trouble with goals:

“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” (Adam 32).

And if you fail to hit your goal, it’s even worse as it can be a major hit to your self-esteem.

Scott Adams recommends systems, not just for your business, but for your life in general. Here’s how he differentiates the two:

“The system-versus-goal model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal” (33).

One example he gives of a system is that he must go to the gym everyday. He doesn’t have to work out, but he has to walk in. Nine times out of 10, that will be enough, and he’ll work out. But every once in a while, it’s not, and he goes home. But the system has kept him working out consistently for many years.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Adding Systems & Outsourcing to Work Less in Real Estate

I applied this idea to several areas to my personal life. One example is that I found myself eating out too much or just picking up something from a convenience store during a busy workday. So I just banned myself from eating out on my own or buying any food from a convenience store. A ban on any sort of junk food usually fails, but that’s not what this ban is. I can still eat whatever I want. I could eat a dozen deep-fat-fried Twinkies doused in whipped cream and partially hydrogenated chocolate sauce if I want to. They just can’t come from a convenience store or restaurant. Maybe it goes without saying, but since then, I’ve been eating much healthier.

With real estate, one of many possible examples would be to focus on the system of how many letters you send out each week, to whom, and the analytics you run on your marketing, not how many properties you buy.

Focus on the System

Again, goals regarding how much to buy may push you to buy stuff you shouldn’t.

This isn’t to say that specific goals have no place at all. Indeed, part of measuring is to see what you need to improve on. And goals can be set in those regards, but they should be subordinate to your systems. If you have to break your system to reach your goal, you should usually discard your goal.

Perhaps it’s better to see these goals as and refer to them as targets to aim for or something like that. This is because the word “goal” sounds like the absolute top of what you are aiming for, when they shouldn’t be. Systems should be at the top.

Overall, the system-based model is something you should orient yourself toward. Systems can be applied to all sorts of areas in your life and business, and it’s much more effective than just having arbitrary goals to aim for.

How do you keep your business on track—with systems, goal-setting, or something entirely different?

Leave your thoughts below!

About Author

Andrew Syrios

Andrew Syrios has been investing in real estate for over a decade and is a partner with Stewardship Investments, LLC along with his brother Phillip and father Bill. Stewardship Investments focuses on the BRRRR strategy—buying, rehabbing and renting out houses and apartments throughout the Kansas City area. Today, they have over 300 properties and just under 500 units. Stewardship Properties on the whole has just under 1,000 units in six states. Andrew received a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from the University of Oregon with honors and his Masters in Entrepreneurial Real Estate from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He has also obtained his CCIM designation (Certified Commercial Investment Member). Andrew has been a writer for BiggerPockets on real estate and business management since 2015. He has also contributed to Think Realty Magazine, REI Club, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Data Driven Investor and Alley Watch.


  1. Matthew Jankiewicz

    Thanks for posting this great article. I’ve always suspected that setting arbitrary goals was a fast ticket to disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, but I wasn’t entirely sure if that was typical. You’ve definitely confirmed that implementing systems is the better route. I’ve tried to incorporate them in my business and personal life, but sometimes I get a little overzealous and try to change too many things at once. The best method that has worked for me is adding a new system or behavior to my routine, repeating it until it becomes a habit, and then adding another, and so forth.

  2. Sonia Spangenberg

    Andrew, this is a brilliant concept! For those of us who are perfectionists always disappointing ourselves, this alleviates the self destruction. Did you come up with this yourself? I have known that I needed to develop systems but kept getting distracted with the process of working on those important goals. It’s the process that gets one to a goal. I now plan to change my focus. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Christopher Smith

    Goal are a little like rules of thumb, they permit a person to turn off the really difficult aspects of genuine real time decision making and allow a person to run on brain dead auto pilot, often times with totally predictable inferior results.

  4. Giovanni Isaksen

    Great thoughts as always Andrew!

    An acquisition system also prevents our human biases from taking over at the worst possible time and all the best investors have one. Three of the best to learn from are Warren Buffett, Jeremy Grantham of GMO and Howard Marks of Oaktree (and they’re free!). Their annual/quarterly letters lay out how and why they’ve developed the systems they have including the things they learned Not to do. It’s no coincidence that they’re all Value Investors though, Value Investing is just real estate investing applied to stocks and companies!

  5. Josh Hooper

    Good article. I pretty much agree with you, but I do think that goal setting is a necessary part of the process to orient yourself appropriately in order to implement the systems that will get you to where you want to be (your goal). Thinking and dreaming big and having a purpose are critical for you to want/need to implement the appropriate system. Many times people focus too much on a goal and not enough on the small chunks (systems that can be implemented) that will actually get you there.
    Thanks for sharing valuable counterintuitive insights in this article.

  6. Jeff Rabinowitz

    Goals are helpful for many but I find them limiting. How can one make a goal in an area that they do not currently understand? Continuous learning and keeping oneself open to possibilities allows for greater growth. I am doing things and have done things that I could not have conceived of only a few years earlier. Had I made and followed plans I may have been too focused to recognize the opportunities when they presented and too busy to embrace them.

  7. Todd Thomas

    Great article! I’ve taught and coached on this subject for years. What you call “system”, I call values and I’m famous for saying that “values trump goals”. It’s more important to live a values focused life than a goals focused life. Values…system…the idea is the same and a solid one. A person whose goal it is to reach the top of a mountain and doesn’t has failed and is often frustrated and disappointed. A person who’s focused on his values of exercise, a physical challenge, enjoying nature and beautiful scenery, etc. in climbing towards the top of the mountain he wants to reach is ultimately happy and satisfied in accomplishing all of those things whether he reaches the top or not. Again, very nicely state. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Susan Maneck

    I think goals may help those who need something to help them jump start, but they had almost nothing to do with my own real estate strategies. I got my properties when either a) I had a need or b) I saw an opportunity.

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