Systems over Goals

Systems over Goals

Main Points
• In general, systems are superior to goals.
• Systems show the actual daily path to achieve your goal, they renew motivation every time they’re applied, and they carry you beyond the initial goal.
• Goals don’t define the path to reach them, goals only motivate when ultimately reached, and they only get the specified results defined in the goal and nothing beyond it.
• Systems are often used by creatives to accomplish their dreams.

This post will be similar to my other one on Flash Fire vs Steady Flame Goals but there are enough key differences that are worth repeating. I was first formally introduced to the idea of systems vs goals by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, in his book How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big. As I’ve looked back on my writing career (or really anything else), my greatest success has been where I’ve used systems instead of goals. But what’s wrong with goals?

The Problem with Goals Mountains too far and too shrouded
A goal is like a distant mountain, maybe not unreachable but the path isn’t clear. As an old Zen parable states, “when you have one eye on the goal, you have only one eye on the path.” The system is the path that gets you to the external goal. It’s like stepping onto a moving walkway–so long as you stay on it, the system will keep heading you in the right direction. A goal doesn’t allow you to see the individual steps ahead. It might give you direction, but it might lead you off a cliff as well.

Goals also have an inherent lack of motivation. Note that I’ll define goal here the same way as Adams does in his book:

. . . 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 {success} 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.

This may seem pedantic but there’s an important difference here. The celebration victory for the goal setter only comes when the actual goal is reached, not before. In contrary (from Adams’ book again):

Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems . . . That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

Following systems allows you to celebrate every day.

A further point is that goals only carry you to a certain point with a specific end in mind. That end might be worth it (such as lose 10 pounds), but a system can go farther (e.g. learning to live healthily through exercise and diet which may eventually shed more than 10 pounds and/or add years to your life). The same is applicable with writing. A system of writing/learning about writing will get you much farther over your lifetime than a goal of finishing a book. There are simply more potential rewards in a system than in a goal.

Making Systems Creating the path
But what is a system?
Simply put, it’s the path to get you to your goal, or to get you habituated to whatever outcome you’d like to see. Most likely, a system will involve daily things to do and/or learn. Its habits and applied time in a specific framework to get you where you want to be.

Want to become a great martial artist (the subject of the before mentioned Zen parable)? There’s a system to that.

Want to become a great writer? There’s a system to that. An example might include the following:
-write a bunch
-read a bunch
-get a bunch of feedback
-practice a bunch
-learn a bunch
-do all of the above a bunch

I wrote that a bit facetiously but only a little. A more fleshed out system might be something like
-write 30 minutes every day, 5 days a week
-read 1 book every month in my target genre to learn good writing
-get feedback from 3 friends, once a month on how my writing is
-practice 2 different kinds of scenes I struggle with once a month and get feedback
-find 3 articles a month to read about specific writing issues I’m struggling with
-commit to doing this system for 3 months and see how it’s going

Now you might look at this and say, “That’s way too much!” I thought that when I was writing it! If it’s scary, there’s no shame in paring back and not doing everything at once (maybe something like write 15 minutes every weekday). I’ve found that having realistic/slow burn systems better than expecting to run at breakneck speed. The important thing with a system is consistency. Build the system easy enough to enjoy the process and feel success each time you follow it.

I stumbled on systems in developing 500-50-5. It showed me a daily/weekly routine I could do that achieved the results I wanted. And it worked.

Many of my blog posts deal with creating systems, which I hadn’t realized until I wrote this post:
The War of Art is about using a system to become a professional creative
Take off Your Pants! is a system for outlining
-Creating playlists is just using systems to generate new ideas
NaNoWriMo is a system, including daily goals, meetings, and kickoffs
-Learning to play bagpipes was a system
-Even something like the Pomodoro technique is a kind of mini system

As I said before, my greatest successes in writing have all come through systems. Despite me wanting to reach goals, the only way I’ve been able to make meaningful progress is developing a system I can stick with that will reach the intended target, then simply working my hardest to stay on that system. If the system is well developed, it’ll take me to the intended results (and beyond!).

But what about you? Are there any systems you’ve used in your life for success in writing or otherwise? In your mind, how might a system look different than a goal?

4 thoughts on “Systems over Goals

  1. I attend two of the year-round local write-ins per week (barring travel or illness), which keeps me from sliding out of the writing habit for too long.
    Due to a change at work, my commute got longer and my work environment more stressful. I’ve started taking my lunch, and I’ve stepped away from my lunch buddies, so I can reclaim some of that time by eating and then writing. (As a side bonus, it’s also some nice introvertin’ time built into the middle of the day, which helps me make it through the afternoon).
    I’m having a little trouble establishing a “write before work” habit, but the mid-week morning write-in is helping that become my internal “normal”. It’s not the habit yet, but I shouldn’t be too resistant to implementing it as the year progresses.

    1. That sounds like a great system! I’ve tried the early morning writing too and it can be brutal. I used to write a bunch during lunch and that produced a ton of work after a month or two. Thanks for sharing about your systems!

      1. It works pretty well most of the time, or has since the change at work.
        On the other hand, one of my coworkers interrupted me just as I was starting to write, and it derailed me for a bit. So I only effectively ended up with about fifteen minutes (still enough time to dash out part of a scene, though!)

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