Why Systems Beat Goals Every Time When It Comes To Writing Success
Why Systems Beat Goals Every Time When It Comes To Writing Success
By Neal Martin/ August 16, 2016
Last Updated April 26, 2023
When most people think about success and the process of achieving things, most often they think in terms of goals. To achieve things, you have to set goals that will help you do that–targets to aim for, destinations to get to in specific time frames.
The culture of self-help and business development that has been around for a few decades now always preaches the merits of goals, often breaking the whole process down into specific steps that you must follow in order to reach those goals. On paper, goal setting seems extremely logical and very feasible. You follow “this” process and “these” steps and you’re done. You will get from A to B easily.
But will you? In my experience, no.
I have tried to work with goal setting numerous times over the years, and every time I found the whole process to be ineffective, uninspiring and often very frustrating, as things invariably never run to the plan that you have so carefully envisioned.
There’s a quote by Mike Tyson that I was fond of using when I taught self-defence to people, and it’s this:
Everybody has a plan until they get hit.
Or how about:
People make plans and God laughs at them.
No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
You get what I’m saying. Goal setting is creating a plan, and plans never last long before they fall apart at the seams.
Yes, you can course correct, change your plan to include the previously unforeseen variables you encountered, but you will still end up frustrated and uninspired by the whole process.
Goals are not conducive to long-term progress either, as James Clear states in his article on the same subject:
Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?
This can create a type of “yo-yo effect” where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This type of cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.
Fuck goals. Fuck detailed plans. There has to be a better way, a more effective way, of getting what you want. Luckily, there is.
The Efficacy Of Systems
Systems are much better than goals. Systems are not as constraining, they don’t zap your inspiration and motivation because you failed to reach some short-term goal, and ironically, systems will allow you to achieve what you wanted in the first place.
Systems help you achieve goals.
That may sound confusing, but it isn’t.
As an example, if you’re a writer, your goal might be to write a novel, but your system for doing that would be to follow a writing schedule each day or week.
So rather than put pressure on yourself to write a certain amount of words–pressure that will ultimately lead you to feeling negative because you failed to meet your goal–commit to putting a system in place that lets you write as many words as possible each day. That way, there is no pressure. Whatever you get done, you get done.
More importantly, you’ll feel fine about it. Unlike when you fail to meet some unrealistic goal you set, in which case, you end up feeling like complete shit about yourself.
For me, what I get done, I get done. Some people may enjoy flagellating themselves with whips and chains because they didn’t get enough done, but I don’t. You try harder next time. That’s it. No need to beat yourself up about something you can’t change anyway. I’ll go smoke a joint and watch The Walking Dead and forget about it.
I write every day, but I have no word count goals or anything like that. My system is just to sit down every day and write. And guess what? I usually get a respectable amount of work done! Rarely less than a thousand words, most often two thousand or more (my record is 8000 words in one day).
The result of this system is that I end up writing three to four novels a year, as well as numerous blog articles.
If I set a goal to write three or four books a year, I don’t think I would do it. I have set goals in the past to write one book in a year, and I always failed miserably.
And I’m not the only one to have experienced this counterproductiveness. Mike Shreeve, a fiction and copy writer, said on his blog:
My “goal” was to write fiction full-time.
I did nothing for 5 months. Then I scrambled to put together 2 half-assed romantic suspense novellas because I had a “goal” of owning a romance genre.
The romantic suspense books were a total flop. I even used all my marketing magiks too. But nothing. Crickets.
I have done the exact same thing, having these vague goals of wanting to write full-time, or wanting to write so many books in a year. Every time I set such goals, I fell so far short that my desired outcome always remained a speck in the distance. Unreachable, it always seemed.
Mastery Is The Key To Success
My writing career didn’t start to take off until I committed myself to a daily writing practice.
I took it upon myself to write every single day (not always achievable, but mostly) and to work towards honing my craft and trying to master the art of writing itself.
The first year I committed to this regime, I wrote three novels in that year. That was something I never could have conceived of doing before.
And all because I simply sat down every day and practiced! No goals to work towards, nothing to cloud my daily practice.
All I did was write.
That is what I continue to do. Write. Every day. And it is working. I have published one novel this year so far, and I expect to publish two more by the end of the year. Who knows, as my daily practice continues, I may end up increasing my productivity as I continue to hone my system and my craft, but for now, I’m happy.
I’m happy that I am working on being a better writer every day.
How To Focus Your Daily Writing Practice Without Having To Set Goals
You can and should get a bit more specific with your daily practice than just sitting down to write whatever happens to come out of you that day.
I spoke in a previous article about the value of a ritual to help you push through the resistance to writing. You can also include reading time in your daily practice so you can read other books in your genre, or you could do specific writing exercises each day as well. It’s up to you. Do whatever you think you need to do in order to move further along the road to mastery.
And speaking of genre, you can focus yourself even more by committing to writing in a specific genre, rather than trying to write in multiple genres at once.
Look at bestselling writers like Stephen King and Lee Childs, and you will see that they stuck to one specific genre, and that’s the genre they published all their books in. Horror in King’s case (although he did eventually branch out, but only after he mastered the horror genre) and crime thrillers in Childs’ case. Study your genre well and work on mastering it in your own writing.
A nice side benefit of doing this is that the better you get at writing in your chosen genre, the more you will come to enjoy it and the more passion you will feel for it, which will in turn, enable you to keep going as you continue towards mastery.
To quote Mike Shreeve again:
Pick a genre where MASTERY is the main motivation.
If you do that, then you’ll make more money than you can possibly imagine.
They call it “life changing” money. And it’s true.
Mike may be overstating the financial gain here. There is never any guarantee that you will make money, even if you do master your genre completely. But you will be much more likely to if you do master the genre. You will also connect with readers more because you will know what they want in terms of the genre, which will of course help you sell more books in the end.
Send Goals Packing Back To The Pages Of Fluffy Self Help Books Where They Belong
Don’t waste your time.
Commit to mastery instead.
Commit to daily practice.
Commit to being the best you can be.
Do the work every single day and you will come to benefit in ways that you never could have imagined.
Success isn’t complicated. It just takes work…and a good system to follow.
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