Systems Instead of Goals: Applying one of James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” rules to writing
By Andromeda Romano-Lax
I’ve been a goal junkie my entire life. I credit my goal-setting (so many words per day, so many pages per week) for my consistent publishing record.
But James Clear, author of the bestselling Atomic Habits, recently made me re-think my own use of the term “goal” and the advice I give my book coaching clients, who are often struggling to finish books, find agents or just write a paragraph on any given day.
Says Clear: “We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.”
More of his wisdom:
Goals are good for planning progress—for example, setting a direction.
My example of a good hypothetical writer’s goal: “I’d really like to finish a rough draft of this first novel/ memoir by the end of the year.”
But systems are good for actually making progress.
My example of an even better hypothetical writer’s system: “I plan to write at a café for ninety minutes at a time, three days per week. The days I’m not writing, I’ll spend ten minutes before bedtime looking over my notes or manuscript-in-progress, planting those items in my subconscious to help generate dreams or random next-day insights. I’ll make time for mind-wandering by going for regular walks or doing the dishes each evening without auditory distractions—e.g. no podcast or anything meant to entertain me—so that my mind stays focused on the story I’m mentally constructing.
Let’s try another.
Good Goal: I really need an agent! My goal is to find one before next year.
Better System: One hour each Sunday, from my home office and with a homemade latte at my side, I will study Publishers Marketplace (https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/), make note of agent thank yous in the books I’m reading, do twenty minutes of relevant Twitter browsing (not too much!), or review the notes from that “How to Get an Agent” class I took from 49 Writers. Then, one Sunday per month, I will spend three hours in my home office, sending out new batches of queries to five new prospective agents. I’ll continue this system monthly for at least six months, checking in by email with an accountability partner.
Good Goal: I feel isolated. My goal is to make some writer friends who will help me build accountability and a feeling of community.
Better System: Having already tried Facebook and finding it insufficient, I will attend one new public writing or literacy event per month (online if necessary, in person when normal events resume). If I live in a place too remote for these options, I will take an online class and when it’s done, follow up with one or two people who seem to share my values or interests, asking if they’d like to swap writing or do weekly check-ins.
Why systems are better than goals:
As Clear points out, both the winners and losers of every contest have goals. Doesn’t every Olympian hope to win gold? Don’t most entrepreneurs want to get rich?
Knowing what you want is important, but it’s clearly not sufficient. Equally important are the actions we take regularly, even habitually.
But wait: is this blogpost simply arguing for clear, actionable steps over large, vague goals?
Yes and no. Steps are powerful—especially when they are highly specific, and all the better when they name time and place (i.e. “I will write 30/60/180 minutes every day in my home office/favorite café/car while waiting for my kids’ swim practice to end”).
But let’s look at how systems might go beyond mere steps or planned actions.
James Clear calls a system “what you plan to do each day,” i.e. in the case of writers, your writing schedule. I want to go further and suggest that a fully complex system goes beyond each day’s assignment.
A system might anticipate obstacles, changing work-flow needs or psychological variables. It might include more details about the design of one’s workspace or the control of distraction and the harnessing of attention.
To make this real, let me consider a week earlier this year, when I was striving to finish a messy draft of a new book. I put stronger systems into place, knowing I needed extra support for my efforts.
SYSTEM: Reduce distractions. I started using my Freedom app again, to block unhelpful websites. I also let my household know that writing this week was my number one priority. Ahead of time, I gave myself permission to skip unnecessary chores. I delayed how quickly I answered texts. I steeled myself for the anxiety that comes along with “seeming rude.”
SYSTEM: Keep motivation high. I told my daughter, a trusted beta reader, I’d be sending her new pages on specific days, knowing I’d feel pressured to comply. I also let several friends know I was reaching the end of a draft, hoping they’d check in for a progress update later.
SYSTEM: Stay healthy. After three days and nights of working until three in the morning with no limits whatsoever on anything I ate or drank, I switched from tortilla chips and chocolate to fruit and chocolate (there’s nothing wrong with chocolate!) and I relocated all alcohol bottles to the hard-to-reach crawlspace. I consider rewards and indulgences helpful, but feeling unhealthy is not. We all have a different balance when it comes to moderation. The key is knowing oneself and having a plan. The one thing that isn’t useful is feeling guilty.
As the days progressed, I knew that whether or not I achieved my precise writing goal—see how hard it is to leave that concept fully behind—my systems were keeping my gears spinning and helping me to have a great week.
A “process-oriented” focus doesn’t insist on delayed gratification and “either/ or” thinking. There’s no simple tick box for “goal achieved” versus “goal not achieved.” Instead, there is a system—dare we say, an ecosystem—in which creativity and artistic contentment has a better chance to flourish.
Andromeda Romano-Lax’s third novel, PLUM RAINS, set in Japan and Taiwan, won Canada’s Sunburst Award for Speculative Fiction. Her next novel, ANNIE AND THE WOLVES, will be published in early 2021. After writing this blogpost, she finished a rough draft of a thriller set in Central America. Andromeda is a book coach who loves helping people with their manuscripts and their writing processes. She lives on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.