Knocking Down the Goalposts: Why Writing Systems Are More Useful Than Goals
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
There are creatures in this world that strike awe and terror into my heart - beasts who exist on a plane beyond my mortal understanding. I hear about them, see the evidence they leave behind, and wake up in a cold sweat on many a sultry night, thinking about them. They are...
Freaky, right? There are people out there who think up a cohesive, functional goal and just...accomplish it.
Or so it seems to us outsiders. As it turns out, there's a lot more to this phenomenon than meets the eye. I have summoned my writerly courage and explored this deep and murky mystery just for you. What I discovered was that, ironically, successful, goal-oriented people are actually not that goal-oriented. What they are is system-oriented. There have even been studies breaking this so-called trait down so that us mere mortals can understand it.
Essentially, goals are not just goals. Confused yet? Don't be. Gather round, children of the word, and let me guide you on a thrilling journey...
Goals vs. Systems.
Alright, here's where it starts. Coincidentally it's also where a lot of writers get it wrong. You think you want to "finish writing a goddamn book, for once," but what you really want to "develop a goddamn system that lets me finish writing a book, for once."
The goddamn book in question is merely the goalpost, you see. By trying to get to it without having any of the tools or maps you need, you are setting yourself up for, at best, a more-difficult-than-necessary experience. More likely, you're setting yourself up to give up.
Being too goal-focused can have decidedly negative effects on a person's motivation and sustainable mindset. It's a classic example of missing the forest for the trees, and this tunnel vision can actually become a source of lasting, widespread unhappiness.
Let me give you a picture to help see this systems-over-goals philosophy in action. I absolutely despise 99% of sports metaphors, so we aren't going to go with the typical soccer-football-heteronormative nonsense to illustrate my point. No, instead I want you to imagine a gladiator. Oh, yes, oiled up and ready for battle-
Ahem, anyway, a gladiator didn't just wake up one day, do a quick workout, and barrel into the amphitheater with his trident hoping to win. That would be a one-way ticket to a bloody, though admittedly entertaining, death within the first round. A gladiator - well, a real one, not the poor dudes who just got thrown in there for intermission lion food - trained like his life depended on it before he set foot in that colosseum; because guess what? It did!
He learned the techniques specific to his weapon of choice, learned the techniques specific to his enemies' weapons of choice, gained muscle and speed, sharpened his mind, and did whatever it took to be able to stand before the crowd and fight without having to think twice about it. It became reflexive.
That is the difference between goals and systems. A goal is assumed. It is "I want to live past this match." Obviously you want to get from point A to point B, that's a given. The question is, do you want to get there in a wheelbarrow or a Lamborghini? A system is a strategy, procedure, or vehicle that makes your goals happen. It is, "I want to become habitually skilled at x, y, and z so that Jeremy the Big-Sword Guy doesn't behead me in the arena."
Writers struggle with this more than most, in my experience. Not the big sword guy. The goals thing. The alluring, shiny image of a finished work is very distracting for most of us, and as soon as the actual process of writing, rewriting, editing, polishing, researching, etc etc etc begins, many of us burn out in record time.
So, knowing the difference between those shiny but ultimately distant goals and the systems that are going to make them happen is vital to lasting success.
Elements of an Effective System - Every Journey is a Series of Steps (duh).
Look, I'm sure we're all tired of the infinite cliches that bombard us like persistent telemarketers every time we open up a blog post or self-help book, but I promise that they can be useful.
You look at your bookshelf and see a collection of beautiful objects - but on some level you're very much aware that the visuals belie a whole slew of processes and methods taken by the authors to create said objects. And you know that they aren't just items, they are works of art, filled with complex and varied systems and styles.
If you break down that awareness and think of yourself in the third person, as if you are one of these faceless authors sitting upon your own shelves (like a classy and significantly less gluttonous Noface from Spirited Away), the steps show themselves readily.
Here is my own personal, very elementary example. Step 1: Have an idea, or let the idea have you (insert scandalous sitcom oOoooOOOOOoo sounds). Step 2: Outline said idea in whatever level of detail you like so that drafting it is not a complete nightmare. Step 3: Turn this outline into a rough draft by the usual process, aka write the story, article, or what-have-you. Step 4: Edit, then edit again, then edit some more (basically turn into a sad, sleep-deprived montage of burning eyes and the unforgiving arctic-white expanse of screens and/or pages).
So that's a system, right? WRONG. You fool, you peasant - those are the basics steps of a system. The system is what happens when you practice those steps over and over again, refining them like some kind of possessed oil rig destroying the pristine heart of the Alaskan wilds - in time they should practically be automated.
When you first have that idea, it should set off the whole step-by-step process, and the rest should follow as naturally as that 12 step Korean skincare routine you spend a half hour on every morning (not to mention your life's savings).
At first it may feel like slogging through mud, but eventually you'll be grateful for it. It's like that grandpa who rants about how he earned his manhood by walking 50 miles each way to school while braving category 5 blizzards. "It built character," he says, "and soon I didn't even notice the gangrene!"
Well, grandpa achieved this legendary character by taking one step at a time. In the case of artists and writers, making sure your steps are manageable - not too big and not too small, like goldilocks - is the best way to move through a system effectively.
That middle point is dependent on your needs and energy, but the key is simply to be self-aware enough to set parameters for what each step needs to accomplish, and to know how those accomplishments fit into your project as a whole. So basically....little, tiny baby goals all working together for you. Awwwww.
Making That System Stick. But Not In, Like, a Gross Way.
Okay, so you worked through the steps and you think your system is becoming functional. Well, what stops you from jumping the gun and burning out the next time an idea comes knocking? How do you ignore the siren call of that sexy, all-powerful end goal and focus on the steps necessary to actually reach it?
Well, there isn't really a single answer to that. Everyone will find the methods that work best for them, taking in to account their learning styles and respective levels of self-discipline. As an ADHD and Vyvanse fueled catastrophe, I myself have even developed systems for sticking to my systems!
As a writer, we're used to hearing that lovely catch-all advice of "write it down." I hate to admit that this has been the most effective way to keep me on track - whether I write my system down in a writing journal, my planner, etc, laying out my steps clearly, in words, keeps me accountable.
The key here is not allowing the process of writing intimidate you out of actually, well, writing. It is both a big picture and a small one - a set of methods you know will work for you. Most people do best by starting the system on a micro level and moving toward a macro one slowly.
Thinking of one thing at a time is difficult for many of us, but learning how to make this elusive skill emerge on cue will benefit you in many areas of life outside of your art. Practice on mini projects or on things you don't take too seriously in order to build a wealth of experience.
Mostly, it's a matter of good old-fashioned consistency. Sorry, I hate to be the bearer of such sober news. But switching to a system-based mindset is truly transformative in many, many ways, so you can thank me later. Perhaps over a bottle of tequila, while we are decidedly not sober.
Being a goal-oriented person, in short, is somewhat of a myth. Like monsters under the bed, the concept only sounds real when you take it at face value - but really, how can you achieve a goal if it's your only orientation?
The distant endpoint of a journey is not your compass, after all. It is reached only when you know the road and have some idea of how to face the challenges you'll encounter along the way.
So, make sure your fanny-pack is full and you wear some SPF 50, kids - you'll do just fine.
Do you have a system that works for you? Share it with us in the comments!