You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Those are the words of author James Clear in his best-selling book Atomic Habits—which, by the way, I happen to be currently reading. So this post was not inspired by a Google search for awesome motivational quotes I could spin into a blog post. It is the product of a genuine, honest-to-goodness moment of Holy-Shitdom.
In a recent post titled Being a Self-Employed Entrepreneur—how I use my favourite tools and apps to stay productive as a writer, I talked about the tricks and tech that I’ve come to rely on to minimize mental resistance and take advantage of moments in my day that would otherwise be unproductive. But those things by themselves do not a writing habit make. It is the systems that one creates for oneself to do the deep work, to commit to progress, day in and day out for weeks, months, years on end. As Jerry West says, “You can’t get much done if you only work on days when you feel good.”
Systems are what keep us working when motivation fails us. When willpower alone won’t cut it. When goals seem unreachable and thus put-offable, because reaching for a bag of potato chips and the television remote is more immediately achievable. I’ve been in the process of developing my systems for a while now, which is why I found Mr. Clear’s quote so timely. Here, I would like to share with you, dear reader, the ones that I find most powerful and impactful.
In my Notion dashboard, I have a page for morning admin. These are tasks that I give myself one to two hours every day to complete. My tasks consist of reconciling my personal finances, getting my email inbox down to zero by either answering my messages or colour-coding and filing them for later attention, updating my planner for the day, and engaging with my social media platforms. By keeping on top of these items, my inbox never becomes overwhelming and unmanageable, I always know where I stand financially for the month, and my digital footprint remains as relevant as I am comfortable with. Spending a little time each day means that I don’t put these small but critical tasks off, only to have to dredge up an inordinate amount of time and effort to bring myself back to a state of “current” and “in control” at some later time, thus giving me the sense of peace and clarity to focus on my writing uninterrupted when it is time to do so.
Similar to my morning admin, I have particular things I like to do each day. There are more than in my morning admin task list, so I won’t state them all here. But my daily habits include things like tidying the kitchen before I go to bed, so that I am not overwhelmed when I come down in the morning. And things like taking my daily multivitamin, and making the bed, and putting out my morning water the night before, and tidying my desk when I’m done for the day. All these little things reduce the resistance I might otherwise have to sitting down and writing, because these are the things that distract me if they’re not done.
Planning out my weekly writing goals
Each weekend, I sit down and do an audit of how my last week went in terms of what I accomplished, and I plan out what goals I want to achieve the following week. I have a detailed planner system that I use to map out the mini milestones I want to hit in a given week, so that I have an idea of how much I’m achieving with my time. There used to be a time in my writing career when I would write as I felt like it. That worked great for times where I was motivated, but it didn’t allow me to keep track of how much I was writing. Then, when I didn’t feel motivated to write, I had no basis to know how much I could be accomplishing, because I’d never tracked anything. And without a plan for the things I wanted to accomplish, I had nothing in writing reminding me of why I was sitting down to write in the first place. Planning weekly writing goals has proven not only invaluable to my productivity, but therapeutic as well, because I don’t have to consider ahead of time what I’m doing. It’s there in writing. All I have to do is sit down and do it.
Creating an environment
One of the mindset and productivity influencers I enjoy watching is Ali Abdaal. On one of his Youtube videos he talks about how, before he sits down to work, he thinks, “This is going to be really fun!” And then he sets about making it so by creating an environment that is pleasant to work in. This is great advice, and it is something I do myself. To write, I enjoy having a candle on beside my diffuser of essential oils. If it’s winter-cold, I’ll build a fire (the fireplace is right next to my desk) and enjoy the crackle as I write. I’ll make an herbal tea, grab a treat like cookies or a piece of cake, and sometimes I’ll even have a glass of red wine… a carefully measured one, of course. It is, after all, daytime when I write. In the spring, I take my iPad and my Apple Pencil outside and sit by the creek with my headphones and some spa music. Or I’ll write at a café with a nice, hot London Fog to sip on. But overall, making my writing time special is fun, and it is something I look forward to indulging in, which means I look forward to writing.
In the words of Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Well, my systems are my club. They are there and functioning well to make sure I keep going after that inspiration every day.
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