Using Systems to Reach Goals

I’m a bit stuck for a blog post topic this week, but I still want to publish something. This is practice. This is habit, and routine. It’s important for me to publish consistently.

But that doesn’t mean just publishing anything. I’ve started and discarded no less than 5 different blog posts this week. I’ve started posts about writing, and I’ve started posts about books I’ve read recently: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, and Smartcuts by Shane Snow.

Both fantastic books, and I’ve learned a lot. I often use what I’ve read as a springboard for a blog post. But I was having a hard time finding inspirato in the usual places. So what if I wrote something about process? As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big fan of process.

First up, some background! I’ve read a lot of books this year, all at least tangentially related to marketing, copywriting, or writing. As of this writing, I’ve gone through 26 books this year, with an average of 10.46 days spent per book. I’m proud of my progress, and the system I’ve used to get here.

Using Systems to Reach Goals

This post isn’t really about my reading system. It’s about momentum. I like systems better than goals, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. What’s a system, but a series of smaller goals?

Doing something big can be intimidating. Breaking a big goal down into a manageable system makes it easier to get things done, and I’m a big, big fan of getting things done.

A system is a series of smaller goals, not a replacement for goals.

Yeah, something like this. Now you’re thinking with systems, baby!

I’m reading a shit ton of books about marketing, copywriting, and writing not because I want to have read a lot of books, but because I want to expand and sharpen my knowledge. I want to make more money. I want to be a better storyteller. I want to be a published author.

These are goals, and systems are the vehicles I’m using to reach these goals.

What Makes a Good System?

Let’s talk about my reading system. I track my progress in a Google Sheet. It’s just a dumb, unstyled spreadsheet I used to track what I’m reading, when I started, when I finished, and how many days I spent. Then I average time spent reading the book, and resolve to do better with the next book.

This is how I know I’m averaging 10.46 days per book. It’s also why I know I’m slightly behind where I’d like to be (I would love to have an average of 10 days per book) but this system is about getting things done. Not making me feel bad about not hitting a target.

A good system is one you take seriously, but you need to be realistic. I didn’t set out in January, determined o read a book every week. I knew I couldn’t stick to that system, and failing would just make me feel like shit. Ever noticed how hard it is to do good work when you feel like shit? How long until I gave up reading altogether, and found other ways to occupy my time?

Spoiler alert: not long. An unrealistic system is as bad as a huge, hard to quantify goal.

Momentum is more important than hitting specific targets. It’s why I don’t beat myself up when a book is slow, and I spend two weeks to read it. It’s easier for me to stay on track with some rules in place, but rules that are flexible are better for me. Making some progress is better than hitting specific targets.

When I finish a new book, I choose the next one. I flip through, or scan the pages, and figure out how many pages I have to read. Forget indexes and footnotes - I’m talking just the content I signed up for. Then I divide that number by 10, and I read that many pages per day.

If I’ve just finished a book on marketing, I’ll read one on copywriting, or writing. Or I’ll read something on general business, or psychology, or sales. A good system isn’t a rigid structure. It’s light, and flexible. Like the skeleton of a shark.

Systems Aren’t a Replacement for Goals

My goal for 2015 is to have read 10 books on marketing, 10 books on copywriting, and 10 books on writing by the end of the year. By my calculations, I’m a bit ahead of the curve. Even if a few stray books on psychology, general business, and growth hacking have snuck into my reading pile.

And even if I’m not reading books as fast as I’d like to be. See? A good system makes you feel good about progress, even if you’re not moving as quickly as you’d like!

We have 78 days left in the year. If it takes me 10.46 days to read a book, I have time to read another 7 books. That’s a total of 33 for the year. I’ll likely revise this system once I’ve reached the goals set at the beginning of the year. I’m already noticing a drift in my interest - away from copywriting, and toward a more data-driven approach to marketing. These days, I’m a lot more interested in treating marketing as a feature of modern application design, and the art and science of growth hacking.

Systems aren’t a tool to make yourself feel like shit for not doing something as much as you’d like. A good system is a way of making sure you do the things you want to do. Systems aren’t a replacement for goals - they’re a series of goals. A succession of small wins that add up to a big win.


These guys write about systems more eloquently than I have.

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead. by James Clear

Goals vs. Systems by Scott Adams

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.

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