Fall In Love With Goals, Not With Systems

This morning around a quarter to one, I was struck with a sudden urge to rearrange my bookshelf. I had been meaning to do it for days, so I did it. And while doing it, the momentum carried me over into rearranging and cleaning my desk and notebooks as well.

Weeks ago I had bought several notebooks and laid out a new system for my freelance writing. So this was not a dramatic overhaul of what I am doing. Think of it more as my weeding the garden, as it were.

But what interesting weeds I found during the process:

–A USB drive that had been set aside for photos at one point, which had never even been taken out of the box.

–A sheet of paper designated to hold the screen names and passwords for “useful” websites that I don’t think I have visited in at least a year. (including an ill fated free website for my writing business in its failed 2008 incarnation.)

–The directions to a long-over seminar I had never attended, complete with companion literature in a nice little folder.

–A notebook which had records of every job to which I applied about 18 months ago, complete with the dates of application, contact information, and a section for recording the correspondence I received from same. (None of those sections were filled out, as none of them ever contacted me back. There were 60 jobs recorded in that book for March of 2009 alone.)

–A preserved outline that detailed the (at the time) next phase of my job hunting plan. I have to admit it wasn’t a bad plan at all. Outlined and clearly defined. Laid out in an easy to follow structure and ready to be added to as needed.

And also completely abandoned a while ago. As were the charts, outlines, contacts, folders, labels and lessons found in various nooks and crannies of the desk as my bookshelf momentum carried me on to other things. The detritus of previous plans and well thought out systems.

It got me to wondering about what had happened? Why had these formerly best laid plans of mine eventually gone awry? So much so in some cases that I didn’t even remember I had conceived them until last night’s chance encounter with their remains?

Well, I didn’t wake up one day and say, “To hell with this system.” Otherwise I would have thrown all the stuff away long ago. Instead, it all sat in the same ergonomically determined place on my desk where I had placed them in some cases over a year ago, after their most recent use. It can better be described as slowly withdrawing from said plans. Making an exception here and an exception there to the system. Pursuing a singular goal which would require more flexibility. And just plain system fatigue. Like the Roman Empire, my systems of the past were not wiped out in a single stroke, but simply allowed to slowly, quietly dissolve into oblivion.

But why?

I have been thinking about it, and while I can’t ever be sure, the reason that keeps coming to mind is this:

I wasn’t ready for a system.

Oh, I had them, as I have shared with you. I’d have things categorized, scheduled, charted and graphed. And it would give the illusion of progress for a time. And I’d stick to them with a near religious discipline for a time. But after a while, as I mentioned, they would just fade away, and become nothing more than a dusty notebook shoved away on my desk. And I would muddle through and still make progress in my goals without a system in place. And I’d be fine like that for a while, until I would feel obligated again to sit down, devise another system, and the process would repeat itself. On some level this has happened for much of my life. A recurring pattern of systems born, and systems abandoned.

It’s because for years I assumed that any system is better than no system. But the truth is, sometimes we just are not ready for a system. No matter how many people say we need one, and no matter how many ideas, plans, thoughts, and motivations crowd our head at any given moment, we need to stop and ask ourselves not which system we need, but if we are ready for one at all. Sometimes no system is better than any system.

Now it would be great if I could provide a bullet list here for you to check off to see if you really do or do not need a system. I’d love to be able to do that for you, but I can’t of course. Each person must determine if they need a system for any given endeavor or not. I can’t make that decision for you. But I can offer one piece of advise as you determine which of your systems are useful to you and which are not. Ask yourself this single question;

When I think about a certain area of my life. (A goal, dream, research, whatever), what comes to mind first; the mission I want to accomplish or the system by which I am trying to accomplish it?

If the first thing that comes to mind is the system you have/are/should develop to organize that facet of your life, instead of what the goal itself will accomplish for your life, you probably are not ready for a system. But if you have a clear idea of what you goal is, and can clearly devise a system which makes the hard parts easier, and the easier parts routine as you pursue what you want while leaving room for change, you are ready for a system.

The system for my writing that I now have in effect sprang from specific goals. I want something in my life, I do not have it, but I can take the steps to get it. I just need to write down the steps and follow them in an order that is most useful to me, (as determined by a lot of introspection.) The result? A system. A system that this time just feels right. It feels like a tool now. It all has fallen into place because it’s not subservient to my goals. It isn’t determining them.

It’s not the end of the world if you aren’t ready for a system. Don’t be afraid of this. It just means you can take time to brainstorm. Explore your mind. Take stock. Look inside and determine what you want, and be honest about it to yourself and everyone else. And only then, devise a (flexible!) system which can organize your plan of action.

Are you beholden to your established systems, or those or others? Do you give yourself space and time to explore something without a system in place? If you have systems in place, how are they working for you?

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