The most popular letter I’ve ever written to you was #045, way back in November 2019 (it’s been read 3x more than the average letter!)
It contains my thoughts on James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, in particular his distinction between goals and systems.
Goals are big outcomes — mountains in the distance — which are supposed to motivate us to action. Systems are daily habits — putting one foot in front of the other — which move us forward regardless of our motivation.
As I wrote in that letter:
I’m beginning to understand that the work of an artist isn’t in whatever finished pieces they produce, it’s their system, their practice.
In the nearly-three years since then, this systems approach has become the central philosophy to how I try and live my life. Systems power my creative work, my fitness and more.
Today I want to share with you what I’ve learned over the last three years. While #045 was “this systems idea sounds smart", #121 is “let me tell you how this works in practice.
My creative system
Bear in mind that “system” is just a fancy way of saying “habit”. But I think it’s a better word because “habit” has lots of negative connotations that make it feel like a drag.
A habit feels like an effort. A system sounds like a well-oiled machine that drives its own momentum.
So my creative “system” is basically this:
Every morning at 7am, I sit down and draw for a minimum of one hour.
I take Sundays off and I don’t draw when I travel, but otherwise, the system is active.1
An hour a day doesn’t seem like a lot of time, and it isn’t. But add it up, and compound-magic happens. In an average week, my system ensures I spend between 6-9 hours drawing (the equivalent of a whole work day!)
Since November 2019, when I started this system, I have filled 11 sketchbooks, written 26 short stories, entered three national competitions, and I’m weeks away from completing my first short story collection.
None of these achievements were motivated by a big goal — for example a distant dream to publish a graphic novel — they have happened as the inevitable output of the system.
Drawing for an hour a day equates (at my leisurely speed) to about one completed page of comic a week. As long as I show up for that hour, the pages happen — 50 of them a year.
Sequences of systems
Over time, I’ve hooked some other habits to the morning drawing system, to create a sequence of systems.
In the summer of 2020 I added a 20-minute window just after drawing where I practice my French. Now I speak more fluently than I did when I lived there.
Earlier this year I added a meditation practice to the beginning of the system. I’m already noticing the changes to my clarity of thought and general temperament.
As Clear writes in Atomic Habits, sequencing habits uses one habit to trigger the next. As long as I wake up, I meditate; as long as I meditate I draw; if I draw I practice French. And so on.
I have one other system: my thrice-weekly swimming habit: #119.
The system is:
On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, I swim.
The other benefit of thinking in systems is it removes negotiation. Whereas a “habit” is something we constantly barter with (“I don’t feel like swimming today, I’ll do it tomorrow…") a system feels non-negotiable.
Like a logic formula —
if Wednesday then Swim else Don’t Swim — it is inevitable.
I don’t even question it now. If it’s a Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, I’m at the pool.2
The role of projects
Using systems to power your creative engine removes almost all the need for projects and other ambitious goals to make things happen.
But I think projects are still important.
As Tiago Forte puts it: “a goal without a project is a dream; a project without a goal is a hobby.”
Dreams and hobbies are both fine, as long as that’s what you want.
The good news
I worry about writing letters like this. For every reader who is inspired, there might be another who feels disillusioned by my apparent productivity.
To you I say this: there is no super-human effort here. I am not an ambitious hustler trying to crush it; I’m not more motivated, talented or hardworking than you.
The effort is provided entirely by time.
Time works like compound interest and as such we all find it hard to comprehend the power of its exponential curve (otherwise, we’d all have opened savings accounts at the age of 13!). In our twenties we typically don’t have the patience to appreciate this slow inevitability; it’s only as we get older and wiser that we see that a little bit of effort multiplied by time is all it takes.
Life is short, but it is also long.
I am convinced now that the great things in life are not achieved by big bold actions, but by lots of quite ordinary daily actions, compounded over time.
Some important caveats that I couldn’t fit into the body of the letter without interrupting the flow: I am a man, with no children. My system involves waking up early (6.45) which is not for everyone. I work for a company in the U.S. which requires me to work later hours and so I have this block of time free in the morning to create, which not everyone else has; and those later hours cause a bit of a strain on my social life. BUT: what I like about the system approach is that it doesn’t require big time commitment; the system can be made to work in evenings just as much as mornings and we all have to compromise on something in order to let creativity enrich our lives. ↩︎
It’s worth saying that systems must allow for some flexibility, they are not there to control your life. I woke up feeling crap this Sunday morning, so I have decided it’s best for my health not to swim today. ↩︎
Until another Sunday soon,