Creating · Something to Think About

Quilting System


Some time ago, Oliver Burkeman, writing in the Guardian newspaper, discussed the idea of implementing “systems” rather than using goals when we are striving toward a new frontier, whether it be in quilting, or better exercise.  He starts by quoting the Dilbert creator, Scott Adams:

“when you’re trying to get better at something – a creative skill, such as cartooning, or a habit, such as regular exercise – think in terms of systems, not goals” for “when you approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved, you exist “in a state of near-continuous failure.” Almost all the time, by definition, you’re not at the place you’ve defined as embodying accomplishment or success. And should you get there, you’ll find you’ve lost the very thing that gave you a sense of purpose – so you’ll formulate a new goal and start again.”

Systems ideas mean that if you are a person who walks in the morning, you’ll strive to change one small thing about your stride, or improve your time slightly, and incorporate that into your exercise.  The trick is to keep it simple and small, much like the kaizen idea formulated in Japan, which means continuous change for the better.

Adams notes that working in a system is “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run,” regardless of immediate outcome. Burkeman goes on to say that “drawing one cartoon a day is a system; so is resolving to take some kind of exercise daily – rather than setting a goal, like being able to run a marathon in four hours. One system that’s currently popular online goes by the name “No Zero Days”: the idea is simply not to let a single day pass without doing something, however tiny, towards some important project.”


So how does this apply to quilting?

If you think of all our words for unfinished goals (e.g.: WIP, UFO, etc.) and look at the number of online “finishing” blogs that give away prizes if you finish quilts on your list, you can see that we in the quilting world might need the idea of a system.

What IF you approached it as having no zero days…or…continuously making one small change for the better (kaizen) by sewing for small increments at a regular basis, rather than trying to do a blitz over a weekend?  Certainly how your time is managed for you has an impact, for I recognize that small children, spouses, bosses and health issues can indeed interrupt the time available to you.  But what if you had a idea of doing a small part of your project, but doing it daily? Soon your system would bring you to a completed quilt project.

from Here

It’s hard to grasp the idea of process, especially if you’ve spent your life thinking in terms of product. We’re very good at beating ourselves up over our procrastination or lack of motivation or our inability to get that quilt done.   But I like the idea of leaving behind a “state of near-continuous failure,” exchanging that instead for a series of small, manageable tasks that become a part of my day.


I leave with you a little saying on my bookshelf from a past leader in my church, which, when I’ve overwhelmed myself, helps keeps me centered:

16 thoughts on “Quilting System

  1. Touche! And said another way “chip away, chip away”, right? In it’s own way, a system, even if it seems or feels circular, provides an opening occasionally (because the circle fills up!) and something finished pops out. While at one point I disliked the whole concept of a “FitBit”, I’ve found that my CR2 really does show me daily progress and it has been helpful. In quilting my “system” has become circular and for now, it seems to be working, for me, and that’s all that counts! Thanks for putting this into words – made my morning!

  2. Food for thought. Sometimes I want to sew for ten minutes but I can’t decide what to do. I will think about a system of finding a ten minute job. I think I actually need to remember my handwork during those moments!

  3. More wise words from you Elizabeth! I certainly think like where exercise is involved….as long as I do something, I’ve achieved! And even a few stitches or minutes of FMQ sees a reward, eventually! After all it’s not a race! Sweet photo at the end, too!

  4. Thank you Elizabeth for this post as it is just what I needed to read today. I have been feeling out of sorts on a project I’ve been working on and reading your post makes me rethink it and gives me ideas to accomplish it. It is true that baby steps get you to the end although not as fast but will get you there.

  5. No Zero Days is a great philosophy, as long as it applies to the BIG system of my life. I will not exercise every day, and I will not sew or progress on a particular project every day, and I will not spend as much quality time with my husband as I’d like every day, and I will not write every day. And of course I could add in all the other things that are high priorities in my life. But I do SOMETHING about some of my highest priorities, every day. I am not harnessed into an obligation I’ve created for myself, that is in truth artificial. I choose, and over time my choices give me progress on all my priorities, presumably making things (and me) better over time. I think this is what your pastor’s words mean to me, as well.

  6. Thank you for taking your time and sharing this , I am just about to turn 70 and this is a great reminder to me to reassess how I can better manage my day to day, my relationships and a course my love of quilting!

  7. I have been trying to do some sort of physical exercise every day, and I didn’t know it was a “thing” called “no zero days” lol! In the quilting realm, this reminds me of “Fifteen Minutes of Play” by Victoria Findlay Wolfe. If I can sew for even 15 minutes every day, it does make me a happier person. I never thought of progress in terms of “systems” but it makes sense! Thanks!

  8. The idea of a “system” rather than a “goal” is hard to grasp when you are young, but it makes a lot more sense to me now in my advanced middle age. Great post.

  9. I haven’t been finishing many big projects lately, but I have been regularly sewing in small increments on most days, as you say. There is less to report on my blog, but I don’t feel that I am not making progress or meeting my goals.

  10. Love this post, E. Makes so much sense for someone like me, and I plan to approach things from this direction as much as I can. I imagine it will take some practice. I found myself thinking about some writer (Hemingway(?) comes to mind, but for no real good reason) who used the following method to address the idea of writer’s block and to help get over the “where do I start” problem each day. When writing, he would schedule time, and when it was up, he would quit, leaving his work in the middle of a sentence. Or perhaps he just planned to leave it that way every day. The next morning, when he would enter his study, there was a sentence waiting to be finished and no fretting or fussing about what to do first. We could adapt that, by simply leaving a partially sewn block on the machine; maybe even a partially sewn seam still under the needle.

    I was also reminded of a story about a woman who was told by her doctor that she desperately needed to lose weight and start getting exercise. She had lots of excuses, among which were “no time, no energy, can’t do this or that.” He asked if she watched television. When she said “yes” he asked her if she thought she could walk in place for one minute while she watched. Of course she said yes. So he said, “okay, do that” and don’t worry about doing more. It will just happen as you get into the practice. She, of course felt silly walking in place for only one minute and so it goes.

    Thank you once more for your insights.

  11. Elizabeth – I love these food-for-thought pieces you write (and the comments they generate). I feel very lucky to have discovered you in the expanse of the web! Systems are the way to go. I’m recovering from a concussion and have learned a lot about what it feels like to have even a minor brain injury. Of course my goal was to have my brain fully back again :>) but tweaking my daily systems to help me is what’s worked. I’m sure you’ve found this to be true during your medical recoveries of recent years. Do you know of Etty Hillesum? When I find myself slipping into defining myself by what I produce and pushing towards maxed-out (rather than non-zero) days, I read this from her: “I do believe it is possible to create, even without a word or painting a picture, by simply molding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”

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