Systems Thinking is a powerful process that you can use to help you produce good results. This is true for our productivity champ–Andrew Pfeiffer. Andrew had a problem being consistent with his habits and to resolve this–he harnessed the power of systems.
When he started using systems, he was able to make progress on his big goals and became uber productive.
We are excited to introduce Andrew to you and learn how he implemented systems in his life.
Introducing Andrew Pfeiffer
Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you’re up to.
As you can see from my suit, I’m a massive nerd! I studied a Bachelor of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (majors in Pure Mathematics and Statistics) and a Master’s degree by research in statistics. If you’re interested in my research, you can find links to my work on my LinkedIn profile.
After finishing my Master’s degree, I won a position in the graduate program of a large organization. As part of the program, I completed a six-month rotation in a data science team, where I got to use my mathematical and programming skills to analyze and visualize patterns in large data sets. It was my dream job because I got to program in R, the same language that I was using for most of my Master’s research. I then spent the next two years in my dream job as a data scientist – apart from a four-month secondment with a different organization.
This year, however, I’ve decided to take a break from vocational data science for a year or two to do an internship with a university-based parachurch organization. I was a part of this organization while studying at university, and I found them incredibly valuable in my growth as a Christian. It’s a privilege to be able to serve other students and help them to receive the same benefits that I did.
Of course, I will always be a data scientist, and I’ve been making the most of my programming skills in my internship in a variety of ways. For example, I send monthly email newsletters to supporters, and, instead of using a point-and-click service like MailChimp, I use the command line interface provided by my email client of choice, MailMate. I’ve also been asked to analyze some data sets as part of my internship, which will be fun!
What is the backstory that ignited you to get started on becoming more productive?
I distinctly remember a day – I was studying at university at the time – where I wandered into kikki.K and purchased a random book about organizing your documents. I soon found myself diving deeper and deeper into the productivity rabbit-hole, reading more organization and productivity books, including the ubiquitous Getting Things Done by David Allen.
I also need to give credit to one of my Master’s supervisors, Dr Jono Tuke. (Side note: he is a brilliant supervisor, and I highly recommend him.) He introduced me to a raft of productivity tools, including Evernote, OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, You Need a Budget, and – of course – programming languages like R and Python.
By the start of 2015, having read Getting Things Done and soaked in Jono’s wisdom for a year, I was an eager student of productivity. I frequently added different productivity and technology blogs and podcasts to my ever-growing RSS feed, including Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and – as a result of these blogs – Asian Efficiency! I signed up to be a Dojo member in late 2015, and then a lifetime member in early 2016! I cannot recommend highly enough being a member of the Asian Efficiency Dojo, because you get access to both world-class training material in a whole range of topics related to productivity, and an incredibly supportive and helpful community. I explain in more detail why you should sign up as a member of the Dojo in the video below.
What was the wall or problem that you ran into that stopped you from accomplishing what you wanted?
My problem was that I was inconsistent at building habits into my life that I knew were good for me. I’ve always valued being productive and getting things done, but I knew that until I built good habits into my life – such as planning my day the night before, conducting a weekly review, sleeping well, reading, exercising and meditating – my ability to make progress on my bigger goals would be impeded. For example, I knew that my quality of life would improve if I made steps to sleep well consistently, exercise well, and eat well. However, I didn’t know how to execute these habits consistently.
What was the epiphany you experienced and discovered?
Systems! Systems! Systems! Building systems into my life that combine multiple habits and track my performance at achieving them have been such an epiphany.
For example, a few years ago, I had a coaching call with Thanh where he helped me to set up a system for tracking my time. I use a shortcut for the actual tracking – it appends a timestamp and a time-tracking category to a CSV file. However, the magic of time-tracking happens when I review my time-tracking data at the end of each week. I’ve created a simple web application where I input the CSV file and enter some parameters to create a visualization of how I’ve spent my time. I’ve included example data and an example plot in my Github repository. Being able to see at a glance how I spent my time each week has proven immensely helpful to me in many ways. For example, if I wasted time in the evening watching YouTube videos, the visualization will make that clear to me. Even the act of tracking my time itself makes me more accountable to how I’m spending my time, and less likely to slack off in the evening when going to bed earlier would be the wiser choice.
I also learned to track my performance by reading 12 Week Year by Brian Moran, an excellent book recommended to me by many members of the Asian Efficiency community. I have obtained immense value by following Moran’s system for measuring and reviewing performance using a weekly execution score. Moran defines the execution score as the percentage of tactics – mini-goals – that you complete each week. As the name of his book suggests, Moran suggests reviewing your tactics every 12 weeks or thereabouts, which makes excellent sense. Twelve weeks is enough time to make progress and not long enough to tempt you to slack off.
Moran recommends setting a maximum of three goals and then deriving a small number of tactics from these goals. However, I resonated more with James Clear’s advice in Atomic Habits: he states that improving life systems is superior to setting and completing goals, because systems can always be improved (Kaizen – continuous improvement), while goals don’t tell you what to do when you complete them. Or, as he puts it more pithily, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Consequently, I set five to ten tactics for a given 12-week timespan, and then I give myself a pass if I completed the habit on at least six out of seven days for the week. As Clear notes, missing a single day won’t cause any issues with breaking habits. However, repeatedly missing habits creates a new, inverse habit. I then journal at the end of each day regarding whether or not I completed each tactic: If I didn’t complete the tactic, why not, and is there anything I can change to help me complete the tactic next time?
Learning how to create effective systems that form the backbone of my tactics have also been immensely valuable. In addition to Atomic Habits, I resonated a lot with Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto and Sam Carpenter’s Work The System. In particular, Gawande emphasizes that checklists need to be as simple as possible, which I have found immeasurably helpful given that I err on the side of perfectionism. Consequently, simple checklists have formed the backbone of the tactics for which I track my performance – each checklist has a cue (when to start following the checklist), content (what to do) and a result (the desired outcome from following the checklist). Gawande also makes the incredibly helpful distinction between reading and do checklists (you read the checklist before you follow the steps) and do and confirm checklists (you follow the steps and then read the checklist to verify that you’ve completed it). In particular, read and do checklists need to be completed in a certain order, while do and confirm checklists can be completed in any order.
You can view my checklists on my website. By way of example, some of my tactics at the time of writing are:
- Spending 45 minutes or more reading the Bible and praying.
- Eating four or more serves of vegetables.
- Reading for 15 minutes or more.
- Walking 8,000 steps or more.
- Avoiding technology after 6:00 pm (apart from journalling).
What was the transformation that you experienced?
Having this systems mindset and tracking my performance at adhering to my systems has changed my life immensely. For example, I quickly realized that the best time to complete many of my desired habits was first thing in the morning before I could be interrupted for the day. Consequently, I wake up at [5:00] AM and spend three hours smashing out my most important habits, including reading the Bible and praying, eating four serves of vegetables, reading, and going for a walk. I have no doubt that having a systems mindset and tracking my performance are two major reasons why I have been able to stick to my three-hour morning routine consistently. (As an aside: If you are just starting out with the concept of a morning routine, please don’t try jumping straight into a three-hour routine. My routine is the product of years of gradually building up what I do in the morning and experimentation.)
I have also immensely valued my routine as I have transitioned into my internship in university ministry. Unlike my previous role, where I simply rocked up to the office and worked for a certain number of hours before leaving each day, my internship has much less routine. Consequently, having a morning routine that I can smash through – as well as a shorter evening routine at the end of the day – to bookend my day with a constant structure through which I can achieve my most important goals has proven so valuable.
I am also immeasurably more confident at achieving other goals that I set for myself. The systems mindset can be applied to any goal because any goal can be achieved if you repeat the same task over and over again. For example, after reading about Keto and hearing other members of the Asian Efficiency community talk about their experiences with it, I recently tried to give the system a shot. I haven’t fully systematized the diet yet, but I eat the same thing for breakfast each morning (a meat-and-green-veg stew at [5:00] AM and some frozen veggies at [8:00] AM), and I weigh myself each morning using some smart scales that automatically track my weight and body fat percentage. In the last three months, my BMI has dropped from 24.5 to 21, my body fat percentage has dropped from 19% to 12.5%, and I feel great!
A common misconception of habits and systems is that they make life boring. To the contrary, I’ve found that setting good habits for myself allows me to put myself on autopilot for routine tasks so that I can spend my valuable cognitive resources working on more creative and intensive pursuits. (For more details, check out Atomic Habits.) For example, in the immediate future, I plan to systematize some other writing-based goals that I have for myself, such as adding a blog and book reviews/outlines to my website. I don’t want to keep everything I’ve learned from books, podcasts and web articles to myself – I want to share it with other people! I also want to combine my love for programming, productivity, and technology to build some more productivity-based web applications that other people may find useful.
If you have one piece of productivity advice for someone who is struggling to make progress towards their goals, what would it be?
Join the Asian Efficiency Dojo, and sign up for lifetime membership. In the Dojo, you’ll have access to world-class video training courses in a wide variety of topics, including The AE Way to Implement a 12 Week Year, How to Get Started with Journalling and Get Laser-Focused with Deep Work. You’ll also be able to interact with other Dojo members and the Asian Efficiency staff through the Dojo forum, the Dojo Slack channel, and live podcast recordings. We would be delighted to answer your questions and help you achieve your goals. For more information about the Dojo, check out the video that I recorded for Asian Efficiency.
Due to its overwhelming popularity, Asian Efficiency only opens the Dojo for new enrolments at selected times throughout the year. If the Dojo is closed, my other piece of advice is to figure out exactly what is blocking you from achieving your goals. And I’m pretty confident that your blocker will fall into one of three categories – a lack of time, a lack of energy, or a lack of attention. Asian Efficiency dubbed this framework that they created the TEA framework. Once you’ve identified whether time, energy or attention is your blocker, utilize Asian Efficiency’s resources – such as their blog and podcast – to find a solution. For example, if your problem is time, you could wake up 15 minutes earlier and spend that time making progress toward your goals. If your problem is energy, you could download a sleep-tracking application and track your sleep for a week – this really helped me improve my energy! And if your problem is attention, you could buy some Bose QC35 noise-canceling headphones and use them when you’re trying to work.
To summarise: sign up for the Dojo, and while you’re waiting, use the TEA framework to find the most appropriate solution for you.
What Does it Take to be A Productivity Champ?
Thank you, Andrew, for sharing!
Andrew is a great example of what we refer to in our community as a “productivity champ” — someone who continuously looks for ways to become better or someone who has the growth mindset. Other examples of people who have succeeded are Lisa and Scott who we have written case studies about.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or distracted, you can overcome that and become a productivity champ too:
- Review our TEA Framework, and become familiar with the 3 Pillars of Productivity.
- Take our super-quick Productivity Quiz, which will give you actionable insight into where you should get started.
- Pick one (only one!) action step and schedule it on your calendar to implement it.
If you think we should feature you as a productivity champ, get in touch and let us know!