Life is vast, unpredictable, and complicated.
Systems make it simpler. Systems thinking allows us to take control of a part of life, reduce it to a manageable set of inputs and outputs, and establish some predictability.
A haphazard collection of tools, habits, and methods is not the same as a purposeful system. Let’s take a look at what a system is. If you understand systems well, you’ll be able to use them well.
1. A system is designed to accomplish a focused purpose.
A good system does not exist for itself. It serves a purpose. To build a good system, start with a clearly defined purpose.
We often work with a mix of tools and methods picked up at different times; since our tools aren’t build with a unifying goal in mind, they often create systemic self-sabotage. We may be so comfortable with the components, however, that we don’t see the inherent conflict between them.
For example, you might exercise at night (a habit you picked up in college) and you also try to spend quality time with your kids before bed (a method recommended by a friend) and you know you need to get to bed early so you can wake up and have a productive morning (thanks to Asian Efficiency). Super! Except that there is only so much time in a single evening, and you’re finding yourself stressed and frustrated every night without really knowing why.
Separately, each of these habits is a great idea. Smashed together, however, they’re working against each other. The result? You feel like a failure no matter what you do.
Avoid component conflict by building a system with a defined goal. The purpose will give you standards for when and how the system should function. Then take a comprehensive look at all the parts and requirements of the system, the time needed for the system, the obstacles to the system, and the overlaps created with other systems.
2. A system is as efficient as possible.
When a system is designed to accomplish one purpose, all the components can be planned and put in place to do so as efficiently as possible. Systems reduce conflict (which reduces resource use) because everything is moving toward a single purpose.
When building a system, you’ll first want to define the goal. Then, after listing the steps required to accomplish the goal, take a close look. How many of those steps are required? Which ones are repetitive or out of order? How can the steps be streamlined?
We often do things in a particular way for no good reason. When we consciously review our methods, we might see a lot of overlap, unnecessary work, or back-and-forth action that can be eliminated. To build a good system, question every component and only keep the necessary ones. That kind of scrutiny minimizes waste, minimizes the resources needed, and maximizes the output of each use of the system.
3. A system contains all it needs to accomplish the purpose.
This characteristic alone separates a good system from a haphazard way of doing things.
How many times have you attempted to do a task—anything from invoicing to gardening to laundry to researching insurance options—only to find you don’t have all the information or tools you need?
It’s incredibly frustrating and unproductive to stop and go search for the necessary stuff; often, this frustration and delay leads to you putting the task off again. Putting off a necessary task, unfortunately, only allows more time for the data to get buried deeper, tools to get lost, and people who have the information to forget it. When you try it again, the task is even more frustrating and time-consuming.
Any task you have to do repeatedly, even if it’s only annually, can benefit from a system. The system can be simple, but it must contain all the information and tools needed to accomplish its purpose. If it doesn’t, it’s not a system; it’s a half-built system, and it’s not usable.
When building a system, take yourself mentally from step one all the way to the final step. At each step, ask yourself what tools, resources, information, or people you might need access to. Then either put them in a designated space or build in the easiest possible method for getting what you need when you need it. As part of the system, plan a regular time to restock the consumable resources that the system requires.
4. A system is repeatable, thus teachable.
Unless you want to continue doing all the tasks you are currently doing yourself, forever, you need to systematize them.
Systems are consistent. They repeat in much the same way every single time; that repetition makes it easy for you to teach someone else how to use the system. When you can teach something, you can delegate it, outsource it, or, at the very least, streamline it so it takes up less of your time.
When building a system, follow a logical progression from beginning to end. Eliminate redundancies, revisit the progression, then document what you do. Make it instructional; you know how to do each step, but someone learning the system will need explanations of each step. Include standards, limits, and other criteria as well, when applicable: how do you know when to move from one step to another? How much time is spend on each step? How many resources should be used? What is the criteria for acceptable output?
5. A system gives you predictability.
A good system provides two kinds of predictability.
First, a system enables you to predict the requirements of any task or goal accomplished by the system: how long a certain task will take, how many resources you will need, how often it must be done. Since a system allows you to do a task in the same way every time, you can predict almost everything about the process.
Imagine being able to say with confidence, “I’m going to get a blog post up; it should take an hour,” and then quickly and easily do all the necessary work of publishing a blog post within that time.
Second, a system provides some predictability for the entire area the system covers. Since a system is used in the same way every time, you can start capturing data for the area: words written, reps done, calories consumed, fuel needed, phone calls answered, so on. Anything that’s part of a repeatable system can be tracked; tracking and capturing data allows you to analyze and find patterns within the data.
Finding patterns is key to future prediction, in applications from meteorology to financial planning. Build data collection into your system, because if you’re not collecting and looking at data, you’ll never notice the patterns.
6. A system needs to be questioned regularly.
Systems are never perfect. Our needs change; the obstacles we need to overcome or the goals we want to accomplish change. Systems can never be static. You won’t be able to build a system, do a little regular maintenance, and expect it to run along smoothly forever.
Making and using systems is the first level of system use. Confidently adjusting and even discarding systems when they no longer work is the second level. Remember, the system is never an end unto itself; it’s a means of accomplishing a defined goal. When the goal is no longer relevant or the system is no longer accomplishing the goal efficiently, it’s time for a change. If the goal is irrelevant, discard the system. If the system is outdated, update the system.
There are also times when we simply get bored or no longer enjoy using a system. These are legitimate reasons to adjust or discard a system. Your personal desires and preferences matter; if you hate using a system, get rid of it. Build a new one, or question if you even want to pursue that goal anymore.
Beware of system-tweaking as a means of procrastination. If system-tweaking becomes a way to avoid important tasks, set limits on yourself. Schedule a regular time (monthly, quarterly, or at the end of a productive week) for rebuilding, testing, and adjusting systems. Require yourself to get the important work done first. Then you can perfect your systems, keeping them interesting, enjoyable, and effective, without allowing the process of system-building to become, itself, an avoidance system.
How do you use systems in your life? What are your most dependable, effective systems?
Your approach to systems thinking is really practical!
Systems thinking is so powerful! It’s a metaskill which can be used in every area of your life, be it your work, hobbies or your household.
I found that it’s important to start small. If you overengineer your systems, you won’t stick to them :/
Great advice, yes, but I really need to see each of these things in action to truly grasp what you’re talking about.
An excellent explanation for the value of systems and motivation to build more systems in our lives.
I love this observation: ” Schedule a regular time (monthly, quarterly, or at the end of a productive week) for rebuilding, testing, and adjusting systems.” That’s a great idea on how to keep adjustments within good boundaries.
The images in this article are great. Where did you find them?
Such a brilliant post! I just moved and I’m starting out as a freelance writer – both the organization of things and the organization of business data have been a real trial for me at the moment. I feel like I read this post at just the right time.
Thank you so much!
A very interesting post Annie,
Indeed, Its necessary to systematize/automate some of our daily tasks be it in the office, in our homes, etc.
If you keep on doing everything manually every time, you will always get tired of the tasks and might eventually give up.
But when you have a good and active system, the task will always get done without much effort and also, you can even delegate it to someone else so it can be done with or with your presence.
Thanks for sharing.
one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the fewest systems survive if they are inconvenient.
I use Evernote for instance for over 6 years,
with every organization I increased frequency and time of usage, like you mentioned with tweaking.
My most important systems are followup.cc and my task manager where most my emails go if not replied or archived.
I have found that my habit tracker and morning journal have become key parts of keeping myself functional and accountable to myself.
Lastly, almost daily evernote usage and a short 20 min planning session on sunday keep things together.
I really liked what you said about tweaking systems as you go. In the past, I’d always just dropped a system entirely if it didn’t work, figuring that if it stopped working, it was a bad system. But our lives constantly change and new things come up, so you can adjust as you go. Doesn’t mean your system is bad, just needs adjustment. :)