The following is a guest post by my super productive friend, Annie Mueller. To submit a guest post to Productivity Theory, please read our Write For Us page.
Systems, as I define them (which is vastly oversimplified from the Wikipedia definition) are structures, simple to complex, which support a particular behavior.
What that means in terms of making your life more productive is this: a system can simplify and streamline the recurring stuff of your life, so that you can get it done faster, better, more thoroughly, and more efficiently.
Imagine getting through those mundane, repetitive tasks in half the time. Doesn’t that make your inner productivity guru scream “YES!” in a thousand different languages? (No? I guess that’s just me.)
Essential Parts of a System
A system depends on these three essential parts:
- An end goal: this is either a particular behavior, or the result produced by that behavior.
- Certain actions or steps, generally performed in a particular order.
- The resources needed to complete those actions, which includes any tools, supplies, or equipment, as well the space needed to a) hold the resources and b) do the behavior.
A system works even better when it also includes:
- A defined trigger: an established habit, particular time, or other dependable part of your routine that can trigger you to use the system.
- Planned maintenance: if your system requires consumable resources (such as food or paper), you need a plan to keep those resources stocked. Or your tools or equipment (computer, car) might need updates or maintenance to stay in working order. Planning for this restocking or maintenance keeps your system from collapsing.
How to Build a System
First, decide on an area in your life that is a) routine/recurring and b) really annoying. I suggest choosing an annoying area in life, something that you might avoid doing, because you get an awesome boost from streamlining something you don’t like. Streamlining something you really do like, on the other hand, is a little bittersweet: maybe you could spend less time grocery shopping or researching, but if you really enjoy it, who cares?
Once you’ve chosen an area, define your end goal. This might be the behavior (for example, doing laundry) or you could define it as the result of the behavior (having clean clothes for the whole week).
Then list out the steps you need to take in order to reach the end goal. Don’t worry about putting them all in order, at first: just write them all down. Once you’ve put the steps where you can see them, look through the list and think about how to streamline it. There is probably some redundancy in how you deal with this area. Maybe you could combine steps, re-order them so they make more sense, or eliminate some altogether. As long as you are still reaching the end goal, you have total freedom to do the steps in any way you choose.
Next, take a look at the resources needed to complete the steps. For each step you take, list the supplies, tools, and/or equipment that you need.
Now comes the systemizing part: choose a space for both storing the resources needed and performing the behavior. This might be the same space (the washer and dryer are stored where you do the laundry, obviously), or it might be different (your gym bag stays in the car, but you do your work-out in the gym).
Take your streamlined list of steps and print it, hang it, tattoo it, or otherwise place it in that space so you can refer to it when you are doing the behavior. The most difficult part of a system is training yourself to use it. Put in that work, though, and you will benefit so much: saved time, fewer decisions, fewer hassles, more productivity.
Create a trigger for the system by setting an alarm, writing it in your planner, putting it on your schedule, linking it up with an existing habit, or tying it to a reward you really want. If you want to start exercising, for example, link it with your commute home from work: you’re going to go home, so go to the gym on your way. Or tie it to a reward: I really want to binge-watch Gilmore Girls after a long day of writing, so I do… while I’m walking on my treadmill.
If your system needs maintenance, estimate how often and put that maintenance into your schedule. Treat it like any appointment, which is to say: show up and do what needs to be done. If you don’t maintain your system, it will quit working, and you will lose all those benefits. Don’t do that to yourself.
How could you use simple systems in your life? What recurring task or routine area would you love to simplify and streamline, so you have more time to spend on the good stuff? Tell us in the comments section below!