A system is simply a repeatable process. You need to capture the process and make it efficient, however. Here’s how to take common tasks and turn them into a real system.
Listener Alex writes in:
“How can I get smarter creating systems? I want to make systems in my life. Like a system for bill paying, a system for laundry, –that sort of thing. I am trying to find guidelines on how to make systems.”
Systems, I love systems! I love them so much that I often forget the rest of the world’s population hasn’t spent their lives obsessively making systems and automating their lives. (In fact, I’ll bet you spent your childhood doing stuff like playing with friends. Must have been nice.) So today let’s discuss what systems are and how to create systems to help your life run better.
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Systems = Repeatable Actions
In the simplest case, a system is just an action you repeat to get a result you want. My pal Melvin puts his shoes on one at a time each day. He ties the laces of the left one first, in a double knot so it doesn’t slip. Then he ties the right shoe. He’s been doing it this way since he was 5. This is his system for putting shoes on.
Most of us unconsciously make systems for washing ourselves, brushing our teeth, choosing clothes, and doing our weekly shopping. Over time, these become automated systems. Some of us have systems that work better than others. Queen Europa’s system for choosing clothes ends up with her looking like a fashion model. Melvin’s system for choosing clothes makes him look like a cross between a teenage tumbleweed and a middle-aged geek. Even though they both have systems, the two systems produce different results.
Checklists Are Systems
A checklist is the simplest personal system I know. When there is something you will do over and over, write down the steps. This becomes your checklist. Next time you have to do the task, just pull out your checklist and repeat the steps. I use checklists all the time when I’m automating my own systems.
Make Your Checklist Learn
If you find that your checklist is missing steps, next time through, add those steps to the checklist. Over time, your checklist will eventually include all the pieces of a task that must be done. And congratulations, you have built your first system! I call this creating a checklist that learns and you can read more about it in my book Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.
I type all my checklists into text files in the cloud, so I can refer to them from my smartphone and my desktop computer. (If you don’t know what this cloud is that I’m talking about, just ask Tech Talker, he’ll explain). If I someday want to hire a virtual assistant to take over a system, I just hand over a copy of the checklist. That’s what’s so great about a system – once you’ve created it, it is easy and fast to share it with someone else.
Systems Can Involve External Parts
A system can be more than just a checklist. Some systems require extra resources to work. Part of Europa’s clothes-choosing system involves a monthly review of the fashion magazines. If those don’t come, or if we replace them with Melvin’s Fantasy and Sci-Fi Monthly, her system wouldn’t produce the same results. If she wants to have her virtual assistant do her clothes shopping, she will need to make sure her assistant has subscriptions to those same magazines.
Personal life systems may depend on many outside elements. Europa’s laundry system involves sorting clothes. Her system only works if she has supplies of bleach, color-fast detergent, and Woolite. If any of those are missing, she’ll never be able to do laundry again. My laundry system is simpler and involves buying only clothes made of industrial strength polyester. Did I mention that Europa looks way better in her wardrobe than I do in mine?
Make Your Systems Efficient and Streamlined
Your entire life is full of systems, whether or not your realize it. You make systems for deciding how to use your time. You make systems for learning, for getting to work, for deciding what’s important, for parenting, and so on.
Having a system is nothing special. But all it takes is a picture of me side-by-side with Europa to realize that the right system can mean the difference between becoming a successful fashion model and being asked to use the servant’s entrance when visiting an upscale establishment like Motel 8.
When you are designing a system to do something like pay your bills or fill out expense reports, ask around for ideas. Melvin might deal with bills by paying them the moment they arrive, while his fiancé Bernice may have a “Bills” file. When bills arrive, they go in the “Bills” file until the end of the month, when Bernice puts on her favorite Steven Reich music and spends the afternoon paying all the bills at once.
Build Your Systems Into Your Existing Life
This entire Get-It-Done Guy podcast is my effort to share systems with you. Most of the systems I share are things I actually use. They work for me. But fortunately for you, you aren’t me.
When you find a system you like, try it on. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Personally, I find keeping a paper task list works better for me than using an app for my task list. You may find the opposite.
Different systems can work for different people due to psychological reasons or just different circumstances. If you have your own washer and dryer, your systems for doing laundry can be different from someone who uses a laundromat. For one thing, you can get undressed and toss dirty clothes directly into your washing machine. I tried that once in a laundromat. The police later explained to me that without washboard abs, that practice is considered indecent exposure. Harrumph.
If you want to live a life where everything flows smoothly and effortlessly, pay attention to what does and doesn’t work for you. Then when you find systems that work for you, set them up, train yourself to use them, and go on to live the rest of your life.
Advanced Systems Topics
We’ve discussed setting up your own systems. But nature has systems, too! The Jet stream and the Gulf stream, for example, distribute heat around the world. People create complicated systems like the world economy, food distribution, and so on. You can learn about how complicated systems work with a couple of my favorite books: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge and Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.
Making systems is a key step to automating all the repetitive stuff in your work and life. Use checklists that learn to design your systems, and tweak them by experimenting and by finding role models to copy. Find the systems that work best with your personal style. Then set them up once, make them a habit, and go on with the rest of your life.
I’m Stever Robbins. I help business leaders expand business options by deeply understanding their business model and finding new or overlooked opportunities. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com>.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!
- The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge - an introduction to systems thinking in business
- Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows - a general introduction to general systems thinking
- Dressing Up and Down: Comfort and Style for Men at Work - fashion tips for the fashion-challenged male