For some of us, myself included, there is an internal battle going on between our natural inclination to go with the flow of unstructured thinking and living and the real-world of dealing with the necessary details of life.
By nature I’m not a planner nor an organizer. My world is one of increasing disorder. Whenever I get a wild hair and decide to get organized, the change is only temporary. Things quickly return to an equilibrium of disorder. I seem to have a set point of disorder. Despite repeated attempts I can’t seem to change that set point.
I’m a big picture person. I don’t like to work the details. After a few minutes in a spreadsheet I want to commit suicide. I’m a tinkerer and I like to try things out and see if they work rather than trying to plan them out ahead of time. I don’t like to schedule my day. I like to work on whatever feels right at the time. I love the freedom of going with the flow.
The problem with all this is that for most of us, life insists on a whole lot of details. You have to take care of food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, pets, kids, bills, taxes, regulations, meetings, email, work, writing, relationships, etc. Even when we have to deal with those kinds of things, some of us tend to approach them in an unstructured way.
I’ve finally settled on something that really seems to work. I first got the idea from a wonderful book called Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. It can be applied to your business and work life or your personal life. I don’t go the whole way with what is described in the book because it is just too much for me. However, the ideas in the book were the inspiration for what I am putting into place.
The bottom line is that for those things you have to do, those things for which a repeatable process can be used, you create a system that is deadly efficient and as automatic as possible. In this way you burn through those necessary tasks with maximum speed and efficiency and that frees up the rest of your time to do what you want. In my case that means no planning and no organization. Instead I do whatever I feel like doing and in the way I like to do it: playing, tinkering, and creating. I expect to get much better at this as I continue to work these systems.
A Suggested Approach
Seeing the world as a set of systems and subsystems
You start looking at your world and realize that to a large extent it is made up of systems and subsystems. Think about the human body. It’s a number of subsystems; digestive, pulmonary, circulatory, immune, etc. put together to make up one primary system – you. You can take some area of your personal life such as your health and break it down into subsystems like sleep, exercise, diet, regeneration, screening and checkups (for those of us in the older crowd). Your morning routine could be considered a system that might be made more productive and efficient freeing up time for you to do something else. I’ve identified online systems for myself like email, blog reading and commenting, blog article research and writing, and social media. Your work is undoubtedly made up of many such subsystems.
Selection of systems to work on improving
You probably should only tackle one system at a time. I’ve been working on the online systems mentioned above. Obviously the most broken, most problematic, most time consuming areas are where you will get the most initial return on investment. However, don’t just ignore smaller areas. If you could attack 4 systems and save 15 minutes a day on each, your end result is one hour a day free for you to do something else. I consider that a big payoff worth a lot of investment.
If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of elimination. Take an axe to what you think you need to do and then take another cut at what you think you have left. Identify the Essential and Eliminate the Rest. You can eliminate whole subsystems this way. When you are first looking at improving a system look at what you can eliminate from it first. For example in my email system I unsubscribed to a whole bunch of stuff that I never read, but that cluttered my inbox and had to be processed.
You may or may not always have this choice but I implore you to let go of the control and get creative to see if you can take advantage of delegation. The work may be essential and maybe can’t be eliminated, but you may be able to eliminate it from your task list by delegation. From your perspective that accomplishes the same thing. In my household I earn the money so the deal I have with my wife is that she takes care of the household details. I don’t pay bills, deal with insurance, taxes, clean, garden, mow, schedule repairmen, or any other of those messy things I’m not good at and hate to do. It’s wonderful. I don’t even think about them. My female friends are jealous and joke that they want a wife like mine :-). The same thing applies to your work. Wherever you can, delegate tasks to others and free yourself for better things.
Analyze and document the process
Whatever system you have chosen to work on needs to be analyzed in detail and the process articulated in some way. Unfortunately there is some heavy lifting here that cannot be avoided. If you fail to analyze exactly what you are doing and how you are doing it, you will not have the foundation you need to dramatically improve the process. I hate this part, but it is necessary. You have to pay the price here to get the big payoff later. I choose to document very lightly and only to the point of making sure I remember and understand every step I am taking.
It may seem obvious, but it is often missed. There are undoubtedly ways you can simplify the process. If you have to go from point A to point B, the shortest distance is a straight line. Eliminate any unnecessary steps and look for shortcuts. If you get good with keyboard shortcuts in working email for example, you can eliminate a lot of moving the mouse and clicking around. It can dramatically speed up the process. The main thing is don’t take three steps to do what can be accomplished in one.
Make it repeatable and rigorous
Come up with at process that is rigorous and reliable by making it repeatable. If you just wing it every time, that may “work”, but it is inefficient and makes it more likely you will spend more time to get less done. Why do I need a repeatable process for reading and commenting on other blogs? At first thought that seems ridiculous to me, but I have realized I’m neglecting that task because I do it haphazardly. I start reading something when I feel like it and then I get distracted and/or bored and end up going off on a tangent or procrastinating. A rigorous repeatable process allows me to allocate time and get things done that are important to me in as little time as possible.
If you make a process within a system repeatable, you have a lot of opportunity for automation. Automation is the mother lode of payoff. Automated tasks are like eliminated or delegated tasks – you are no longer doing them. Email is a perfect example. I’m creating rule after rule in both Gmail and Outlook to process email automatically and send emails to predefined folders or just automatically delete them. Some of those folders I review and some of them I keep for records. For instance, I get a lot of emails saying something was automatically paid or shipped. Those just automatically get filed for record keeping. I have blog or newsletters going to other folders, some of which are high priority for review and some which I almost never look at. The latter should be candidates for elimination.
For someone who tends to be unstructured like me, time limits work great. I’m setting time limits on many of my systems for two reasons. First to motivate me to accomplish something important to me such as “Read and comment on five favorite blogs”. And second to finish it “in 30 minutes” and ensure I’m not getting distracted and wasting time. That is not preventing me, in my free flow time, from reading and commenting on more blogs, it’s just that by having a system with a time limit, I know I’m getting something important done and not just when the mood may strike or not in my more unstructured time.
This is nothing more than maintenance and continuous improvement. As I discover new tools, have new ideas, or as conditions change, I tweak the system and make it better.
I’ve only been working the systems like this for a short time, even though I had the idea from reading the book over six months ago. I really think it has great long term potential to allow me to get the things done I need to get done in a structured way, while allowing the rest of my time to truly be my time. That is time without the stress and pressure of incomplete tasks. Sam Carpenter has this to say about his Work the System methodology. I think he is on to something:
“If you pay attention to the mechanical details of your world and make proper adjustments to the key systems that compose it, you can construct a life that is unencumbered with fire-killing, a life seldom dictated by urgency. Flexible, strong, and resilient, it’s a life of smooth, calm days; days that have lots of room for thinking and planning, for friends and family, and for just being yourself.”
What do YOU think? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
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