Systems 101: Why You Need Them (And How You’re Already Using Them Anyway)

systems-graphic-what-are-systemsWhen I think systems, I think people wearing suits, being filmed in high power meetings in conference rooms, smiling their capped teeth at the camera.

Truth is, we are all already using systems whether we want to or not. A system is a process for doing something. You have a system for checking and responding to email, for example, whether you’ve thought consciously about it or not.

Sometimes people think about systems falling under two categories:

  1. Anything that needs to be done.
  2. Anything that needs to be done by someone who isn’t you.

Most people only start caring about systems when it gets to #2 (you have to tell someone else how to do it). Something about explaining or documenting a process formalizes it and can help you see inefficiencies. Starting off with making systems for scenario #2 makes sense but ultimately, the most effective people we know move on to make systems for #1.

How do you know when something needs a system?

  1. When it isn’t getting done consistently.
  2. When it isn’t getting done well.

Most systems save time and/or money. What if you came up with systems for three things in your life (personal or business) and saved yourself $500 a month or 10 hours a week? That could be game changing.

So as we head into the new year, think about what personal and professional systems you may need.

Step 1: What needs systems in my life?

If you are like me, it’s hard to view your life under the seemingly cold lens of everything being a system. Sam Carpenter’s book (which you can get as a free PDF or audiobook) called Work The System can help. One of my friends made me come up with a list of ten personal systems I needed and ten business ones to get my brain moving in this direction. Here’s my list in case it helps you start yours:

10 Business Systems I Needed:

1) Systems for ordering/purchasing needed supplies (mainly paper, toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, sponges, binders, paper towels, garbage bags, cleaner)
2) System for cleaning off computers: running scans, how often desktops and download folders get cleaned off, when do programs get deleted, etc.
3) system for papers as they come in: do they get scanned, filed? What gets thrown out?
4) System of recycling: Get a bin(s) and figure out how often it gets taken to the recycling place.
5) System for meeting scheduling/changing- Do they need confirmation? Do I need a VA? This is a time suck!
6) System for saving ideas for social sharing/blogs with my team. I use Delicious and Pocket for long term storage. How can our team be sharing post ideas? How can I be helpful in this system without taking away creative freedom?
7) System for paying bills
8) System for checking email (nicole, info, and maintenance)
9) System for editing podcast
10) System for password management (currently two Keepass files, need to be merged and have a mobile component)

10 Personal Systems I Needed:

1) Meal planning system: How can I use a combination of my farm share, the pantry, and what I have on hand to make a combination of easy to deploy (known) recipes and exciting new recipes?
2) House chores system: who does them, when, to what extent.
3) Morning routine (times when I need to be out the door vary. Need to make sure breakfast is eaten, household chores advance somewhat, dog gets some exercise, and I can leave the house somewhat attractive.)
4) Exercise system: How do I get 3-4 times weekly exercise? Scheduling walks with friends has only somewhat been reliable. Should I make it a group thing?
5) Editing/Writing My Book: How can I get new chapters planned, written, edited, collated? Do I have a deadline and if so, what do I do after?
6) Kombucha system: How to take care of scoby, when to bottle, when to feed
7) System for birthdays/events: How to remember these yearly and one off events, how do I keep others informed who’d want to be informed
8) System for getting rid of excess stuff: How often to evaluate possessions, which things get posted to what sales websites, how often to have garage sale or other mass purge event
9) System for cleaning Anchorspace: What gets cleaned, how often, how is space improved incrementally
10) System for nurturing friendships: How often to have in person events? How to build relationships one on one? How to be thoughtful from a distance (texting, cards, etc.)

Once you make yourself have ten each, it’s easier to think of a lot more. Now pick one (maybe the biggest time suck) and start with that. I’m going to use meal planning as my system because I am sitting here realizing I have no idea what I’m eating for dinner so clearly that’s an issue.

Step 2: What is your system now?

Documenting what you do now is illuminating. What you’ll notice is some gaps/assumptions in your list, like I did. (Really? I expect myself to walk into my house at 6 PM, open the fridge, and feel magically inspired to make dinner based on what is in there?)

I spend Wednesday mornings batch cooking (way to go me for at least putting time in my calendar dedicated to thinking about food when the week is half over!) and I have a system of cataloging and trying new recipes with my Pinterest board (you’ll notice there are three boards: Try This Week, Did It Meh, and Did It Loved).

Step 3: What needs to stay? How can this be better?

In my case, here is not in my system for meal planning:

  • when I go grocery shopping
  • a master list of items I keep on hand
  • an inventory control (way to record what I need or will need)
  • how many and what meals get planned (what from ‘Try This Week’ Pinterest board makes the cut? When does each recipe get moved to Did It Meh or Did It Loved boards?)

Step 4: Make a new system.

So here’s my new meal planning system, which takes what was working and adds in the parts that weren’t.

Ongoing: a piece of paper is kept on the sideboard and as items get used up, Nicole adds them to sheet of paper for weekly shop
Saturday morning: Nicole chooses two recipes to make from the ‘Try This Week’ Pinterest board and three old standby recipes to make considering a balance of breakfast, lunch, and dinner and limited cooking time most days. Nicole archives old recipes based on how good they were.
Sunday afternoon: Nicole goes grocery shopping with master list and preps three meals.
Wednesday morning: Nicole preps remaining three meals.

Step 5: Try and tweak.

It’s hard to do documentation, even if you are being really careful. The key is to try it because there is likely something you are forgetting. For example, it might make more sense for me to prep Tuesday nights between 5 and 6 pm since I have a standing 6 PM happy hour at my house and I’m getting things together for that anyway.

This month, our theme is systems. We create systems to be more efficient, to decrease stress, to make sure things get done, to be able to let others help us, to be able to reach our larger goals, and to be happier. As we head into 2017, it’s a good time to think about systems and what we want to change. We’ll be discussing how to use the internet in some of your systems for getting your favorite (or, ok, just necessary) things done.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.
Nicole Ouellette
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she's not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.