Failing at something is not very fun. Failing at the same thing over and over is maddening. But almost everyone I know, myself included, has a certain area of life (or more likely areas) where we constantly fail to live up to our own expectations. We tend to have great intentions, but rarely meet even our own standards. When we try to make changes in our lives we often look at the specific symptoms of our problem, yet fail to account for the broader context to the challenges we face. We like to focus on individual items, but we must understand that our lives are built around systems.
We all have systems in our lives. We have a connected set of activities and routines that we perform on a daily basis. Whether we analyze it or not, we have systems for many things in our lives. How you get ready for the day is a system. There is a constant set of actions you routinely do to prepare yourself for the day. They may be quite efficient and thought out, or it may be rushed and anxiety inducing. Constantly leaving the house late and feeling stressed getting ready is likely a symptom of a failed system rather than a preferred outcome. Often, our intentions are good. We may even have a nice goal in mind. But we rarely take the time to set up full systems that put us in a position for success.
What Are Systems?
A system can be defined as: a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. The definition itself is a bit complicated but the concept is powerful. Everything we do is part of a system. And often, we tend to focus on one specific part, thing, or aspect instead of viewing our lives and activities as larger systems.
A messy house and clutter (especially kids’ clutter) is rarely about being busy, being tired, or poor intentions. Often, it is the result of a broken system. You can take a messy person and go clean their house. However, if you visit a year later it will most likely revert back to its original state. We often treat the symptom (mess or clutter) without really fixing the system that causes it in the first place. In addition to cleaning, it is really a broader system that deals with inputs, organization, mental awareness, processes, and output. The same effect would be if you give someone who is terrible with money $10k. It might make their life temporarily better, but it will not fix the issue and likely they will be out of money again a year from now. Our focus is often on the observable output but to make lasting change we need to step back and look at the entire system.
Think about all the systems we have in our lives. Here are a few examples of systems we have written about here at SE or are actively working on ourselves: Working out, procrastination, communicating with friends and family, prioritizing quality time, dealing with clutter (and kid’s junk), sleep routines, budgeting, building a blog, email and work life balance. These are just a few of the systems that have been noticeably out of balance in our lives over the years. Working through fundamental changes often takes more than a single blog post or two minute youtube video. Developing fundamentally sound systems does take time in the beginning, but it makes life much smoother in the end.
To put it succinctly, if your phone runs out of battery one day you have an annoying problem; however, if your cell phone battery is always running out of juice you have a systems problem.
Identifying Broken Systems
For some of us, identifying broken systems is easy. However, occasionally, it can be difficult to understand that our issues are deeper than just the simple symptoms. The easiest way to identify broken systems is to look for consistency or patterns in areas of stress. Maybe it is losing weight, eating healthier, finding a baby sitter, or having dinner cooked and on the table by 7:00 without freaking out. What are the areas in your life that consistently need attention?
One of the biggest broken systems that I’m currently working on (and have dealt with for a while) is finding a method for efficiently keeping up with the most important people in my life. In reality, I only have a few best friends, and my family is actually pretty good about keeping up with me. But there are plenty of casual relationships I could build, or even make the ones I have much stronger. It was easy to keep up with my friends when we all lived in the same house in college, but it has become much more challenging as we have all moved away and several are developing careers and starting families. If I don’t have a system in place, my former close friends will just become another glazed over data point of my twitter or facebook feed.
Progress Using Better Systems
Communication: I’m still working on this one but one of the things that has really helped me is putting structured community into my life. This manifests itself by meeting with a group of six couples once a week, every week. We eat dinner, discuss life, do devotions, and have guys/girls nights. For my close friends, I now intentionally communicate with them at least once a month. We also always get together in the fall for a weekend retreat. I also have a guy I meet with every month and I’ve instructed him to ask me how well I’m doing keeping up with my friends and family. This tiny bit of accountability helps me stay motivated.
Clutter: Have a place for everything. This is super simple but difficult to implement. Most people that have clutter problems really have ‘too much stuff’ problems. If something doesn’t have a specific place in your house it will become a mess. When you know where everything is supposed to go it makes cleaning an easy and mindless task. When you add in the decision of “figuring out where something goes” (or clean new space for it) it engages the mental process that often leads to procrastination. Take it one room at a time. Make sure everything has a place. If not, it will eventually become clutter.
Food & Groceries: We still use a weekly meal plan and make a grocery list every week. This ensures that we will at least have the specific ingredients to cook one healthy, complete meal at our house every night. It also helps us avoid that 6:00 stress of figuring out what to eat. I can’t emphasize enough how 10 minutes of planning a week can save hours of hassle and stress.
Money: I’ve written plenty about this but, having a system for your money is imperative. You already have one, it may just be broken. For us, it starts with planning. We manage our cash flow with budgeting (and envelopes) and annually discuss the goals and the bigger objectives we want to achieve with our income. We have been using the same system so long that it is now pretty easy, mindless, and pretty much runs itself.
Developing efficient, healthy systems is an important step in living an awesome, intentional life. Once in place, life tends to run much more smoothly. Start by identifying the systems in your life that are working. Why are they working? Next, write out or identify the ones that could use some help. Pick one or two and step back to see if you are dealing with a symptom or need to address a bigger problem. Systems are great when they work. It is worth the time and effort to develop better systems.
David Allen has written one of the definitive books on systems that I’ve enjoyed.
David Allen – Get Things Done