In this series on Systems in your work and life, I’ve talked about why you need systems, and then a simple plan for how to develop systems, and why you need to work with tools. So, here are 3 of the systems that are working in my life right now, and the tools that are helping:
System that’s working #1: To-Do List
Favorite tool: Todoist
Favorite tagline: “If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t exist.”
If you are not using a to-do list, I can almost guarantee you’re dropping things and stressing out more than you should. I did it for years. I had the stress of keeping everything in my short-term memory, & the humiliation of dropping things on a regular basis. Don’t do this to yourself! Use a to-do list. I tried paper for a while, but I’m absent-minded and tend to lay my list down and then spend time looking for it. Not a good use of time. 🙂 Now it lives on my phone, which I never lose because it’s always in my hip holster. I’ve tried numerous to-do apps. Nozbe was excellent, but too expensive. Wunderlist was really nice and simple – and has a good free version. Goals To Do was powerful and had a neat “refocus tool” but had no web platform, which I really needed. Google Tasks was simple, free, and had fantastic calendar/Gmail integration, but Google stopped development on it. Todoist is reasonably priced, very powerful, and easy to use. Their Gmail integration is good, and their tools and filters are highly customizable. Their “Karma” system allows productivity tracking over time. Bottom line: Whatever you do, don’t keep it all in your head. Use a list!
Whether you’re a paper person or an app person, I recommend that you read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. That’s the book that really took my to-do system to a new level.
System that’s working #2: Morning Routine
Evernote is where I create most of my systems. I use the checklist feature to create a system that I can check off, then uncheck when it’s done. I keep the list on my phone, and until I have it ingrained into habit, it keeps me on track. I tag them “commonly used” and put them on my home screen with Evernote Widget (or shortcuts on the desktop version), so the ones I use regularly are a click away, even if I haven’t edited them for a while. I was introduced to this morning routine idea by S.J. Scott’s neat little book Habit Stacking: 97 Life Changes that Take 5 Minutes or Less ($2.99 on Kindle) I created an ideal morning (for me) checklist, and started working on living by that.
It was really helpful, one of the single most life-changing things that I had done in several years. Suddenly, I was accomplishing several things that I really KNEW would bring long-term benefits, but had no systematic time slot for in my life. But I wanted a tool to take this to the next level, something to help me AUTOMATE the values I had planned in my morning routine. What I discovered (I can’t remember where) is Morning Routine Alarm Clock for Android. You can choose what kind of alarm you want – button, scan or an automated sequence of barcodes, at a predetermined schedule. This last is the option I have chosen.
I am going to spend more time on this routine in a future post. The short version is, I have a series of barcodes (QR codes) that I scan when the alarm starts going off. I put them in the part of the house where the next activity of my routine takes place — bathroom, laundry, family room. This keeps me moving forward quickly, and makes it less likely that I will stall on any portion of the routine. Unfortunately, Apple has too tight a control on their system to allow an alarm clock to do everything that my alarm will do… such as automatically open apps, etc. But here’s a barcode alarm clock to comfort you poor iPhone users. 🙂
Now here’s the thing: I haven’t just NAILED this system. In a pastor’s life, things get crazy, and late nights or other interruptions happen. I have sometimes gone for almost a month without doing it perfectly.
But I have done tons of laundry before my family gets up, written my wife dozens of love notes on sticky notes on her bathroom mirror, developed a pretty unshakable vitamin/supplement habit, have drunk dozens of glasses of water in the morning, worked out 4 of the last 6 mornings, and am writing this blog post because my morning routine alarm told me to write for 15 minutes.
My point? Don’t let a lack of perfection on a system keep you from making one. Aim high, and even if you don’t reach the stars, you won’t land in the mud.
System That’s Working #3 – Tracking my Habits
Favorite Tools: HabitBull
For a long time, I had no way of really knowing how well I was doing with new habits that I was forming. How often was I really getting up on time? Was I really cutting carbs? How often was I meeting my prayer goal? Was I doing my morning routine?
Enter HabitBull. Now, when my 9:45 PM alarm goes off (my evening routine alarm), I scan the barcode in my bathroom, & it automatically opens HabitBull. Then, I take a moment to check off what I accomplished that day. Over time, you can see:
- whether you’re really getting it done
- where your trouble spots are
- what your longest streak is
- the monthly view of each habit individually
- the weekly overview of all habits (shown here)
One of the greatest things this does for me is what I call “mindfulness.” In the rush of a busy life, nothing is more easily forgotten than one’s values. Habit tracking continues to keep my values like spiritual depth, family, and “giving back” in front of me — it keeps me “mindful.”
In the rush of a busy life, nothing is more easily forgotten than one’s values.
A final word: Add 1-2 systems at a time.
Integrating systems into your life is rewarding in the long-term, but challenging in the short term. It’s easy to decide “I have 22 systems I have to get going.” And then your brain fries.
Frankly, you don’t have that much mental focus and willpower. The prefrontal cortex of your brain can’t handle that much, it saps too much energy, which leaves you with no willpower. Instead, make a list of systems you need to add. And unless they are really small, add them one at a time. Small ones might only take 1-2 weeks to install. Big ones might take 3 or 4 months.
In the end, though, you’ll find greater productivity, less stress and a better sense of control over the areas you succeed in “systematizing.” If that’s a word.
Exit Question: What systems are working for you right now? What is one you really need to install? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or on my Facebook.