Build a system to work smarter, not harder

Build a system to work smarter, not harder


"I'm too busy" is a thinly veiled way of saying "that's not important". When I first heard this idea, it completely changed the way I thought about being busy. So how do we find time to do the things we want to do?

Listen, I get it. We're all busy. We have more to do than time to do it. And that was before the pandemic. But still, we get done the things we need to. Why? Because they're important.

"I'm too busy" is a thinly veiled way of saying "that's not important".

When I first heard this idea, it completely changed the way I thought about being busy. While I believe in prioritizing important things, it doesn't take away the responsibilities in life that make us busy. So how do we find time to do the things we want to do? That we feel too busy to do? How do we learn something new, make lasting change, or start a project?

One of the best ways to accomplish anything is to build a system around it. James Clear, New York Times best-selling author of the book Atomic Habits, writes, "you do not rise to the levels of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems." One of the big ideas in this excellent read is that systems are what you do to reach your goals, not the other way around. Clear argues that you would reach your goal if you focus on the system and skip the goal altogether. While this idea is a bit counterintuitive, Clear believes that the goal takes care of itself.

But what exactly is the difference between a goal and a system in this context? Consider saving money as an example. A goal would be to save enough money to retire by the age of 60. A system would be to meet with a financial planner, establish an automated transfer to a retirement account, hire an investor to manage your investments, prioritize expenses, and so on. The system is what you establish (accountability, automation, expert guidance) to accomplish something you deem important (retirement) and set as a goal.

Systems are the parts of the whole that work together towards a specific output.

This is why 'systems thinking' is often associated with engineering and building, natural disciplines that require putting pieces together. But the big idea here: building a system around tasks and goals in your daily life can help you accomplish more (like that new learning project), or do the same amount with less effort (like having more time).

System building 101

  1. Identify the specific goal. The definition of a system above includes a specific output, which means that each system will be tailored specifically for the task at hand. One system cannot be ported from one task to the next. From an engineering perspective, a toaster does not make a good remote control. Simply because one system works for one task, it won't necessarily work for another. Further, simply because one system works for one person, it won't necessarily work for you.
  2. Break the goal down into its parts. Any complex goal will have multiple steps. Considering the financial retirement example above, some steps could become automated, such as a paycheck transfer to a retirement account. Making this automated increases the likelihood of it happening, as opposed to manual transfer if you remember each month. However, some parts of the system require manual intervention, such as reviewing and prioritizing spending: will you take that trip? Will you buy that furniture? Whether automated or manual, identifying each part of your system allows you to 👇
  3. Piece the parts together. This is where the system gets built. In 2009, Atul Gawande wrote The Checklist Manifesto, popularizing the idea of a pre-flight checklist and revolutionizing pre-surgical operations. The simple idea: checklists help prevent errors in complex tasks. Like surgery or flying a plane, these highly specific goals (perform a successful operation, get the plane off the ground) require highly specific tasks to be completed according to a detailed plan. Whether your system needs a checklist is up to you, but the important idea in this step is to integrate the parts into a cohesive system.  
  4. Iterate the system. Borrowing from engineers again, no system will be built on the first try. Iteration and experimentation are crucial for any finely tuned system. Which parts did you leave out? Which steps were included but didn't need to be? Look for ways to optimize to make your system work for you.

Building and leveraging a system requires a dynamic zooming in-zooming out between the parts and the whole, of the trees and the forest, of the steps and the system. The ability to move between these two states ensures that you are working towards the goal with the right steps.  

Return on investment only works because of compounding. This is true for financial investment, work investment, or personal investment. If you've deemed something important and decided you'll spend your time on it, then building a system can help you accomplish your goals faster and go farther than you could otherwise. Building a system is not just about doing more, especially in the 'age of productivity'. Building a system allows you to do something with less effort to get more time for important things because we never want to be too busy for those.