This article was originally published in The Simplifier #21.
Use it or lose it.
Systems can give you peace of mind and relief—if you use them properly.
Happily, systems get easier and fade more “into the background” the more you use them. Do you think about the system of checking your voicemail and recording messages? Probably not. It’s so simple! After calling a specific phone number, it’s designed to walk you through entering your passcode, deleting or saving messages, changing your message and so on. After using it a few times, its so easy that you don’t need to wait for the prompts, they become second nature.
A good system does just that, become second nature. It manages a segment of information for you such that your mind is free from wondering how to manage that information.
I’ll lay out the steps of creating a system and then do a simple example. My goal is to share the problem-solving mindset that you can apply to creating needed systems in your specific situation.
- Identify the need
- Identify the essential components
- Find useful tools/technology
- Assemble/create accompanying documentation
- Determine the where new system lives
- Document the system so that someone else could easily follow it
- Use your system, and improve upon it
I have an extensive library of interesting and informative books. I like to share them with others but want them back for my own reference or to lend to someone else.
Currently, I’m tracking in my head and on scattered scraps of paper who has what book and about how long they’ve had it.
How would I go about creating a system that will get the task out of my head,
while still ensuring that it gets taken care of?
1. Identify the need
I can’t remember who I’ve lent my books to. I’d like to be able to reference them when needed, and I’d like to lend them to other people.
Basically, I want to track who has which of my books.
What to watch for:
- Where is a trouble area of disorganization?
- What situation would be relieved by a system?
- What information are you storing in your head (i.e. reference information that you want easily accessible but not in the way when you don’t need
- What repetitive process do you constantly “recreate the wheel” doing? i.e. you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again—shouldn’t it be any easier?!?
- Your need should be stated and specific—it will help to shape your system.
2. Identify the essential components
What specific information should I keep track of? I begin with the bare minimum
to answer my stated goal: Who? and Which books?
- name of book
- name of person who borrowed it
Then I brainstorm additional info that may be useful. I can include some, all, or none of these in my system. I write them down now and decide later.
- when did I give it to him/her?
- borrower’s contact info
- do I absolutely want the book back?
You know yourself best. Do you prefer minimal info, or more details?
Are you likely to keep up with more or less info?
3. Find useful tools/technology
The options for this step in our example revolve around a tracking method. Most obvious choices are hardcopy (i.e., paper) or digital. Since a computer file can easily become an “out of sight out of mind” casualty, I’ll only use this option IF I already track lists on my computer and had immediately responded, “I’ll track that in Excel.” If, however, tracking it on the computer means acquiring a new habit, forget
it. Hardcopy is quick and easy.
- What have others done to track this type of info?
- Are there pre-designed solutions available? Are they worth investing in, i.e. time learning and money acquiring?
Is a freeware version available?
- The technology choice must actually make system easier!!
4. Assemble/create accompanying documentation
Choosing hardcopy makes this very easy – all we need is paper and pen.
Here is the chart drawn up. I chose to include the two essential items, and two of the extra items.
Name of Book
| Borrower’s Name
|| Phone or Email
Since I like my forms neat and clean and Excel is an easy program for me to use, I’ll type this up and print it out.
(By the way, this form has already been created and is
available as the "media check-out form" on the Project Simplify Freebies
and Downloadables page.)
Other questions to take into consideration:
- How frequently is the info needed?
- Safety measures, i.e. is back up needed? Are supporting systems needed to insure continuity? How often does it need to be done? When is the best time for it to be done? Is there an action that triggers the process?
- Do system reminders need to be incorporated into your daily/weekly/monthly schedule?
5. Determine where the new system lives
Contextually, it gets used when you lend a book therefore, you can store it in a labeled folder on a bookshelf (if all your books are kept in the same area). Another option, and this is where mine actually does live, is in the reference binder—that handy little binder that stores the lists and forms that are frequently used.
about creating a Reference Binder here.)
6. Document the system so that someone else could easily follow it
One of the tricks to decrease this step is to make your system, in this case form, as self-explanatory as possible in Step 3. If an assistant were to pick up the form, would they know what it was for? Would they know what to do with it without your explanation?
General evaluation – how do you know when it is good enough?
- Could the system be followed through to the end without relying on information in your head?
- Is it self-guided and self-explanatory?
- If not, then does the documentation for your system easily guide the user?
Is it easy to follow?
7. Use your system, and improve upon it
After some usage, what other info are you finding yourself recording that isn’t being asked for by the column titles? Which columns are too narrow? Which could be narrower? Would it help to turn the form into a “landscape” format (instead of “portrait”)?
Finish up your session by instituting your system. Follow the steps you’ve outlined, setting up as needed. If you aren’t able to complete the full setup right away, determine the next step and enter
it in your calendar to be done soon. It is important to implement your plan as soon as possible, lest you find yourself going back and recreating the wheel, again!
How do you improve on your system? After a fair amount of use, come back for a review. Referring to our example, which columns are not being used?
A system is only good if it gets used. This means it needs to be easy and satisfying. How can it be satisfying? When it is thorough in its purpose. If it only gets used half the time, then half the time you go to reference info in it, you’ll be disappointed and perhaps frustrated.
And we all like to avoid frustrating and disappointing situations!
System creation is a creative venture. Give yourself the space to enjoy the process (phone off, no email, ask those around you to not disturb you). Think about it, you are problem-solving to make life easier for the future you!
Shawn Tuttle is
founder of Project Simplify