Why Supportive Systems are Non-Negotiable

I am a systems Nazi. You should be too.

For Want of a Nail, A Shoe Was Lost…

I once read about a famous NFL coach who, on the first practice of the preseason, sits down and shows his players how to put on their socks.

Oh, you don’t know the best way to put on socks?

It’s very simple. You scrunch the cuffs up your thumbs until you’re about three inches from the tip. Then, you put it over the ends of your toes, making sure that the end seam is aligned with the tips of them and that the toe of the sock is fitting squarely around your own. Then pull the sock over the rest of your foot, making sure to set the heel where it out to be. Then, pull the cuff all the way up.

If you put your socks on right, you’ll avoid soreness and blistering. You’ll be able to play longer with less pain. And perhaps most importantly, your level of attention for details is indicative also of your level of attention for larger matters.

Focus is all you have.

Even aside from the wisdom of learning to do things properly (by the way, do you know there’s a right way to tie your shoes, too?) proper attention paid at the granular level means that when crunch time comes, you’re not distracted by sore toes.

The ability to concentrate, to bring your will to bear upon a project or problem, is to my mind the most crucial aspect of self-management. You simply cannot run a business without it. Focus is all you have.

That is why, (although I swear I have other stuff to teach) my work with clients begins with the design and construction of supportive systems. My last course was about bookkeeping (one of the easiest systems to maintain once you know what you’re doing) and the next one (due out right after American Thanksgiving!) is about creating systems to develop plans for your business that you’ll stick to and won’t make you crazy.

Be Choosy About What Gets Your Attention

My absolute favorite quote is by Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be wild and original in your work.

When I was younger I wasn’t convinced of the truth of that quote, but more and more I find that the more orderly and dependable other aspects of my life are, the more I can stretch professionally. That also ties in with what I’ve learned about neuroscience and decision fatigue.

Furthermore, the more that you practice a routine (or a system!) the more that it becomes ingrained into your neural pathways, making it more automatic and freeing up more cognitive bandwidth—ensuring that you never start the second half of a big game and suddenly realize that you have a wrinkle in your sock.

The diffusion of focus will crush you. As a solo entrepreneur, you know what it is to try and keep the plates spinning. You know how many different aspects of your business you have to pay attention to. Marketing, administration, client work, client relationships, planning, finances, outreach, etc. And that’s just to stay in one place. To progress towards something, you need to do market research, testing and implementation, professional development, and strategic initiatives.

Doesn’t it make you anxious just to read that list?

And worse, don’t you feel helpless, like you don’t know where to start?

Decision fatigue strikes again.

Decision fatigue is what keeps you from creating these systems. They’re dead simple—but simple does not mean easy. It requires you to be thorough, methodical, and clear-headed throughout the entire process of setting them up, and vigilant throughout the first couple trial runs to make sure you got them perfectly right. Because these are your neural pathways you’re setting. They’ll be annoying to change later.

Systems are not one of those things that would be “nice to have”. They’re crucial to get set up, because until you get them in place, it’s nearly impossible to get to ‘level up’ because you simply can’t compete at a higher level before you get supportive systems in place.

What systems do you need to put in place to take it to the next level?


33 thoughts on “Why Supportive Systems are Non-Negotiable”

  1. I actually started a new system today, sort of. Inspired by your post about ‘putting your boss hat on’. That one stuck in my head. So, it’s Monday… and I decided to act like a boss and have one of those Monday morning status meetings with myself. I’ve created a focus for the week and a list of every task I need to accomplish around that focus. Seems simple, but I have issues with focus and planning out projects the way I know I should. We’ll see how the week goes.
    I do think you’re right. It’s hard to ‘level up’ without a system of some kind.

  2. I am reminded of the now cliche montage from the Karate Kid where he has to focus on waxing cars and sweeping the floor over and over again to learn how to focus.  
    Man, sometimes I wish I could just hit the “montage” switch. Rocky music would start playing and after about 3 minutes, my business would be totally pimped with systems, overflowing with customers, and the scene would end with me sipping a corona on a beach.  /montage
    Yes, systems are so, so important. I am good at recognizing when I need one, but less good about putting them in place, and even worse about sticking to them.  Repetition is key.  I’m still searching for the best way to get myself to do it!

    1. @ethanwaldman Life would be infinitely better with a “montage mode”. I’d settle for a soundtrack, even. 
      Sticking to systems, in my experience, is about making the system or checklist itself easily accessible. The second most important point is to tie it into a trigger. (Leo Babauta has som great stuff about forming new habits, and that’s what systems are.)

  3. Yay! Systems! Yeah, they’re pretty awesome. And I’ve only just started to get my systems feet wet.
    They do take so much energy to plan, implement, and test. Sometimes I just stick to my trial version for a while, since I figure it’s better than nothing. And then when I have more energy and can focus and analyze better, I’ll try to implement some tweaks. Overall, I’m finding the benefit of having systems in place far outweighs the considerable effort you have to put into creating them.
    I’m still working on seeing where systems should be. Every once in a while I’ll have a systems “a-ha!” moment where I get excited because I’ve noticed something I could systematize, or plug into an existing system. At present I’m still working on my main client work system, tweaking and tweaking as I work with clients. But there are plenty more on the “soon” list 🙂

    1. @remadebyhand They really are so much work. It’s kind of like the old “exercise will make you feel better” schtick– you say “I don’t have time to exercise, when really, you don’t have time not to exercise. Richard Branson says his two hour daily exercise routine adds at least 5 hours of productive time to his day. Systems, I think, are very similar in that respect. Plus, who wouldn’t want to look like that when they’re old?

  4. This might be my favorite post ever! I love systems and I hate deliberating over minutiae when I could be creating. I have a system for nearly everything and it is such fun to create and tweak them. It could almost be a side job for me I love it so much.
    I had been playing guitar for about 20 years when a local luthier pointed out that I was stringing my guitar incorrectly. I was, of course, incredulous, but do I do it like he showed me at his studio? Yep, I sure as hell do because his way was superior.
     @ethanwaldman Yes, repetition is key and the constant tweaking, but the time it saves is so worth the trouble up front. Now I need some online systems. I have my guitar studio systems set:)

    1. @cjrenzi  @ethanwaldman The guitar story reminds me of a recent yoga practice I had. The instructor told me I was doing my downward facing dog wrong (my first one was four years ago) and I thought, “Seriously?! I’m doing something so fundamental and something I’ve done thousands of times wrong?”
      That football story about the coach and his players is making the rounds lately. And for good reason. It’s a darn good one. I’ll tell you the big systems I still need to put in place for my solopreneur business (among others). PR, Accounting (I know, I know…I have no excuse), and whatever writing class that will teach me how to write without using so many parenthesis (here’s another one just to make fun of myself).
      The good news is I’m getting more and better systems into place every week. If only there weren’t so damn many of them!

  5. @Shanna Mann I need the systems for affective blogging, Tweeting, writing, etc. These things are new, so I am developing systems now. With Tammy, it’s lots of FUN!
     @joeyjoejoe Yeh! I was dumbfounded! How could that be? But I accept that I’ve been schooled a lot quicker than I used to. I just figure I’d better get on with the superior system and stop railing against it so I don;t waste even more time.

    1. @cjrenzi    Yeah!!! the futility and total time-waste of the “railing against it”! 
      Apparently, that’s a classic trait of the ADD-ish and I’ve recently recognized that I “don’t HAVE to, I just always *have*” (can you hear the difference in emphasis, there?). Big difference!
       @Shanna Mann   So glad you’re pounding on the value of Systems – and they come in so many flavors! 🙂

        1. @Shanna Mann Indeed!  ~ Not my particular “cup of tea”, either, but so, so important!
          I can certainly vouch for how much ‘the alternative’ sucks! 😉

  6. Once upon a time, back when a man and woman used to buy each other gifts instead of making fun memories, a man bought a woman a time management book as a gift.  That man, CJ who loves systems more than almost anything, saw the book in a pile to be sold back to Half Price Books without a crease in its cover.  I believe he cried.  Even being married to a madman doesn’t make one a madwoman, so I had to become self-employed and realize that because I was no long in “the system” with bosses and meetings and a time schedule, I had to make my own systems.  I grew up fast. 
    The routines I have in place do allow for hours of creativity.   Exercise first thing.  Writing and/or posting next.  Lessons prepared for students and this is all before lunchtime on most days.  Since we head out around 3pm, I find my 12 – 2:30 is the time where my productivity slips.  Perhaps this is time for the other stuff, but I guess I need to develop a system for that!  Ahhhh!
    I am with Branson on the exercise. 
    Thank you, Shanna, for another zinger.

    1. @tammyrenzi It’s always a shock when the systems you thought imprisoned you also, in a weird way, supported you. I think a lot of self-employed people are still in the “No! I don’t need no rules! phase, so the fact that you “grew up fast” is a lucky break.

  7. LOL, I’m loving reading through these comments because they seem so very, very true. @Shanna Mann , in my own life these past couple months, I’ve kept being brought back to basically your exact point of the systems that seemed to entrap us were actually supporting us. Working from home has meant wonderful, crazy liberty in my schedule. Downside? Wonderful, crazy liberty in my schedule. It’s so different when you have a boss in an office who’ll get mad at you for lack of productivity, instead of an angry elf jumping up and down and stamping its feet inside your head (who you then put tightly in a box and go watch NCIS marathons because dang it, your schedule is flexible!). Thank you for the reminder that I need systems. Just reading this post earlier this morning got me up and focused for the day. 🙂 Oh, and yes, I agree. All life would be more fantastic with a good soundtrack and a montage mode.

    1. @Megan Peterson There’s is really nothing as dangerous to me as a day in which nothing in particular “has” to get done. But it has to be the right kind of containers. Two hours before my next call? I can do something with that. An hour before my next call? I couldn’t possibly concentrate!
      But on the other hand, if you often work weekends… sometimes a TV marathon transforms (magically!) from procrastination to self-care. Tricky bastards, those definitions. 😛
      Thanks for leaving a comment!

      1. @Shanna Mann LOL, how very, very true. Those containers can be such a danger, especially when they aren’t actually always accurate. Focus, as you said, is all you have, and sometimes it seems that the smaller the container, the more condensed my focus turns out to be. And sometimes, it’s the exact opposite.
        Ah, systems, how you nag me to put you into place as I think through this post… 🙂
        Thank you for these thoughts; they really are very helpful. 🙂

  8. I love the complimentary posts we had today… very different content, but yeah, same message. I still am violently opposed to systems that become ingrained in your neural pathways (having spent much too much of my time “waking up” in the car on the way to work and not really remembering how I made breakfast, whether I shut the stove off, what I decided to wear, etc.) I get that those systems were there to enable me to get out the door every morning, but I felt like I was sleepwalking through a lot of life. So how to do systems that are supportive but not routinized is what I’m spending a lot of time on at the moment… I am convinced it’s possible…. if only I can get home and try it out. 🙂

    1. @sarahemily I don’t know for sure, of course, but I’m wondering if your “autopilot” was because you were overextended and running on adrenaline most of you waking hours. That’s definitely something I saw when I was exhausted, running completely on muscle memory and caffeine. 
      If that’s the case, maybe the problem is not so much ingrained neural pathways, but the fact that you used their very strength into a weapon against yourself? Anything good can be made bad with too much of it. 
      In fact, I was just writing in my journal the other day about how I’ve actually stopped ‘optimizing’ my life for productivity, because I don’t actually want or need to be more productive. It would start damaging my quality of life to do so.

      1. @Shanna Mann  @sarahemily Learning to take off my Graphics Hat (the uber-perfectionist) at will, has made great differences in how most of my days go, too.

      2. @Shanna Mann Nope, the ‘autopilot’ was when I was at my day job… getting solidly 8 hours or more of sleep every night and working out and cooking for myself and all that good jazz. It was just because my mind was totally disengaged because routines bore me out of my mind.

  9. Decision fatigue is the single greatest argument in favor of quitting my loosely schedule do-whatever’s-next process. I’ve never seen a reason to change because not only do I always get everything done on time, I usually get more done than I expected.
    Except, not the stuff on my “someday” list. Because I’m too creatively exhausted from *deciding*, all day every day, what comes next.

    1. @spinhead Yeah, I hear you. I think you have to strike a balance between, “I do what I feel like doing, because that’s how I stay motivate’ and ‘stuff is still slipping through the cracks and I have to plug that hole.’ But that balance looks different for everyone

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