Systems: Their Promises and Pitfalls


I’ve always been a sucker for a good system.

I was one of those kids who loved rearranging my books (by subject, by author, by color…). I’ve tried all kinds of different diets, productivity systems, exercise routines, organizational schemes, you name it. Following a map that someone else has traveled to get where you want to go is incredibly seductive.

At times, I imagine myself in the middle of all the flawless systems I’ve created, my life virtually running itself around me, as I effortlessly work, eat, clean, move, etc. in accordance with the careful planning I’ve done. (Yeah, right.)

The lure of the system is strong for recovering perfectionists like me and my clients - they can take on an almost fetishistic role. Follow the system, and you’ll be organized, attractive, healthy, productive, and loved by everyone. Deviate, and it’s your own damn fault when you don’t get anything done and die alone and poor surrounded by cats. (Slight exaggeration for effect.)

The problem is, they rarely work for me.

When I started working for myself, I spent the first six months going crazy because I couldn’t get a single system to stick. Not one.

As much as I liked creating structure for myself, another part of me liked rebelling against that structure even more. Whether it was hours per day or projects per week, I never met the metrics I set for myself and ended up feeling frustrated and like a failure.

It was like there were two toddlers inside me: one who liked stacking blocks in neat towers, and one who loved knocking them over. Meanwhile, my inner babysitter was getting exhausted.

I didn’t “get over it,” either. (If that’s even the phrase I want to use.) If I tell myself I’m going to take a walk every day or publish a blog post every week, that’s almost a guarantee that it won’t happen.

So why should you listen to me, anyway?

A fair point. In my case, the evidence is stacking up that following systems and getting stuff done don’t always go together. I’m goofing off more than ever these days, and my business is more successful than it’s ever been. I’m also having way more fun!

How did this happen?

It started for me when I stopped focusing so much on my beloved tools and systems, and started looking at my overall approach.

My husband still fondly remembers his high-school calculus teacher, who would limp dramatically around the room with a calculator under his arm. The message: don’t use the calculator as a crutch. If you don’t understand the underlying concepts, the tools will only take you so far.

Why don't systems work all the time?

Systems often come with a lot of rules and/or tools: eat this (not that), do this first, color-code your binders. Sometimes this is helpful (I never have to guess what to do next), but there are some major issues that come up for me.

1. It triggers the inner rebel.

I start feeling trapped and suffocated, even when it’s in reaction to rules that I voluntarily adopted. I start feeling resentful and making unhealthy choices.

The chaotic, spontaneous part of me that hates rules and structure is also the source of my creativity and playfulness, so trying to hogtie her also ends up with me feeling stressed and joyless much of the time. Boo to that.

2. It’s an easy path to all-or-nothing thinking.

“I don’t have time to organize all these papers right now, so I’ll just leave them in a pile on my desk until I do.”

“I spent an hour writing out this meal plan and shopping list, but now I don’t want to make/eat any of these recipes.”

If I can’t follow the system perfectly, I’ll often just give up entirely and end up even more disorganized and lost. Alternatively, I'll spend a lot of time crafting the "perfect" system and then never implement it.

3. When it works for a while, I think I should be able to sustain it indefinitely.

I've written about the highs and lows of energy before, and how frustrating it is to have something that worked before stop working. When that happens, my instinct is to either blame myself or the system.

In reality, as anyone who has pets or children knows, the thing that worked yesterday may not work today. It's just the way things are - there's no failure involved. But when I'm locked into a specific way of making things happen, I forget that I'm an imperfect person trying to shoehorn myself into a Platonic ideal and start frantically trying to "fix" things.

4. It can create mental myopia.

When I’m focused on doing each step perfectly, I’m not looking at the larger context of the system in my life. It’s like concentrating really hard on driving a car extremely well, but not paying attention to where it’s going. What’s my endgame? What was my intention in adopting this structure in the first place?

Some say (correctly) that the journey is more important than the destination, that you shouldn’t make yourself miserable or do things you hate in the short term to get to some far-off imagined goal where everything will be perfect and you can finally relax.

This is totally true. However, when your goal is to do [x thing] every day, or follow a certain system, it’s really important to know why you’re doing it. The act of meeting productivity goals and following rules is not, in my experience, intrinsically satisfying. Connecting it to a larger purpose or intention is.

Connecting Goals and Intentions > Systems

If my goal is to publish a blog post every week, that doesn’t really get me excited. But if I remember that I like processing my thoughts and feelings out loud where they might be helpful to other people, and that in the long run it will help me build community and connect me with people who could use my services, I feel much more motivated.

To take it a step further, if I know what experience I’m looking for, it’s much easier for me to brainstorm other activities that fill that need. When I’m not attached to a particular method of getting that experience, it’s easier for me to see other options.

When you can rise above and see the general approach or intent of a system, the rules become more flexible.

When you’ve been cooking for a while, it’s easy to look at a recipe and see which ingredients can be substituted, adjusted, or left out entirely. It’s like they say in Pirates of the Caribbean: “The code is more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Structure still has a place. You still need ingredients to cook something! A lot of the tools my clients and I use help us get from point A to point B without reinventing the wheel. To-do lists, calendars, and coaching tools are still an integral part of my process.

The difference is that when I’m not a slave to the system, I can make changes and experiment to find out what works best for me.

My life, Post-(Strict) Systems

These days, I have very little regular routine. I wake up early with my husband and walk him to work. That’s about as far as the “I do this every day” structure goes.

The rest of the day I nap, write, meet with clients, read, educate myself in my field, go for walks, run errands, clean, cook, pay bills, meditate, do something creative...but I don’t plan when I’m going to do things (except for classes and client meetings) and not everything gets done every day.

I'm learning how to think of my life as a bigger whole, where the main idea is that if I take care of myself, everything else falls into place.

It wasn’t easy getting to this point - it was terrifying to let go of the idea that I needed a plan to be productive.

I was so scared that without my inner dictator to keep my slothful, lazy self in line, I would end up a fat drunk broke loser (yes, that’s how I talked to myself). It was so hard to trust in my innate wisdom and goodness.

And yet, here I am, loving myself and enjoying my days, and my world hasn’t fallen apart yet. And you know how I got here? By questioning my formerly unquestioned beliefs about success, productivity, and happiness - by coaching myself (and getting coached), in other words.

Now it’s your turn.

Where are you not trusting yourself these days? What areas of your life could use a little more lightness and spontaneity?

What systems do you follow religiously (or wish you could), and are they giving you the experience you’re looking for? Where could you play and experiment with your approach? What is your inner rebel saying?

Love to you and your process! Let me know how it goes.

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