The Secret To Success: Systems

The Secret To Success: Systems

I love reading Hacker News…and yet don’t read it enough. After now spending the better part of my career in tech, I spend a large part of my day reading other news, and learning about how others absorb information to not just write about the industry, but for personal benefit. I’ve learned how to analyze news better, write more clearly, and think from different angles by reading others’ writing. Though my schedule has been widely inconsistent for the past few years, I have a basic routine when it comes to my day — at least, my work day. And it always begins with reading.

Today I discovered an article in the WSJ by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) about how he’s succeeded by failing…and also succeeded not by setting goals, or having a passion, but my simply setting up systems.

This hit home hard. Some of the most successful people I’ve met live their life with systems. You might call them routines. Either way, they were defined approaches to how they approach each aspect of their life. Is part of your task list writing? Set up a system to get it done with as little friction as possible. This might mean setting up/cleaning up Twitter lists, RSS feeds, subscribing to newsletters, and finding a quiet place to get it done. Its just not a matter of “getting it done.” It’s setting up the means and ways to accomplish it over and over.

Is part of your task list to walk 10 miles a day and only eat 1200 calories so you can lose 2 pounds a week? Set up a system of nutrition (which might mean cleaning out your cabinets, creating a shopping list, creating a budget, figuring out how/where to get food from and how often, developing a “back up plan” when dining out), adjusting your schedule to eat at the right times, deciding how to adjust your schedule to work out 2-3 hours a day, plugging those times in your calendar, and sticking to it. Losing weight is less of a goal and more of a systematic routine that requires a habit you can “accomplish” over and over.

All of this I know. I do it (or have done it) over, and over. I know systems lead to success. Once you have a system established, it’s hard to stop — we are creatures of habit. Keeping up with the system is not a challenge; you move along with the process as easily as parts move through a factory. But starting that system can almost feel impossible. There’s often undefined goals, unknown (but necessary) resources, a current lifestyle that leaves you feeling like Jessie Spano on that on Saved By the Bell episode wanting to scream that there’s never any time.

You feel like you just don’t know where to start.

So you write down everything you need. They may not fit into categories. Say you want to start a new blog (ahem.) There’s really not lot of things you need — a domain, an installation of wordpress, a theme. You might need some creativity to decide on the right URL, title, and theme, but if you’ve already decided on a new blog, this might not require much time.

But then you need a system to blog. There’s a time investment to write posts — you’ll need to curate content, interview people/companies, reach out for product to review, actually write, etc. You’ll need to get photos — so you might need to take the time to take pictures, or find somewhere to legally download images. You’ll need to share your posts, so you might need to do some outreach, utilize 1,001 social channels to get your content out there. You’ll want to promote your blog, so you might want to think of doing other kinds of outreach, or contests, or guest posts elsewhere to get links back to your blog, which require more writing (see above.) These are a lot of ideas, but aren’t a process.

Which is the difference between blogging as a hobby and blogging as a business. I’m inspired by blogs like Dooce because her blog is systematic. Looking through her years (and years) of posts, her blog is a lifestyle – but it is also very clearly executed as a process. And it has to be, as her sponsors and advertisers expect a certain number of readers every month — which that process ensures stays the same, and probably keeps growing. But Dooce is not a goal; it is a project. It is a job. It is something to keep improving with no end in sight.

This is how entrepreneurs think. They have big ideas and a desire to work on something that solves a problem. Those that fail think they might get rich quick. Those with too much passion usually burn out. But those that approach ideas – life – as a system move fluidly through anything handed to them (and anything they think of.)

As for me? I’ve always approached life a little bit like entrepreneurs approach startups. I’ve developed systems. I know how to start one, and when the system no longer works. The hard part is just getting started. As I think about things I want to do in my life — maintain a healthier diet, start a lifestyle blog that might be sustainable, write more here, nurture friendships, etc — I think about what I’m not doing about it now.

Obviously, that’s nothing.

So where do you start? What systems do you have in your life? I’d love to hear about them and why they work.