Today I want to persuade you that systems can set you free.
You might not associate systems with freedom, but bear with me while I explain.
This morning I’m writing this article for you. The only thing I’m thinking about is you, and what I can say that will be most helpful.
But how is this possible? Don’t I have other responsibilities? Don’t I have children to take care of, and clients to serve? Aren’t there emails in my inbox waiting to be answered?
The answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions. And yet, right at this moment, I’m free to focus on you, and only you.
And the reason for that is that these few moments I’m spending with you are embedded in systems that are taking care of all those responsibilities. I have systems I trust, so I can be present with you right now.
Some of the systems were created without me, so I don’t have to do much about them. Right now, the power company’s systems are taking care of the electricity that’s powering the equipment I’m using to write on my computer.
The school system is taking of my children. And the recent period when our schools were closed has really made me appreciate this all the more!
Other systems are ones I’ve created and agreed with other people.
All my clients know how they can reach me when they need me. They know I’ll reply to their emails within one working day. And if it’s urgent they have my mobile number so they can call me. So I don’t need to worry that they might be anxiously waiting for help.
And there is a third category of systems that set me free – these are the ones I create for my own use.
I have a productivity system that means there is a time and place for everything in my working life – writing, recording, serving clients, answering emails, filing accounts and so on.
I have a production system for my podcast, that means I know how to record, edit and produce every episode of every season. This system involves my producer Javier Weyler and his team at Breaking Waves. Over the past 5 seasons, we’ve got pretty efficient at working together.
It was a steep learning curve at the beginning, because I was learning how to use all the hardware and software and record something that would make Javier’s job as easy as possible.
But now I’m familiar with the process, and I’ve turned it into a big spreadsheet, with check boxes for each part of every episode. I hardly think about it any more. I look at the spreadsheet to see what tasks are next, and I go do them. Which frees me up to think about the important questions, such as: what do I want to say? Who do I want to interview? And what do I want to ask them?
But none of this would be possible without good marketing systems to promote the podcast and also my books and coaching service. Even as I record this, my website and email systems are working hard for me, helping new people to discover my work, and helping them with my articles, my free course and my podcast episodes.
I also have effective business models for different parts of my business, which are basically systems for creating value. These systems mean money flows into my business and help flows out to my readers and clients.
I could go on, and talk about the systems I use for writing, accounting, publishing books and so on, but hopefully you get the idea. The more powerful, effective and reliable my systems are, the more I can trust them, and the more freedom I have to be present in the moment – whether I’m writing a poem, talking to a client, answering an email, playing with my children, or talking to you right now.
So why do systems have such a bad reputation?
The word ‘systems’ sounds cold and machinelike, like a computer system. And ‘The System’ sounds sinister and malevolent, we talk about being trapped by The System when we feel like we’re being controlled by politicians or bureaucracy.
If you feel trapped or oppressed by a system, it’s usually because it has been imposed on you from the outside, by other people, for their goals. It’s not a system that serves you.
But if you create your own systems for your own goals, they can set you free.
Because once it’s set up, a system does a lot of the heavy lifting for you, especially when it comes to boring tasks or non-creative decisions. It frees you up to focus on more interesting things.
It’s a bit like learning to driving a car – to takes time to learn the internal systems (operating the car) and external systems (road regulations) but once you master them you can focus on the journey and where you want to go.
How to create systems that serve you
1. Make a list of all the parts of your life and work where you would like less boring work, less drudgery, and more freedom to be present and creative in the moment.
2. Make a list of the kind of systems that could free you up. Here are a few examples:
- Automated systems – for payments, marketing, posting to social media, alerting you to important tasks.
- Productivity systems for getting your work done well, and on time
- Communication systems – with family, colleagues and clients so you know who is responsible for what
- Production systems – for complex things you will make over and over again, such as products (books ), media (articles, videos, podcasts, social media posts), and events (launches, gigs, performances, workshops).
- Skills – these are basically systems you have internalised for performing tasks, such as writing, painting, playing music, public speaking and so on.
- Business models – if you’re in business, you need a reliable system for generating value for your clients and customers first, and yourself as a result of this.
- Financial systems – to make sure you take care of all your commitments and keep working towards your financial goals
So now you have your list of desired systems. Now pick one system and start designing it.
3. Start with research – search online, read books, articles, and talk to people who are already good at it.
4. Then design and assemble a prototype system. It won’t be perfect but give it a good shot.
You basically need a few rules or clearly marked-out steps for whatever the system is.
For example, you might decide to practise the guitar for 30 minutes after breakfast, or write one blog post a week, or answer your email at 11am and 3pm only, or start a trial of some new accounting software.
5. Next, test your system – give it at least a week and at most a month, to see how your prototype performs.
During this period, it’s essential that you stick to the system – if you start improvising or ignoring the system, you won’t find out whether it works or not.
Be prepared for some discomfort! If you’re learning to touch-type, it will be slower to begin with than your old system. If you have a new system for email, you may feel anxious when you’re not constantly checking it.
6. When the test period is up – review your system. What is working well? Where are the problems? What changes can you make to iron out the problems?
Once you start designing systems, and see them working like magic to free you up and make your life easier, you’ll discover that designing systems is a creative process in its own right. And you start experiencing moments of magic when unexpected things start to happen.
And when your system is really up and running properly, it will free you up to be present and focused on whatever you’re doing in the moment.
You can hear an audio version of this article on this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 7’18”.
For more insights from my coaching practice, read 21 Insights from 21 Years as a Creative Coach.