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I had an amazing time at the PRSA Educator’s Academy Super Saturday on October 22 presenting on tools educators can use to break down the classroom walls.
Honestly, it is a lot of work but also a lot of fun.
Yet, in my answer, I mentioned two things that have helped me tremendously: 1) Simplicity in life and 2) systems. And I’d like to explain a little more about them.
As professors, we’re constantly trying to balance opportunity and time cost. There may be several opportunities we’d love to engage in (such as trying a new tool like Slack in our classroom), that come with a deal of uncertainty. How much time is this going to take? What potential opportunity am I giving up if I take this opportunity? There just isn’t the time to do it all.
At the same time, there are some aspects of our jobs that are certainties. Students needing to schedule appointments with us is one of those certainties. The fact that we are going to teach class tomorrow is a certainty – with assignments, readings, and more.
Let’s talk about time and energy and how we can have just a little bit more of each in our lives by using two hacks: simplicity and systems.
There are many productivity books, blogs, and gurus advocating the application of systems thinking to increase productivity. But one of my favorite advice books comes from Scott Adams, the creator of the famous Dilbert comic. The book is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Adams advocates for the value of simplification in life and working to maximize personal energy. Systems are a great way to achieve both.
As Adams says, “Have a system instead of a goal. Systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”
He defines systems as “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”
Chances are, you’re already using systems in your life. But you may not be taking this systems thinking and evaluating how you can apply it more broadly.
As professors, if we can create systems (both in our personal and professional lives) that help save time and streamline repeated tasks, we can get what we need to get done with an efficient investment of our most finite resource: Our personal energy.
In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of systems. What systems am I putting in place in my life to manage repeated tasks and make my life simpler?
Adams advises: “Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them. Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems.”
Simplicity & Systems
I keep my personal life simple by using systems and rules to manage my time and personal energy. For example, when I was in graduate school the cost-effective grocery store was 8 miles from my house over the state border into Idaho. I was working 7 days a week at grad school life. So, I didn’t think it was time or cost effective to be running to the nearby, more expensive, grocery store every few days when I needed milk. And it certainly wasn’t effective to be scrambling to figure out what I was going to eat that night. I devised a simple system of grocery shopping every two weeks. I’d plan my meals for a two week period and then drive to Idaho on the weekend every two weeks to buy all of my groceries. By batching my grocery and meal planning and shopping time into 1 big event instead of many little events, I saved countless hours that would have been wasted debating what to have for dinner, driving to the store, wandering around trying to find things, etc. And I saved thousands of dollars by not eating out. Time and money are very valuable commodities when you’re in grad school. And this simple system was so effective that my wife and I still use it today.
Ordering a pizza or hitting up the fast food drive through optimizes your time – it’s efficient. But it isn’t a system. The problem of needing to find dinner tomorrow will exist again tomorrow and you’re back to square one.
Technologies can work as systems too. My wife and I have a wonderful dog, Scout. And, despite what you would think with all that hair, she doesn’t shed. But, her flocks are incredibly effective at collecting leaves, twigs, and other debris that get brought into our home and deposited on our floor. A few months ago, my wife and I invested in a Roomba vacuum. Between my wife and I, we were spending a lot of time sweeping up the floor in a losing battle. What a drain on our personal energy and time! Now, we have a simple system whereby the Roomba runs on certain days of the week. And, we spend about 1 minute in the morning on those days preparing the house for it to run – picking up things, moving a few things to block the Roomba from going into an unwanted area, etc. Then, after the Roomba is done I spend a few minutes cleaning it out. In the few months we’ve owned the Roomba, we’ve probably saved a good 10 hours of time that would have been spent sweeping. There was a repeated, predictable problem: debris from dog. This certainty in life could be better managed with a simple system.
Designing some of the decision-making processes and stresses out of your life is also systems thinking. By choosing to live in a small town, I’ve systematically designed many of the daily frustrations many people face out of my life. Yes, there aren’t a lot of restaurant or entertainment options. My commute is simple and straightforward. But, just think about how many frustrations, stressors, and teeth-grinding decisions I’ve designed out of my life. Yet, living in a small town probably doesn’t appeal to many people. Or, maybe it does but you don’t have control over where you live. No matter. You can design your way out of the agony decision-making process in many aspects of life. For example, you’ve probably noticed that folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs always wore essentially the same thing. They designed the “what to wear?” problem out of their life.
A few other basic ways I’ve designed simplicity into my life include these 4 tools:
- Frustration gatekeepers – I rely on what I call ‘frustration gatekeepers’ to filter information for me. Rather than staying up on all the latest trends in pop culture, I simply rely on other people who I know are good at doing that. And I take their advice. The same is true for shopping. By not shopping or going to restaurants much, I keep my head clear of stressors and unnecessary decisions. I have a brother who is more knowledgeable about fashion and clothes than me and enjoys shopping. And sometimes he buys things that he decides he doesn’t want but it’s too much of an effort for him to return. So I acquire the stuff directly from him (since we mostly can fit into the same clothes). He’s a perfect example of a frustration gatekeeper. He also knows a lot about cars and can quickly give me advice when I’m having problems with mine or when I’m car shopping. When something has been tested and found true by others across time, I can assume it is worth exploring. Then, by relying on these frustration gatekeepers, I can put my time and effort into the new tech and trends that I’m interested in, and stay up to date on social media, education tech, etc. These are simple examples and this topic could be it’s own blog post… or book.
- Yes Scarcity – Say no more often. Indeed, your default answer should be no. Saying no is a frustration gatekeeper. By saying no, you are closing the gate and keeping frustrations at bay. The problem is, it is hard to realize that we control the gate. We have the ability to say no or to say yes. As a professor, you are going to be asked to be on a lot of committees, participate in a lot of extra-curricular events, do public service, etc. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll never have time to say yes to the things you really want to do. It took me several years of working in academia to learn this even though I’d been advised by others that I needed to learn to say no. I’d always been raised to say yes to opportunity. “You never know what door it might open,” was a common refrain. And that is very true. But, you also don’t know what door you might be closing in the future by saying yes to the present request. But as you establish yourself in your career, you can begin to be more choosy on what you say yes and no to. By saying no to things that don’t interest you, don’t benefit your career, or help those you are aiming to help, or further your mission (whatever that may be), etc., you are making yourself available for the opportunities that will. Time is finite. You can’t do it all. I finally realized that it is okay to say no and that is actually a good thing because it will leave me energized for the right tasks. And now, when I say yes to a project it is something I’m excited about and dive into and the rewards are greater and so too are the outcomes. Don’t make another person’s mission your own if indeed it is not a mission that you want to be your own. You are either working on your mission, their mission, or a common mission. Pick projects that are common missions. Otherwise, you’ll simply be unhappy, resentful, and won’t do great work. Of course, there are things you simply need to do, or that are polite and generous to do, or that are the right thing to do. That’s not what I’m talking about with the above. I’m talking about the extra projects you take on. When it comes to those, use your yeses wisely. Practice “yes scarcity” as a frustration gatekeeper.
- Macro-Level Task Assessment and The Advantages of Non-Competitive Choices – It would be great to find a parking spot just a little closer to the building that I work in, particularly with the cold months approaching. When I enter our parking lot at work, I notice this is what most people are trying to do– find a parking spot very close to the buildings. And this is how most people approach this situation. However, with most people approaching it this way, it means the chances of finding a great parking spot are few. Further, there is a gate and you have to swipe your card in order to get through to get to the closest parking spots. This takes the additional time of stopping, leaning halfway out of your car to swipe your card, and then waiting for the gate to open. Once you do that, you drive around anxiously trying to find a parking spot. If you do, great. But likely you won’t. Then you have to leave the gated area, backtracking, and go to the less desirable spots you already passed by. We can all relate to this. What I do is take the same spot in the parking lot right when I enter the lot. It, or the one next to it, is always empty. And while it appears to be further away since its the first row when you enter the lot and most assume a closer row means you are closer to the buildings, my spot in the last row is actually closer to the building than going to the closer parking section but having to drive way down to the end of that row of cars. Plus, I have the advantage of 1) I save time because I quickly go to my spot, park, and get walking to my building, 2) reduce uncertainty which causes stress, 3) and remove an unnecessary decision from my life. And here’s a bonus – I don’t have to try and remember where I parked when I leave work for the day. Said another way, there are many great opportunities most people ignore because they perceive that an option many people want is better. But doing so fails to take the whole picture into account. If you look at the micro, having a closer parking spot gives you the sense that you are saving time because you don’t have to walk as far. But this way of thinking fails to take into consideration all parts of the process (the macro). It doesn’t consider the extra time driving, the resources and stress that go into finding the spot, and the eventual distance you have to walk. Yet, you’ve convinced yourself that this is the optimal way of solving the problem. On the other hand, if you look at the macro picture – all of the steps needed to complete the process – parking a little further away in an always-available spot and walking the brief distance from the further row, actually saves time, energy, stress and removes unnecessary decisions. Simplify by looking at the macro level. In dealing with crowds or scarcity, you may find that the the non-competitive choice offers many advantages. When everyone is doing things one way, it creates an opportunity to benefit from the resources they’re ignoring
- Sequencing – Is the simple process of prioritizing the things that need to be done before other tasks can be done. Seems simple. But a lot of people don’t do this. They simply pick a task and begin. Let’s say you’re making dinner. Why cut the veggies up first if the first task in the recipe is to cook the meat? You should cut the chicken up first, get it cooking, and then start chopping the veggies which will go in later. Instead, many people cut the veggies, cut the chicken, cut everything else, and then start cooking. And the task takes twice as long. Many things in life work this way, and an easy place to start is to re-analyze your routines. What is the first thing you do in the morning? In what order do you work out? Run your errands? But, we don’t often prioritize sequencing and thus we let time go to waste. Many things in life we simply need to start, and they take care of themselves with only a little attention from us – such as the pan heating up or water boiling, the chicken cooking in the pan, coffee dripping, the shower water heating up, the garage door opening, getting students working on one task while you hand back exam grades or take attendance, etc. When tackling a task, always be thinking about sequencing. What is the first thing that needs to get done to set up other steps that will maximize time efficiency? Which tasks are tasks that you simply need to set up, and they will take care of themselves with little supervision while you can work on something else? For example, when you walk into your office in the morning, the first thing you should do isn’t take off your jacket or put your apple in the drawer to eat later. It is turn on your computer since the computer takes a while to load. Then, take off your jacket, get yourself organized, and, if you’re me, spend a few minutes writing in a bullet journal and then get to work on your computer.
As I like to say:
“Variety may be the the spice of life. But simplicity won’t give you indigestion.”
(If you’d like to learn more about simplicity and systems, here’s a great article from Scott Adams. And, here’s another great article on optimizers versus simplifiers)
But before I make this blog post way too long, let’s return to grocery shopping. Clearly this is a predictable, repeated task. So, I know I’m going to need to come up with meal ideas. Rather than eating the same old handful of meals and growing sick of them, my wife and I have created an evolving Google Doc of meals we really like. They are organized into categories such as ethnicity, what type of meat (or if they’re vegetarian) is in them, or whether they are warm or cold weather meals, or if they tend to produce leftovers and thus will cover two meals. It is simple. We take most of our meals from that list. And, we’ll try a new meal every two weeks or so. If we really like it, we add it to the list. So, we never eat something we don’t love. And we have dozens and dozens of meals to choose from.
Using your memory when you don’t need to unnecessarily uses your energy and time. That’s why lists are great, simple systems that save you time when dealing with repeated tasks. Travel often? Create a packing list for the common things you need to pack with you. Create a list for what you need to do to prepare your home to be left empty, such as set thermostats, security lights, locks, etc. Free apps like Checklist and others let you create reusable task lists.
Systems at Work
For whatever reason, in the past, I’ve had a mixed record of applying systems into my professional life. When it comes to work, I’ve always been a ‘shoulder to the wheel’ sort of person. I didn’t necessarily work smarter. I worked harder. I put in the extra time to do things that should have been done in half the time. I’ve had a tendency to look at this as dedication – showing I care.
But, as Tim Ferriss would say, rather than concerning yourself with showing dedication, focus on demonstrating results.
I’ve taken stock of the systems I have been using at work. And, I’ve started looking for ways to question the way I currently do things and find simple systems.
In the upcoming two blog posts, I’m going to explain two simple systems that I use as a professor to reduce uncertainty and/or save time and energy. One of those systems I’ve been using since I started teaching – my day-to-day class management system, and a second I began using this year – a system for scheduling student appointments.
But before I do that, here are a few quick tips for applying systems thinking into your life.
Systems and Your Work/Life Balance
Is there a consistent (predictably recurring) problem that you are facing in your life or job? If so, it may be a contender for a system. Are there decisions you are making in life that you don’t need to be making? If so, find the system.
I’d encourage you to start small. Create a system for dealing with a simple problem in your life. Dive in by creating a checklist or template for repeated tasks.
Checklist & Template Systems
- Checklist systems – Write down the steps that you are currently doing to complete the task. If they are simple, repeated steps (like a packing list or things you always need to buy every time you go to a particular store) save your energy and create a checklist that you can repeatedly use.
- Template systems – There are plenty of instances where you can write a template letter or email that can be tailored to the situation in professional settings. For example, there are certain questions I tend to get from students. One such question is whether I’ll offer an override to a student who wants to get into a class of mine that’s full. I used to individually write an explanation as to why I can’t give them one. So I created an email template citing the policy. When I get such a request, I’ll quickly tailor it to the situation and send it to the student. Not only is time saved, but the students are getting a consistent, accurate answer. Gmail offers the “canned responses” feature for this. But, other email clients offer tools for using email templates.
Next, think about batching tasks or automating your behavior.
- Batching – If the task is something you are repeatedly doing often (like my grocery shopping example above), is there a way to batch it to save time? Hint: Just as you don’t need to go grocery shopping every few days, you probably don’t need to check your mail everyday.
- Automating (aka, habits) – You’ve probably heard a lot about automation by way of software. But you can also automate your analog life. When you walk into your house, have a place to put your keys and wallet so you can always find them. This is automation (aka, harnessing the power of habit). You don’t have to think about it. You just do it. And you don’t have to waste mental energy looking for a lost wallet or trying to find your keys. Chances are, you are already doing this. Now, think about how you can create other simple automation techniques. Here’s a tip for doing so. Use a note-taking app on your phone like Google Keep. When you notice a frustration about how your life is organized (for example, you forgot to lock up the computer lab before leaving work for the day), jot it down. If it happens a few more times, set aside some time and find a way to re-organize (or, organize it for the first time). The goal is to not have to think about it. Use a habit-forming app like Habit Bull or others to help make your new procedure a habit. Or, create an evening checklist of things you need to do before leaving work. In a few weeks, every time you leave for the day you’ll leave on the side of the building where the lab is and walk by and check that it’s closed. That’s one more task that you’ve automated, saving valuable personal energy.
Tools such as those described above can help you say no to chaos.
Removing Bottlenecks – For Advanced Users
If you’ve got the above things down, try moving on to bigger fish.
- If the problem is more complicated, identify what you are doing to complete the task that can be thrown out. What is the ‘middleman’ that is holding up the wheels of progress? How are you allowing the process to be more complicated than necessary? If you can take decisions out of the process or unnecessary exchanges between people, look for ways to remove these bottlenecks. I’ll talk about this concept more in the upcoming blog post on scheduling meetings with students.
In all of these examples, it’s about designing your life in such a way that can help you focus on what is important to you.
It’s not about complexity. It’s not about finding new, fun technologies and going searching for a problem to solve.
Remember, the best systems are the systems that work. The simpler the system, the more likely you are to implement it. Don’t over-complicate it.
p.s. I know this post was a bit outside the ordinary focus of this blog. I hope you enjoyed it. If you like posts like this, please Tweet me and let me know. I’m always looking for feedback.