New Year. New Systems.

Writing System at Work at The Mill, San Francisco
Writing System at The Mill, San Francisco

It was Wednesday morning, January 4, at 6 AM. Britney Spears was singing loudly through the speakers, “Work, Bitch.” That was indeed what every person at the gym was doing. There wasn’t an open treadmill or stationary bike available. The usual space for deadlifts was overflowing. Trying to stake out a spot at the gym any time in January is challenging.

“Don’t worry,” my trainer, Jacky, said. “This will clear out in a few weeks, and people will go back to their regular routines.”

Regular routines—what are those? And why can’t our “regular routines” be consistent with the goals we said we wanted to achieve? If getting in shape is what we want, why don’t we get up and go to the gym consistently? If we want to write that blog post or do that book proposal, why don’t we just write instead of focusing on Inbox Zero with our emails, or worse, updating our Instagram?

As I reflect back on 2018 and look ahead to 2019, I notice my own version of the “gym attendance fade”. I had goals. But I did not meet them all or accomplish everything I’d wanted. Unexpected life and work stuff got in the way. All good stuff but not the kind of stuff that will help me become the kind of person I know I can be. And not the kind of stuff that will help me make the kind of impact I want to make in the world.

And so we begin again. We lay out our goals and we have New Year’s resolutions. We buy new exercise clothes—maybe even a size smaller because, well…we commit to writing every morning. And then our old habits and practices creep in again—the ones that make up the routine that is miles from our goals.

It’s like Karl the Fog in San Francisco (yes, we have named our fog). He engulfs us, often. We feel like we can’t get away from him even though we know where the sunny parts are in the city if we really want to go there. But instead, we hunker down in our usual spots. Because, you know what? The fog is kind of nice. It’s familiar to those of us who have lived in San Francisco for a long time. It’s comfortable. It is what we are used to.

So often, we settle into the patterns we know, that, ultimately, become the person we know. We do the things we know to do that will help us get things done versus doing the bigger, more intentional, juicy, uncomfortable things that will help us become the goal achiever we strive to be. (Excuse me while I check Instagram again and see the latest updates from Megan Mullally about the Golden Globes.)

Last year, I wrote about, thought about, and talked with a lot of leaders about the power of systems. Specifically, that our workplace culture is not some nebulous thing. It’s a system of values, behaviors, process, and practices. Culture and systems can happen to companies, or we can intentionally create the kind of culture and systems that will support the organization and its employees from the very beginning.

The same goes with us as individuals. Goals, themes, one-word focus mantras, new journals, resolutions—none of this will get us to where we want to go or who we want to be. Systems will. And we can be intentional or unintentional about the systems we build for ourselves. It starts with defining our own behaviors, practices and processes.

My good friend, Glen Lubbert, introduced me to the idea of habits last year. He recommended Atomic Habits by James Clear, a book I’ve since been obsessed with. If there is one key takeaway, it is that habits are only created within a system. Specifically, Clear says that “goals are good for planning your progress, and systems are good for actually making progress.”

We are creating systems through our behaviors, practices and processes all the time. Some systems are intentional, most are just based on momentum. We have habituated behaviors and practices that make up our day. They get us through and they even include moments of joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

Yet, so often in my leadership coaching work, I talk with people who are not satisfied. They know they can do more. They know they can be more. They just feel like they’re fighting against themselves every day. They want to be more strategic, but they have 300 emails to respond to. They want to create more space for thinking time and future work, but they have back to back meetings.

There is a different way. When we focus less on goals and outcomes and more on systems, we will see a positive shift in how we’re working and living. Our behaviors, practices and processes make up our system. And ultimately, this system can become a positive habit.

Here’s an example from my own life. I have been wanting to write consistently every day for many years. I put it in my Strides app, I calendared it, I hired a coach, tried to write in the morning before work, after work, before I went to bed. I would usually calendar it, but something was always more important. So I thought about the behaviors, the processes, and the practices I would need to put in place to create a writing habit. It wasn’t about checking off “write every day” because that clearly wasn’t working. It was about setting up an environment in which I would not just want to write, but I would also be forced and compelled to write. With that in mind, I changed a few things that resulted in my new, intentional writing system:

  1. I write from the same place every day. If I’m working at home, I write from the same chair. If I’m at my office, I write at my desk. If I’m traveling, I pick a place in my hotel room and/or a great local cafe (see photo!) that I call my writing space.
  2. I write before email. I write before calls. I write before checking Twitter or Instagram (most days).
  3. I write after working out and meditating. These things help me get into a writing mindset.
  4. I know where I’m going to pick up my writing the next time I write. This is a trick I learned from my writing coach, Jen Louden. When we know what we are going to write about next, we start to look for things in our environment to help us with that. What stories will contribute to it, what are we observing? And then I get excited to writing about it the next day.
  5. I write for just 10 minutes but allow for more time if wanted. This has helped take the pressure off. Whenever I used to sit down for an hour to write, I would have writer’s block. What am I going to write about for an hour? Yet, when I sit down for “just 10 minutes,” I find that at the 10-minute mark, I want to write more. I have more to say. And so I stay in my chair for what has become an hour most days.

Here’s to building great systems in 2019. What are the systems you are creating for 2019?  

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