Systems Are Good… But Habits Are Essential

I’ve been using my transition to a new time management system in 2020 as a basis for several posts now. I promise I’ll stop soon. But there’s another perspective that I think is particularly relevant.

I started off this particular transition with a discussion of the fact that the system I was using for time management wasn’t working for me, and really hadn’t been for an extended period of time. That is absolutely true. And I had several issues with the system I was trying to use (it is still useful for broader client and contact management; I’m just firing it as my means of managing commitments and to-dos).

Probably my largest challenge with the system that I did use is that the mobile interface (on both phone and tablet) is arguably abysmal. The desktop version was fine and useful, and that’s all well and good. But a significant amount of my life is spent not-in-front-of-a-computer (particularly when facilitating or in client meetings) which meant that I lacked a good way of capturing new thoughts or having previously identified to-dos reliably show up when I needed them.

This was why I had started relying more on more on my notebook. Not computer notebook, mind you. A notebook of real physical pages made from real dead trees that you write on with a real pen. Partly this was because I was more likely to have my notebook with me and partly it was an attempt to capture as much as I could. Even then, I wasn’t always successful. There were numerous times when I logged the same to-do more than once, on different pages and at different times.

All of this was a good reason to make the change and I’ve already talked about some of the challenges that I have encountered in that transition. I’m pleased to report that the last few weeks have been useful and productive. I’ve moved past overwhelm and stress to relative comfort. I’m glad that I made the switch when I did (although there is never a good time). I’ve been pleased with where I’m at in taking advantage of what the new system allows me to do.

As I’ve already explored, the amount of change to get to this point was significant. Not conceptually, mind you. I’m theoretically doing what I’ve always done. But in practical reality, there have been a number of changes. While I’m trying to follow the process I am used to, this new system works differently. And even though it is based around a model I already understand, different implementation choices were made in building what I’m currently using. Adaptation has been a requirement. And adaptation takes a great deal of time and effort.

So what’s different now? How have I gotten through the challenge that I was experiencing earlier, and come out the other side? What’s the difference in what I now do to what I used to do?

There’s a simple answer to those questions. But it’s a complex answer at the same time. At the heart of it lies the resistance I had for changing systems for so long. What I’ve been dealing with isn’t simply a software problem; it’s a habit problem.

As I’ve said before, I’m been through more time management programs than I can begin to count. Some have been more helpful than others, but none have been completely useless. I’ve embraced the ideas, and tried to apply them. I’ve bought the tools, and the refills, and the binders, and the accessories (don’t get me started on office supplies). I’ve loved the idea of getting organized but there are times that I haven’t loved the reality.

This gets very quickly to the heart of the problem. Any system, if used, can be functional—relative inadequacies notwithstanding. The most perfect system, if not used, will get you exactly nowhere. Part of my reluctance to think about shifting how I approached time management was a recognition that changing out software was only one facet of my problem. The larger issue was the discipline to actually work with whatever I put in place.

This is why I continued to use a manual system of notebook and pen. At least I knew where everything was (duplication notwithstanding). What finally pushed me over the edge to do something different, though, was the recognition that while notebooks made sure I had something to capture ideas, commitments and expectations, they did nothing to make sure that those same notes came out again at the appropriate time.

That’s why the same to-do appears more than once, over several pages (and sometimes several notebooks). I kept on capturing the intent to do something. I just didn’t do anything about following up on that intent. There wasn’t an appreciation of how to get captured action items back out of the system in a way that they could be reliably followed up on. This means that follow-ups didn’t happen, and reliability went out the window.

What has allowed me to get consistent, then, is two essential and separate-but-related things. Firstly, I have confidence that I have a way to capture ideas and action items whenever the thought occurs to me (whether that’s in the middle of the day, or the middle of the night). Whether I’m in front of a computer, on my tablet or using my phone, there is a way to capture ideas. And one of those items is always in my reach (and most typically that would be my phone).

The second and more important thing that has made a difference, though, is building two fundamental habits. The first one is making sure that I capture the idea so I will find it later. And the second habit is going through what I’ve captured, and identifying what needs to be taken care of now. Without those habits, any change in software would be useless. And any attempt at improving my time management approach would be destined for failure.

Implicitly, the above points are also a critique of what I had been doing previously. While I may have been capturing information, there was no consistent means of doing so that was universally accessible whatever I might be doing. And for whatever got caught in my notebook, there was no reliable assurance that it was going to be found again and be addressed. What I used to have was an approach that occasionally captured and frequently didn’t subsequently prompt me to do anything. What I have now is something that’s always available, and that I take the time to review and follow up on.

If we extrapolate these ideas back to the essential changes that we manage and coordinate, we get to a fundamental appreciation: unless we help people to develop new habits, nothing is likely to change.

That’s an important concept to keep in mind. I have friends (they know who they are) for whom changing out their time management approach is an annual New Year’s resolution. The hope is that the next new, shiny thing will make all the difference in terms of them getting organized and managing their commitments. For the most part, I am sad to say this, but… they are doomed to failure. They are changing out the system, but none of the habits around the system are changing.

For me, that’s why I hung on to what I was doing for so long. There wasn’t much point in changing systems, if my die-hard habits (or lack thereof) were going to continue the way they always had. A system that doesn’t produce reliable results can’t be trusted. At the same time, there’s no point striving for a trusted system if you aren’t going to engage in the behaviours that are necessary for you to be able to trust it.

That is what leads to a critical third component of making change—and habits—work. Yes, I have a universally accessible means of capturing ideas, thoughts and actions that is close to hand most of the time. I also have a mechanism within the software to review what I’ve captured on the fly, and turn those ideas into commitments that matter. What makes all of that work, though, is the discipline and follow through to do both things.

When I think of something I need to take care of, I capture it. I no longer worry about whether or not it is big enough, important enough or critical enough to make noting the action worthwhile. In that regard, the granularity that my new system likes is paying off in useful and meaningful ways. Literally everything gets captured, meaning I don’t need to worry about remembering small stuff I haven’t bothered to write down. I also don’t wind up forgetting thoughts that I presume are significant enough to remember even without writing them down. I capture everything up front, and make sense of it later.

That has a number of implications for those that we help through change. It’s important to recognize that people do what they know today, because that’s what is familiar. And if we are going to get to a new way of operating, then we need to help them reframe what they know into new habits that work for them.

Change can be an intellectual endeavour. We can know the logic about why different is necessary. We can even be able to justify or defend the change, and why it is necessary. But until we engage the change on a visceral and emotional level of confronting and dealing with habits, nothing is going to gain traction. It’s only once we find patterns that work for us, and commit to engaging with those patterns consistently, that real change is actually possible.

The reason that my new system is working for me is that I have a system universally available to me. I also have—for the first time in a long time—committed to making sure that what I capture on a regular basis as input and possibility gets turned into action and undertaking. Ideas no longer get lost; my system hangs on to them until I am ready to deal with them, and then ensures that they show up in the proper place.

We keep on saying that change is hard. And it is. But what makes it hard is that we are developing new routines that work, and give us the outcomes that matter. That means reinventing our default actions in a way that works for us. It also means being consistent enough in what we do that we are able to ultimately engage in that behaviour consistently. Until we truly do that, we’re going to go back to what we know. Not what works, mind you, but simply what is familiar and understood.

Change software, improve process, revise structure. All of that is fine and useful. But until you connect with habit in a meaningful and relevant way, nothing new is actually going to emerge. Systems are nice. Habits are essential.

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