There have been a lot of systems in my work and life that I’ve had to adjust or change completely over the past few years. Primarily for two reasons:

  1. Either because of a big shift in my work or life or,
  2. because I was setting a new goal, and I needed the right systems in place to support change happening in my life to reach that goal.

Transforming systems in my life is not an easy process, and I feel like I’ve bumbled my way through many of the adjustments I was making. After doing this repeatedly over the last few years, I’m starting to feel more confident about the modifications I can make in life through evolving my systems.

The main reasons I’ve needed to create or adjust so many systems have come from two areas of change:

  • Going from an individual contributor to a manager and team lead. This completely redesigned several elements in my day-to-day work that I needed to account for.
  • Growing my family. I now have a toddler at home with a baby on the way. I’m packing lunches and driving to swimming lessons; this just fundamentally reworks how I spend my time on any given day.

Over the last few years, I have regularly bumped into a system that no longer works for me (buying groceries haphazardly because we can always run out and get more) to a system that actually supports the way I want to live my life (weekly meal planning so that making dinners and packing lunches is less stressful because it’s already planned).

After much trial and error, here are the stages I’ve figured out for setting up new systems, a few of the supporting systems I’d recommend to anyone, and some examples of systems changes I’ve managed on my own.

The stages of setting up a new system

Setting up a new system has a few stages I’ve identified as I’ve set them up. I would describe them as:

  1. Awareness: The first time you realize that you have a systems-level problem, you can really think through what that problem is and how you want to adjust it.
  2. Adjusting: You’ll need a burst of energy, in my experience, to set up the new system for the first time.
  3. Refining: Your first adjustment might not be perfect, so you’ll need to refine it as you go through this new system a few times to get to a place where it’s more natural. (If you’re still resisting, try scaling back to make it a smaller daily action. I’ve found those lead to better results.)
  4. Repeating: Finally, you need to make sure that there is scaffolding around this new system so that you can easily repeat it and you won’t fall off the tracks at the first bump in the road.

Supporting systems I would recommend to anyone

There are a few systems I use in my own life that have turned into supporting systems for several other things. For example, I do a daily journal because it helps me check in on my goals more frequently. This was a problem I ran into where I realized by not checking my goals often enough, they weren’t top of mind, and I wasn’t really working on them. This system would work for any goal. Here are three supporting systems I would truly recommend to anyone:

1. Start using a daily journal

I have mine set up in Notion, but you can do a daily journal however you want. There are really two key elements to this that make it powerful to me. The first is that I set my intentions for the day in the morning, and the second is that I reflect on how the day has gone in the evening and ask myself what I’d like to do differently tomorrow.

Feel free to set up variations of this, of course, and this would be just as easy to do in a notebook as it is to do digitally, but some sort of daily check-in that forces you to stop and be intentional has nothing but benefits, in my experience. This takes me under five minutes in the morning and in the evening and is well worth the time spent.

→ Here’s a template for a daily journal in Notion

2. Start doing a weekly review

On a slightly bigger note, I recommend looking back at the week as a whole to really review how it went. Did you work towards what you wanted to achieve? Are there systems you’re trying to set up to reach your goals that really aren’t working for you? What was the part of your week you want to take with you to next week?

This takes slightly longer than the daily journal; for me, this is about 15 minutes on the shorter side and could go up to 30 if I have a lot to dig into from the week. This has the benefit of looking at a longer period than just a day to really spot any patterns you’re trying to break or improve.

→ Here’s my template for weekly reviews

3. Start doing weekly planning

Finally, alongside a weekly review, I highly recommend weekly planning. Pick a day of the week (Sundays for me) to look ahead to the upcoming week and just make sure everything is lined up properly. Are all of your meetings or appointments in spots where they will work out? Are there specific projects you want to spend time on this week? Can you make space for them?

This small check has helped me go into each work week with a lot more intention for how I want to spend that time. This way, I rarely get to the end of a week anymore and feel like, “Wait, where did my time go?” because I spent the time in advance to plan out what I wanted to work on and how it would fit into my week.

Systems I’ve changed in my own life and how it’s gone

Here are a few examples of what I mean when I’m talking about setting up or changing new systems in my own work and life.

I went from checking email constantly throughout the day to only twice a day.

I used to just leave my email open so I could see any email as it came in. This was a carryover from when I was an individual contributor and working with the media on a daily basis, so I really did need to reply to people pretty quickly as a part of that role. With my current responsibilities, it isn’t critical that I reply to emails immediately or sometimes at all unless they support the results I’m driving.

Checking email continuously, it turns out, is also bad for productivity unless those emails are directly related to your goals at work. One study that compared people who check email continuously to those who check it once a day, a few times a day, or more than that found that the cost of interruption time from checking email is on the lower end (around 10 to 20 minutes) if you’re checking email just a few times a day, whereas the cost of interruption time goes up significantly to 35 minutes to an hour if you are checking email continuously.

My solution here was similar to what the researchers found was optimal for reducing distractions — my email system is that I check email twice a day. Once in the morning, I do a first glance and make sure nothing is urgent, and another time near the end of the day where I’m focused on replying. This doesn’t always work, and sometimes I skip the end-of-the-day replies because I’m focused on other tasks, but it’s much better than getting interrupted constantly with new emails and giving them my energy.

→ Read more about how my email system is set up.

I wanted to make space in the mornings for writing.

Another system change for me was making space in the mornings to write. I used to write whenever I wanted, maybe in the afternoons on the weekend, just whenever it felt like a good time. Now, with a toddler running around, I need to be a little less laissez-faire about the whole approach. Mornings, I found out, worked because of the quiet. I tend to do my best writing, and the change wasn’t that significant.

My main change was going to sleep earlier so that I could wake up earlier to write. I made it so my exercise happens afternoons or evenings instead of the morning to keep that spot for writing. I also have a plan for what I want to write so that it’s easier to get started.

These are simple adjustments, but I’ve had a lot of success. Last year, I hit my goal of sending 20 newsletters in the year thanks to this new system.

→ Sign up to get my weekly newsletter about how I’m working to be better.

I wanted to get better at reflection.

With all of the changes happening in my life, I knew I needed to stop and reflect more on how I was feeling or what might be bothering me and where there were areas of improvement. It would have been so much easier with all of these shifts in my life to just keep getting pulled along in new directions and not make space to stop and figure out what I wanted.

One system I tried implementing was Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. The idea is that you write three pages stream of consciousness every morning to get all of your thoughts out before you do your creative work. I had so much success with Morning Pages; they unblocked me from a writing standpoint, and they also helped me reflect on bigger challenges I was facing in life. I still use long-form journaling as a tool when I need it, but the habit itself took 30 minutes roughly every morning, and I was finding it challenging to fit in alongside other things I wanted to get done in the morning.

The other way I started to build in reflection was with my daily journal in Notion. I now kick off a daily journal every morning, and I start the day by writing down my intentions for that day (maybe I want to be present in a lot of meetings, or maybe I want to be calm because it’s a busy weekend day with a kids birthday party and swim lessons), and then at the end of the day, I take a few moments to reflect on how I felt throughout the day, what went well, what I want to do differently tomorrow. These simple questions only take me maybe five minutes at either end of my day, and I can do them from my phone, so it has been much faster for me to set up and get better at building in a little reflection.

Remember systems changes take time and require reminders

Making a systems change is building a new habit in many cases, so you need to make sure you give yourself ample time and space to build those habits. As James Clear has described in his book Atomic Habits, habits also require a cue to kick them off and remind you to do them.

For myself, a lot of these kinds of system changes are things I rely on my to-do list telling me about on a daily basis. I use that as a prompt to get me to kick off the system until it feels like the habit is more naturally a part of my day, and it’s cued by something else (maybe the time of day since I have so many morning and evening routines).

I’d love to hear about the systems you’re working on in your own life and how you’re going about setting them up in the comments. ⬇️

📮 And if ever you want to know about the most recent systems I’m changing in my life, I often talk about them in my weekly newsletter about how I’m working to be better.

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