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Is it really a good idea to keep your options open?

Confession: I have too much on my plate again.

It’s a problem that occurs every month or two as I struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to fit all the things I really want to do into a finite number of post-work hours.

I try to do this because in theory I want to do it all. But the reality (which I have a hard time remembering) is that when I’m busy trying to do it all I invariably end up exhausted and unhappy.

Instead of cramming more and more into my already-busy schedule, I find that I make the most progress when I have wide open space and only a few tasks competing for my attention. Into this wide open space my creative endeavors unfold gracefully, effortlessly.

But as soon as my schedule starts to get cluttered again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. And once I’m overwhelmed I stop getting things done.

Learning this lesson has been hard for me because I taught myself to manage the opposite when I was at MIT. And so I know that the opposite is also true.

You can motivate yourself to achieve impossible tasks when your schedule is so cluttered it is beyond overwhelming and begins to induce panic.

Martha Beck would say that when the to-do list get to panic-inducing levels of overwhelm we shift into the place beyond fear (an idea from her book, Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny) and from this place we can act with calm and clear precision, taking highly effective action toward our goals.

As a student at MIT I usually completed my work from the place beyond fear. The amount of work was so extreme that I had to stop worrying about if I could do it at all because every drop of my energy was focused into getting as much done as I could. I didn’t need to prioritize or schedule — I just started with the assignment that was most pressing and worked until I was too tired to press on.

In this way I accomplished impressive, impossible tasks as a student at MIT. But most of the time I was miserable.

Because this place-beyond-fear ridiculousness isn’t a healthy way to get things done in our day-to-day lives, but as a student it became the only way I knew. I didn’t know the steady effort of healthy progress — I knew the reckless, careening drama of a panic-stricken dash to meet a looming deadline.

And so I’ve struggled with finding a model for getting things done that works for me out in the real world, and especially one that works for me in my own personal life.
Because my personal projects don’t have deadlines really, and if they do have deadlines those deadlines were usually arbitrary goals I set for myself.

I’m not good at keeping myself accountable to my own deadlines. I expect to disappoint myself and so I usually do — partly because my deadlines often assume a willingness to pursue the kinds of herculean efforts I invested as a student, and partly because I find it hard to feel motivated when the only person my failure is disappointing is myself.

All of which is to say that I have a history of feeling ineffective when it comes to achieving my personal goals and it’s taken me a lot of experimentation and observation and practice to start to figure out why I struggle with this and what to do differently.

But I’m starting to get a handle on the answer. I’m slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all. I’m finding I can’t have more than one or two personal projects I’m focused on at a time.

Which brings me back to the title of this post, because i’ve lived most of my life in an attempt to keep my options open. When I didn’t want to get my PhD after finishing undergrad I got my Master’s degree instead because that seemed to “keep my options open”. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated with my Master’s degree I accepted the first job that came along (a job that happened to be in science) because that felt like “keeping my options open”.

In some ways, the whole story of my life since I was a student at MIT has been a tale of keeping my options open about having a career in science.

And I apply the same principle in my personal life. I hesitate to cross projects off my list because leaving them on feels like “keeping my options open”.

Crossing off a project means saying I’m not going to work on this right now and making that decision can be scary.

What if I’m making a mistake? What if I decide something isn’t a priority and then find myself wanting to spend my time on it?

These sort of nonsensical concerns weigh on my heart and I think the real problem is that I still think it’s best to keep my options open.

But, increasingly, I believe that keeping one’s options open is a fool’s journey. Instead I think it might be better to slam doors shut early and often — after all, we rarely close a door that can’t be opened again.

The more I spend my energy keeping all the doors open, the more paralyzed I feel.

When all my energy is spent holding doors open, I don’t have anything left to make progress toward reaching the goals that lie through those very doors I’m so busy holding open.


I’d love for this to be a conversation, and not a monologue! How do you feel about keeping your options open? Do you need white space to get things done? Do you struggle to prioritize? Let me know in the comments below.


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The systems that make your dreams come true

Here’s a problem I’ve been pondering lately: when you have big dreams how do you make them come true?

There are obvious, unhelpful answers like “you pursue them!” or “you don’t give up!”. There are more practical, but still unhelpful answers like “you just write” and “you just do it”.

Because here’s the thing, often just wanting the dream isn’t enough to get it done. Lots of people want to write books, but very few of them ever do. You need more than just desire, you need systems.

Systems are like magic.

At their most basic, I think that systems are just habits that help you make progress on what’s important. Ten minutes of journaling before bed is a system that might help you get clear and accountable on how your actions that day have furthered or hindered your goals. Turning off your email notifications is a system that helps you remain focused on what really matters.

Systems can also be more complicated, the structures and scaffolding from which your sculpt your life. They can be complex creations with moving parts that flow throughout your days and help keep you on track.

And the system I want to talk about today is like that. It’s your productivity system, your calendar, your to-do list, your inbox. It’s the clutter in your house and the mess in your closet.

I’ve been deeply engrossed in the work of Anna Kunnecke for a couple of months now, and she places a lot of emphasis on how clearing up and clearing out one’s physical environment can have a huge positive impact on one’s internal world. Having tried it out for myself, I find I couldn’t agree more.

And yet the change that has made the most significant impact on my life isn’t so much to do with my physical world; it has to do without I keep track of all the moving parts that make up a life.

And my system is based heavily on Anna Kunnecke’s recommendations and on David Allen’s suggestions in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

If you’d told me two years ago I needed to improve my personal productivity, I’d probably have laughed at you.

I’d have pointed to my two degrees from MIT and said “me?!”. But the truth is that MIT didn’t teach me good productivity habits — what MIT taught me was how to fight fires with incredible efficiency. At MIT every assignment was a crisis, every week was overloaded and I raced about in a kind of dazed panic from problem to paper to exam without a moment to gasp for air.

Which means that when I graduated I didn’t have any skills for getting things done in a less-stressful environment. In real life there aren’t so many deadlines. The book I’m writing doesn’t have due date. There’s no teacher leaning over my shoulder, fingers shifting restlessly in anticipation of each completed chapter. There’s really no reason to finish writing my book except that I want to.

The truth is that it’s very hard to find the time to write.

This is a truth that so many writers seem to gloss over and so many aspiring writers can’t seem to move past. So much writing advice boils down to “just write” including the oft-cited quote from Neil Gaiman to “write one word and then another”, or this recent post from Chuck Wendig. And this advice is not untrue — it’s perhaps the truest advice there is — but my quibble with such advice is that it also doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help the aspiring writer finally start writing the novel they’ve always dreamed of. And it doesn’t help them keep putting down words every day, even when the story takes a left turn somewhere on page 50 and suddenly they haven’t got a clue what the story even is anymore.

I’ve spoken about some of the tricks I use to help make my writing feel effortless, but when we get down to the nitty gritty of it, no amount of desire or effortlessness is sufficient to help me prioritize my writing over all the other things that need to happen in my life. Should I do my writing or my cooking first? Well… I’d really rather not starve. Should I do my writing this morning or be on time at my job? Well… I’d really rather not be late.

So in order to actually get my writing done I need to find a way to hold myself accountable to actually doing it — otherwise, I can say I’m writing a book till I’m blue in the face but if I’m not actually putting words on the page then (as Anna Kunnecke would say) “it’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?”

And the system I’ve found myself turning to with great efficacy is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

On the surface David Allen’s system is simple.

It really boils down to just five steps:

  1. Capture. This is where you identify and catalog all of the things that you need to do from the mundane (empty the dishwasher) to the complex (finish the first draft of my book).
  2. Clarify. What is the very next physical action I need to take to move forward on this? This is where you determine what actually needs to be done next for each of the tasks you captured in step one.
  3. Organize. This is where you organize the actions and projects you identified in steps  one and two into a system that presents them to you at the appropriate time and prevents things from slipping through the cracks.
  4. Reflect. David Allen suggests we need to take time weekly to reflect, to capture any new tasks from the week, to look ahead and make sure nothing is sneaking up on us, to look behind and make sure there’s nothing pending we should follow up. It’s also a moment to take a look at the bigger picture and reset one’s priorities.
  5. Engage. This is where the rubber hits the road and you act on all those next actions.

As David Allen says, there’s really three kinds of work: the work we plan to do (the stuff that is on our to-do lists), the work that shows up (emails, bills, etc.), and the work we do to define our work. After MIT I was fantastic at doing work that shows up, but not so fantastic at doing the work I’d planned to do and I’d never really learned to do the work to define my work at all. My next actions had always been decided by due dates and professors.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve been increasingly thorough in implementing David Allen’s system, I can tell you that being able to take control of defining the work you do is one of the most powerful systems I know for making your dreams come true.

Suddenly I’m finding time to write because my lists keep me accountable and they help me understand everything else I might also need to be doing so that I know that if I sit down to write for 30 minutes or an hour on a Tuesday that I’m not suddenly going to find Wednesday morning I don’t have any food for breakfast. And it turns out simultaneous accountability, security, and a deep honoring of my priorities are just the things I need to make my dreams (and this book) come true.

Now it’s your turn! What tools do you use to make your dreams come true? What systems support you in your life? Let me know in the comments 🙂