Your personal system — general design

Gonçalo Gil Mata — №21 with Pat Flynn

Understanding focus, control, direction and emotion and all the mental processes that impact your productivity is critical for your performance. But it’s not enough. You obviously want to implement all that knowledge in terms of your daily tools, practices and habits. To-do lists, calendars, reminders, archives, post-its, folders, recurring actions, check-lists, project plans and maps — how, where and when should you use and maintain them. These form a comprehensive notion I usually name “The System”. I’ll be talking a bit about personal systems in my next couple of articles. For now, some step back comments about it.


Everyone has a system. From the grocer with a pencil on his ear — to the general manager of a major building project — to a native in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Everyone has had the need to optimize the way things get done and are controlled. The first and maybe the most important questions you should ask before setting on to the quest of building or improving a system are: Why do I need it? What is it good for? What do I want it to do for me that I couldn’t do without it? What’s the added value?

Never just “live” for your system

These questions inhabit the mind-set of the productive optimizer and should be applied both to the system as a whole and to each component in particular. Too often I come into contact with clients struggling to maintain a system that in the end doesn’t clearly address a purpose. No clear criteria. Maybe there’s a vague notion of “I should have things in order, right?”. But why? You can’t afford a system that demands a lot and fails to return high impact. And you surely shouldn’t welcome feelings of guilt and failure for not keeping the system itself. My initial comment is: question your system’s purpose all the time. Assess periodically if it’s bringing you the intended benefits. Is it providing control and less anxiety? Direction? Results? What? Never just “live” for your system!

A changing world

A second comment is that a good system is typically a continuously changing living being. Your needs and life circumstances change throughout time, and so should your system, if you want it to respond to them.

Almost everyone, given the right amount of time, is subject to considerable change in their lives. And the system, whatever it is, will need to adapt and be periodically “reconstructed” with the fundamental reassessment: “now, at this particular moment of my life, what do I really need the system to do for me and in what way? What habits should I drop and what new ones do I want to bring in?”

A changing brain

To add to this, your mind itself changes the way it reacts to system components. This is so often overlooked! Maybe your first yellow post-it on the computer screen was a success in the first day, but what happened when you left it hanging for two weeks? Or after you’ve hanged 20 more sticky notes besides it? How does your brain react to a to-do item left in the list for too long? What about the incredible GTD method that seemed so perfect in the first couple of months? Or the gym schedule, so fresh and vivid the day you put it in the wall?

The brain’s reaction evolves and what once worked may no longer do it. Recognize when things aren’t working anymore, and stay away from the idea that if they once worked, it’s probably your fault that they’re not working anymore, and you’re probably doing something wrong, and need more discipline, and… all that! Just reinvent clever and creative ways to play your mind, creating the right expertise and relationship with it, so you can get what you want to get.

A perfect system?

Due to this doubly dynamic evolution (the changing context and the changing brain), the idea of achieving a single system that works perfectly under any circumstances and throughout time, seems like Utopia. Even from one week to the other the same amazing system technique can prove obsolete. More than that, it seems a profound mismatch to try to obtain a static system for an ever changing mind. As well, your system must be a map for your mind, not a map of the world. A tool to balance emotionally turbulent priorities. A GPS to guide us through changing desires, limited availability of resources, feelings of pressure… allowing for good choices, according to what your mind values most, at each moment. Think of your world before and after having kids or any other significant change. What happened to your list of goals? What happened to priorities? What happened to what you valued? Poof!

Remember: the system should serve your mind, and never the reverse.

Make it personal

It is in fact complex, no doubt. We all have a system of our own, made up of things that have been working for years, mixed with trials and errors that only worked for weeks, trimmed of what didn’t fit our personal style. It may have been manual here, automatic there, using more or less paper or sophisticated software, using more or less of our memory and intuition for reliability.

The truth is that time goes on. We keep accomplishing parts of our dreams and we drop some balls when there are too many to juggle. When I think about that, this sheds some light on a fundamental benefit we want the system to provide us with: some peace of mind, a certain guidance, a certain assurance that we’re going in a decent direction, and that we’re doing a good job given the circumstances. That we’re being a good partner, a good worker, a good citizen, a good person. And that, alone, much more than winning the checking-items-off-to-do-list-contest, makes all the difference.

In the end, a good system gives us the true freedom to feel the flow of life and enjoy every moment of our privileged and limited existence with full presence and awareness!

I’ll be back soon with tips on system components. Until then, try keeping your system and brain on its toes by changing things up a little.

Photo: Flickr /rahuldlucca CC BY 2.0

Goncalo gil mata

Gonçalo Gil Mata

An executive coach, speaker and author who is dedicated to enhancing top productivity in individuals and organizations. He is the founder of MIND4TIME and author of the blog What’s The, where he writes about productivity tricks and brain mechanics.

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