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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Creating Systems

“Systematize everything, and find peace”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Why create systems?

Having goals is a fantastic way to be productive and build a life by design, but the most productive results come from having systems. When we have a goal, there are a series of choices we have to make. Usually, goals are things we haven’t done before, so all the choices we’re going to have to make require a lot of attention and energy. Even if the goals have been accomplished before, having to deal with the challenges that arise time and time again can be exhausting.

Systematizing everything makes these processes a lot easier, especially if there are goals that need to be completed regularly. Creating systems gives us the opportunity to make fewer choices and the freedom to do other things. Despite what many people think, our energy is like our time, limited and nonrenewable. The return on saving energy is virtually infinite. Systems allow us to be more productive as well, in terms of quantity AND quality.

Systems also make processes easier when we have to do them. Having a reliable proven strategy for conquering whatever scenario in front of us cuts the effort down tremendously. It’s much easier to just “start the process” than to try really hard just to discover that it wasn’t going to work anyway.

Focusing on systems, not goals, is the key to long-lasting, reliable, and fruitful results.

In order to focus on systems, we first have to understand what they are and how they work. I wrote two posts on systems so far: Gall’s Law & System Components and Analyzing & Improving Systems. I highly recommended checking those out, I go over the fundamental information about systems and how they work. This post synthesizes some of the information discussed in those two posts and emphasizes the concepts that will make creating systems much easier.

When we understand how systems work and how to create our own, then we can engineer our own systems to fit our unique needs perfectly.

Marks of an Effective System

Human beings need purpose and intentionality in order to have fulfilled lives and content with existentialism. I talk a little bit about that in this post. We need something to aim at and a system is no different.

What is the purpose of a system & how we do know if it’s working well?

According to author of The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman, an effective system does the following:

  • Fulfills its functionality
  • Has great infrastructure
  • Ready connectivity with other systems
  • Versitile
  • Adaptable
  • Reliable
  • Produces benefits which far exceed the initial investment

Keep in a mind, all of these criteria don’t need to be met to have a functional system. A system can work without all of these, however, these are all qualities that a great system can build towards.

How to Create Systems

“If you want to build a system that works, the best approach is to build a simple system that meets the Environment’s current selection tests first, then improve it over time. Over time, you’ll build a complex system that works.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Keep Gall’s Law in mind when you first start – work on creating a simple system, then add complexity over time. Don’t try to make a system that does too much at once right off the bat.

Creating a complex system immediately will result in failure.

When it comes to building a system from scratch, just try to figure out how to get the task done in the first place. Once we’ve completed the task, we developed a neural pathway that knows exactly how to get that task done. Every single time we work on that task in the future it gets easier and easier. (Exactly like Active Recall.) Once we’ve gotten to this point, it will be much easier to create a system because we will know the steps intimately. Creating a system will speed that process up even more!

Once we know how to get the task done, we need to identify the key components of the system and improve each step of the process so it becomes more efficient and effective. Just make one change at a time. Creating a good system takes time and patience, like building habits.

Systems are almost never correct right off the bat. It takes a few tests to get all the details right and have a system that runs smoothly. All systems start off terribly, but all the best ones improve over time and the only way to objectively improve a system is through experimentation.

Fans of history can probably name a few times human beings have tried to create something but had to revamp the system because they found out it wasn’t working too well. I remember working with a student on history work and I was stunned to discover that this process is the exact process that the American government evolved from. Today, the American government is a massively complex system with multiple branches and precedence for almost every conceivable situation but it did not start off that way. It started off with just the Articles of Confederation, and that system didn’t even have an executive or judicial branch. Then it grew with the Virginia Plan, then the Constitution, then the Bill of Rights, and finally with the amendments we have today. The point is that this extremely complex system didn’t start off how it is today, it grew over centuries through experimentation.

Humans never get anything right the first try.

When I was a noob at creating systems, I thought that I needed to know each step of the process and it had to work perfectly before I even started, but that prevented me from even starting in the first place. There’s no way to know every single step and account for every single variable without testing a system.

All, if not most, problems can be handled with systems. If there isn’t a system for it, then we can create one. We just have to go into the process expecting the system to fail and be willing to make adjustments or we won’t have any systems at all.

Guiding Questions

If you’ve read some of my Importance of Questions post, then you know that I believe questions hold the key to everything we want in life. They can allow us access to other people’s minds as well as guide our thinking to solve problems that we haven’t seen before.

Here are some questions that could be useful when creating systems:

  • How do I make this process easier next time?
  • How can I make this process more reliable next time?
  • How can I prevent ____ from happening again?
  • In a perfect world, how would I want to deal with this situation?
  • How can I make _____ happen again?
  • What is the end result? What am I producing?
  • What are we starting with? What do I need to get this going?

Tips for a Great Checklist

Systems can take many different forms. One of the most simple forms, checklists, have also been proven to be one of the most effective. I talk a little about checklists in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems and in that post, I mention how checklists are fantastic for creating processes that haven’t been articulated yet. Checklists are my go-to method for ordering the chaos and are fantastic simple systems to build upon later.

In Dr. Atul Gawande’s fantastic book, The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande lays out the proof that checklists are more reliable than the instincts of even the highest trained professionals. Pilots, especially when confronted with an emergency, are more than willing to turn to their checklists.

The first tip for making a great checklist is to have normal and non-normal checklists. Normal checklists are for normal everyday situations, things that come up often. Pilots have normal checklists for things like take-off and landing. Non-normal checklists are less often used but are for emergencies or other scenarios that wouldn’t occur on a regular basis. Pilots have more non-normal checklists than normal checklists. They have checklists for all conceivable emergency situations.

There are two types of checklists: do-confirm and read-do. Do-confirm lists are when team members perform their jobs first, then pause and run the checklist to make sure that everything was done correctly. Read-do lists are when people do the tasks as they read them on the list. Do-confirm lists act more like a double-check while read-do lists are more like a recipe. Know which type of checklist you are creating and when to use it.

Great checklists are specific and precise. If a checklist is too vague and inaccurate is becomes hard to use and impractical.

They also need to be short and to the point, if a checklist is too long it becomes another hurdle. Try to keep the length of the list within the bounds of our working memory, 7+2 items (5-9). They can be longer, but keep in mind that if checklists take longer than 60-90 seconds then people start shortcutting and they become more hassle than they’re worth. Focus on the critical few.

They also have to be easy to use in the most difficult situations, keeping it short and sweet helps a lot with this.

Contrary to popular belief, a great checklist should not spell everything out. They just simply provide a reminder of the crucial steps. Operators of the checklist should be trained and know what they are doing. The checklist is just an aid, not an instruction manual.

Checklists must, above all, be practical.

Checklists cannot solve problems for us, they simply help us manage complex processes and clarify priorities. They are not comprehensive guides, just reminders of the critical steps. If we include every little step, then the checklist just adds friction to the system. Checklists are designed to remove friction and add ease and clarity to a scenario.

When creating a checklist, I highly recommend clearly defining a point WHEN the checklist will be used.

Like all systems, checklists have to be battle-tested in real life. Experiment with the checklist and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. The first drafts never stick and revising is always required.

A Few Systematic Principles

A few principles that I’ve noticed systems follow. It’s helpful to keep these in the back of our minds when planning and executing systems.

The Matthew Effect

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

I talk about this in my post The Myth of Motivation, when I talk about aiming for success spirals.

The Matthew Effect is pretty simple — success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The best part is that this relationship is not linearly, it’s exponential. If we do something like writing a book and some people like it, then we’re more likely to write another book which makes it more likely that more people are willing to like it.

We can see spirals like this is so many things. If we get an A on an exam, it’s easier for us to get an A on the next exam. We know the concepts and are more likely to sacrifice because our sacrifice led to a positive outcome last time. Likewise, if we fail an exam, it’s easier for us to fail the next one. We don’t know the concepts, so we’d have to learn those ones on top of the new stuff. The previous failure adds friction to the next challenge. Our actions compound on each other and it can stack up quickly. This is definitely one of the reasons for the massive wealth inequality in the modern world. It’s much easier to make money when you’re already making money.

When building a system, try to keep in mind that the actions of the system will affect the actions of the system later. The Matthew Effect also provides a fantastic foundation for another systemic phenomenon, the Pareto Principle.

Pareto Principle (The 80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle definitely needs it’s own post because it’s such a pervasive idea and we can dive into it for hours. Famous entrepreneur and investor, Richard Koch was able to write 4 books on the topic! 4 books!! While the principle itself isn’t complex nor long, Koch focused more on applying the principle to every aspect of our lives. I’ll go more into that later.

While there is a lot to say about the Pareto Principle and its accommodations, it can be summed up relatively quickly:

80% of the output of any system is from 20% of the input.

This principle can apply to all domains of human creation. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. For most of us who have worked on a group project, we know that most of the work ends up getting done by a small portion of the group. This also happens in companies too – 80% of the work is done by 20% of the employees.

There are many names given to this idea because it shows up in so many places. The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80/20 Rule or the Square Root Rule: being that 50% of the work is done by the square root of the number of employees. The numbers aren’t perfect, but the idea is the same:

The majority of the results come from a critical minority of effort.

This principle is game-changing when it comes to creating systems. Knowing that the majority of the results comes from a critical few, we can focus our energy on optimizing for those critical few inputs rather than wasting energy on processes or steps that yield a lower rate of return.

I talk a bit about how the Pareto Principle came to be in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems.

Vilfredo Pareto, the 19th-century economist and sociologist, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution. He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of peas.

We can see this in book sales and album sales too, pretty much any domain of creative production. 80% of the book sales are from 20% of the authors. 80% of music streams are from 20% of the artists.

Richard Koch also noticed a similar pattern when studying for his final exams at Oxford. At Oxford, the students are graded by their performance on a final exam which is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. Richard determined that in order to prepare for every possible question they could ask him he would have to memorize somewhere around 550 essays. Obviously, this wasn’t reasonable so Richard found another way around it. He analyzed all the past exams and discovered that every exam asked questions on similar topics. 20% of the topics accounted for 80% of the questions. Upon realizing this, Richard figured that all he had to do was prepare for 20% of the topics. This significantly cut down the work he needed to do to prepare for the exam.

Spoiler Alert: he did great on the test.

The best part about the Pareto Principle is that it can apply to all systems, in business and our personal lives. We can a Pareto analysis of our own lives, as well as any systems that we’d like to optimize.

I love doing the 80/20 analysis of everything. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I really need to do. Trimming the fat automatically maximizes our time and effort. It’s much easier to just focus on what is important than trying to find ways to do everything better.

It can apply to happiness – What 20% of things give me 80% of my happiness?

It can also be applied in reverse – What 20% of things are giving me 80% of my unhappiness?

It can be applied to anxiety, relationship satisfaction, costs, food, anything our hearts desire.

This principle helps us optimize.

Whenever I’m creating a system I try to keep in mind that principles are more valuable than knowledge. If we can understand the principles behind something, then we have the ability to predict and manipulate the system across many different scenarios.

Richard Koch likes to ask people:

“What would happen if we spend all of our time on the critical aspects?”

Parkinson’s Law

I first talked about Parkinson’s Law in my post 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling because I first learned it as a scheduling principle but now I see how it can be applied in a broader sense.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

So if we have a week to get a project done, it will take us a week. If we have a day to get a project done, then it will take a day. Parkinson’s Law helps explain how people are able to finish massive projects the day before it’s due or how an unmotivated student finds the strength within them to get something turned in. It’s not that we aren’t capable of doing the work, it’s that we know we still have time and we’ll use all of it if we can.

What I do to try to account for this is give myself less time than I think I need to complete a task or I set finite deadlines to work on a project. Either way, they both prevent me from spending extra unnecessary time on something.

There’s something about having our backs up against the wall that makes us perform. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s definitely there and we can use it to our advantage if we want.

However, Parkinson’s Law is more than just a cool scheduling hack. It can also apply to budgets and other resources too.

Parkinson’s Law applied to budgets – spending expands to fit the budget allotted for it.

Now, the spending doesn’t have to expand to fit the budget but it usually will.

The resources we allocate for something determines the fundamental perspective of our approach.

If we are pressed for time or if we don’t have a lot of money, then we’ll be on the lookout for creative ways to solve problems that could otherwise we solved with time or money.

Parkinson’s Law really just highlights another quality of human nature which is that humans are creatures of necessity and we will always try to solve problems with the least amount of effort possible. Keeping this in mind when building systems is extremely valuable and perhaps we can go further with what we already have.

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Education Productivity

Gall’s Law & System Components

“One essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems—on assemblages of people or technologies or both—and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.”

Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto)

Systems are everything.

Our body is a system of organs, chemical reactions, and energy. There are a bunch of little integrated things happening within us all the time. Every cell inside our body is a system, every organelle is a system, ever molecule is a system, all the way down to the subatomic level there are systems.

But it doesn’t stop there, we can see systems on the macro level too. Our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the entire planet are all systems. Systems can even be as big as galaxies, or the universe!

Systems also exist on a conversational level. In some of my other posts, I talk a little bit about how people live in the physical world, but also in the world of conversation. Some of these conversations share our reality. An example of these types of conversations are businesses. “Where is a business?” is a tricky question. The business doesn’t necessarily lie in the people, or the physical headquarters, but in an agreement and understanding between two people. Similar to our bodies and communities –

“Businesses are complex systems that exist within even more complex systems—markets, industries, and societies. A complex system is a self-perpetuating arrangement of interconnected parts that form a unified whole.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Understanding systems, as an abstract idea, gives us the ability to apply our analysis and understanding to all other systems.

I learned a lot about systems when I was studying chemical engineering and used that knowledge to dive deeper into other fields.

I used my knowledge of systems to help me understand music, mathematics, medicine, social dynamics, education, economics, investing, writing, gaming, and so much more.

Understanding systems help us understand everything. Most systems have the same parts, can be analyzed and improved in similar ways, and follow the same set of rules.

Gall’s Law

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.

John Gall (Systems Theorist)

Most of the systems we’ll encounter are complex. Way more complicated than we know, but according to systems theorist John Gall, all complex systems started from simple systems. This idea became known as Gall’s Law and is extremely useful when it comes to understanding systems.

Every system starts off simple and adds complexity over time.

I’ve watched this happen with the development of smartphones over the years. First, we started with just phones that just did good ol’ phone calls. Then we developed phones that could text, then play music, then browse the internet, then take pictures, then take videos, and now…they can do everything. My smartphone is my camera, periodic table, phone, tv remote, thermostat controller, and an infinite amount of other things.

The bottom line is that my devices are extremely complicated systems that can do a lot of amazing things, but they didn’t start off that way. In the beginning, they were just simple systems that did one thing, and over time we just added one thing here and one thing there and now we have miraculous systems.

I find keeping Gall’s Law in mind helpful when creating new systems. When I’m first starting something I just want to keep it short and simple, then add a little more over time.

How Understanding Systems Can Make Us Rich

I used Gall’s Law to create a money management system that allows me to accumulate wealth over time automatically, rather than constantly worrying about “trying to become rich” or “not having enough.”

The key is to start simple, then make it complex over time. I’m not going to go into too much detail here about how I manage my money (partly because my system has grown to be pretty complicated), but I will share the simple system I started to build my complex system upon. I put a percentage of my money in an investment account, and I don’t touch it. I don’t even have access to it unless I want to wait 3 days. I don’t want to touch the money, because I will need it later to build a more complex system later.

Now I know this doesn’t seem exciting or sexy, but this is how complex systems are built. One thing at a time, over a long period of time.

The key is to start with a simple system.

When I started my blog, I just tried to write 20 minutes every day and release 1 post per week. This is still the fundamental system of my blog today, but I write for 48 minutes per day 5 days a week instead.

When I started my YouTube channel, I just tried to make music for 20 minutes every day and release 2 beats per week. Over time, I started adding beat making videos, links to my beat store, and playlists of other videos. Now, my channel is much more complex than it was when I first started and I would not have been able to create that level of complexity right at the start. Trust me, I tried to and it ended in fire.

Components of a System

So what actually makes up a system?

Josh Kaufman does a beautiful job laying out how to understand, analyze, and improve systems in his book, The Personal MBA, and I highly recommend checking it out. Most of the stuff from this post are from his book. I’ll definitely be adding it to my Must-Read Book List once I get a chance.

If we want to build a simple system, then we have to know what the components of a system are. These 14 components can be found in every system, regardless of what the system does. We can find examples of each component in all industries.

Flow

Flow is easily thought of as the movement of resources through the system. Inflows move into the system. Outflows move out of the system.

Money is a common resource that flows in and out of business systems and water is a common resource that flows in and out of biological systems.

Stock

Stock, in the sense of systems, is a reserve of resources. Stock can be different for each system. For a business, stock can be money waiting to be used. For a restaurant, stock can be extra food in the back.

Slack

Slack refers to the amounts of resources available in the stock. On a personal note, I love slack. Slack isn’t inherently good, or bad. It depends on the system. For me, I’ve noticed that I make better creative work when I have more slack in my stock. I make better music and write better blog posts when I’m not up against the clock.

Constraints

Constraints are what prevents systems from achieving their goal. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests that all systems always have at least 1 constraint limiting their ability to reach their goal. Eliminate the constraints and performance increases, simple as that.

Feedback Loops

I remember taking a biology class in my 2nd year of college and my professor explaining feedback loops to me for the first time. He said that if we can wrap our heads around feedback loops, then we’ll understanding 80% of biology. He was so right, understanding the feedback loop made learning biology a lot easier, but it also provided a framework for understanding so many other things too.

A feedback loop occurs when the output of a system is also an input. An excellent example of this is with the heart and blood pressure. Blood pressure is an output of the heart, but it’s also one of the inputs as well. The human body needs to maintain a certain blood pressure to survive. If it gets too low, then the heart will pump harder to get it back up. The blood pressure is determined by the heart, but the blood pressure also provides feedback to the heart.

A positive feedback loop is when a system receives feedback and produces more of its output as a result. We can see this in the example with the heart and low blood pressure. The heart is pumping more as a result of the feedback.

A negative feedback loop is when a system receives feedback and produces less of its output as a result. Our bodies also have negative feedback loops (because they’re systems!). Typically when our bodies become hot we start to sweat to cool us down, but if we were to become severely dehydrated then our bodies would stop sweating in order to keep as much water inside as possible. Our bodies will also shut down our ability to pee, just to keep in that water too! The body stops releasing water as a result of the feedback.

Autocatalysis

This describes a system where the outputs are the raw ingredients of the input.

Advertising is a great example of this. We spend $1000 dollars to make $2000 dollars. Now we can use $1000 again to buy more advertisements and make another $2000. Rise and repeat.

After reading a bunch of business books, I realize that a lot of entrepreneurs use autocatalysis type of systems to build wealth.

Environment

This is everything else that that system isn’t. Usually, the system lies within the environment. There is typically some sort of flow between the environment and the system. No system exists in the vacuum…unless you consider the entire universe as a system.

Selection Test

This refers to the environmental constraints that determine which systems perpetuate or end.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is what people usually think of when they think of selection tests, but “death of the unfit” is probably a more accurate phrasing.

Selection Tests are absolute. If a system cannot adapt to the test, then it fails. If the system can adapt, then it thrives. Simple as that.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is inherent to all systems. No one knows for sure what will happen in the future. But there is a distinction to be made from risk. The risk lies in the known unknowns, the things we know that we don’t know. Uncertainties are the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat.

I know it’s hard, but try not to be completely afraid of the unknown.

Change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

All systems have some dynamic quality to them — they are always changing. Knowing this, training ourselves to handle different kinds of circumstances is our best bet. If things are always changing, then we need to be resilient to match.

Interdependence

Some systems are linked to other systems. The more connected the systems are the more failures and delays will affect other systems. When we are dealing with systems, it’s crucial to keep in mind their effect on other systems and the systems that affect it. These connections are also known as dependencies.

The fewer dependencies the systems have, the lower the magnitude of effect on the other systems.

Some systems may not affect each other at all, but are both required to run a larger system. These systems are known as parallel processing.

Here’s a fun thought experiment that gets crazier the longer we think about it — the next time you get on a bus, think about all of the things that must have had to happen in order for the bus to get there on time. I promise, there is always more.

Counterparty Risk

Counterpart Risk describes the risk associated with the other party not following through on their end of the deal. Most systems require multiple parties and there are consequences when one party can’t or won’t deliver on what they promise.

If we outsource a task to a contractor and they don’t deliver their end, our entire project will get held up. Spotting counterparty risk is crucial in preparing for potential undesirable events as well as identifying good deals. Finding ways to mitigate this risk helps us keep our plans on track and lowers the chances for our systems to get derailed.

However, counterparty risk tends to increase when people try to plan for them. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party does not deliver on their end of the deal.

Second-Order Effects

These describe the consequences of the consequences of our actions, hence second-order. Every action has a consequence, and those consequences also have an affect on other things. Second-order effects are typically difficult to predict, stop, or reverse, but they always exist.

With this in mind, it’s wise to proceed with caution when we make changes to systems, especially complex ones. We may even get the opposite of what we expect.

Normal Accidents

We all know shit happens, and it’s no different in systems. Some days things don’t go the way we want. Especially in systems with high interdependence and complexity. The more interdependent and complex a system is, the more likely an accident is to occur.

Normal accidents can give us enormous insights into system interdependence and possible second-order effects.


Systems are everything and understanding their parts is crucial for building our own.

Gall’s Law shows us that we can create complex systems from starting small and gradually growing over time.

Each of the components I’ve gone over can be found in all (if not, most) systems, and I urge everyone who reads this to find other components of systems if possible. I’m not a systems theorist and it’s more than likely that there are other components I left out. These were the system components that Josh Kaufman went over his book, The Personal MBA, and they are a great foundation for building any kind of system you desire.

Identify these components in other systems. Use these as building blocks to create your own. What we can do with these tools is truly unlimited.