033: Principles of Building Simple Systems



Your system is different from someone else’s, but there are a few principles you can keep in mind when trying to make it simple.


Getting Things Done Book

Getting Results the Agile Way

Personal Kanban

Bullet Journal Method

Make Time


00:00 Hello and welcome to Process, a podcast by Effective Remote Work. My name is Justin DiRose and today we’re talking about the principles behind building simple systems. Before we dive in today, be sure to sign up for our Patreon campaign effectiveremotework.com/patreon to get access to our Discord water cooler, chat bonus content and more. That’s effectiveremotework.com/patreon.

00:26 Last week we spent a little bit of time talking about how productivity can get too complex. In fact, it’s something that I’ve been wrestling with myself recently. And honestly it looks like a lot of other people are too. I noticed a topic over on talk.macpowerusers.com, Jon Mitchell, aka @ablaze, from the Internet Friends podcast, and even topic on the Effective Remote Work community. We’re talking about this idea of revamping our systems so that they’re not so complex. We often have these capabilities in these softwares and things that allow us to build these really, really, really big productivity systems that feel like they can withstand anything.

01:14 But I think a lot of us are realizing that that’s not always the best approach for us. Now granted something like OmniFocus may be a great tool for one person because of their specific use case. Totally fine. That might be the simple system for them. For me, at least right now I’m questioning if that’s true and so I’m kind of taking an experimental trail to figure out what that looks like. And so for me right now it looks like putting all of my project information and that is including tasks and information about the projects inside of Notion and then managing all of my tasks in a bullet journal, and then I’m handling my notes and things like that in Bear still. But for others and for you, maybe it looks a little bit different. Ultimately what I want to talk about today, is some principles that you can utilize when you’re trying to build a simple system.

02:14 Now as remote workers, we get to control our own systems, which is the beauty of it all. In essence, we’re reading a sort of choose your own adventure book for productivity because that’s great. You can make things the way that you need to, but alas you can choose to go to page 72 where there was a hulking new productivity app just waiting to be explored. Or you can choose to go to page 14 where someone shows you how to do something cool. There’s all sorts of things that come up on the road to building a simple productivity system. Things that look attractive, things that look like they might be a better solution, things that look like really amazing workflows. How do you know what to choose? That’s the ultimate question at the core of today’s episode, how do you know what to choose when you’re building your system?

03:16 Let’s discuss a few main principles in doing so. First and foremost, start with what you know. I got introduced to productivity through the Getting Things Done book by David Allen and that really got me thinking about system and I think a lot of us in the productivity space got started in some capacity like that. You might know personal kanban, or getting results the agile way, or you might’ve gotten started with the bullet journal. Ultimately the most important thing is to start with the information that you have, what you know. So if you know Getting Things Done, start building a simple, getting things done system using the skills and the ideas and the thoughts that you have about what that system should look like for you.

04:12 If you know Kanban works really well for you then start with a Kanban board. Use something like Trello or use a tool like notion that can be a little bit more flexible. But ultimately we’re not looking to build some ambiguous system. You. You’ve got to start with the foundation of the knowledge that you have and if you don’t feel like you have enough knowledge, start reading some books. Make Time, which I mentioned in the last episode, is a good starting place because it gives some simple ways to build a productivity framework for your life. It’s not tied to tools, it’s not tied to a specific process, but it’s just a whole box of tools that you can pick from on a daily basis. One of my favorites being the daily highlight where you pick your one thing that brings you joy, that is something that’s important, or it’s something that you really want to invest in and that’s the one thing that you’re going to focus on.

05:13 Another principle is to start with a problem or need that you have now. One thing that I’ve noticed that I get caught up on in productivity systems is trying to account for all the potentials. Take for example filing PDFs or digital systems for note storage, things like that. One thing that I’ve gotten caught up in the past is trying to create a structure all up front. I want to make sure that I have enough notebooks and tags inside of Evernote or that I have enough folders inside of iCloud Drive to make sure that I’m putting everything in the right place so that I can find it. But in reality, what I need to is look at what I have right now, which is a bunch of documents that have specific categories and then try to categorize them into a system that I can use now.

06:11 I don’t need to account for all the potential things in the future. I just need to deal with what I have in front of me. That can go the same way if you’re building a project management system or a task management system. Build something for what you have now and then you can grow it later if you need to. I build the most complexity to my systems when I’m trying to account for things that I am not actually doing at this moment in time or a problem that I don’t actually have right now because I see it could be a problem. But if I stopped doing that, which I’m trying to do right now, it makes it a whole lot easier to build an effective system.

06:58 Another principle is to start one or two steps simpler than you think you need. So for example, if OmniFocus looks good as a task manager, maybe try Reminders or paper first. Or if something like Notion looks good, maybe you just need to go to Apple notes and see if that gets what you need.

07:21 I think one of the issues that we can get to is we try to reach for the most amazing looking tool. OmniFocus is fantastic, Things is fantastic, Todoist is fantastic. They’re all great tools that can handle tasks, but it might not be the best tool for you with where you’re at. We get a lot of sales information that gets thrown at us or a lot of people that are evangelizing these tools and that’s not a bad thing by any means, but it’s important for you to evaluate what you need. It’s better actually to start with something that is less powerful such as paper and then build a system into that. That was my experience actually this last spring when I switched out of OmniFocus the first time and went to the bullet journal. When I came back to OmniFocus, I actually had a significantly better understanding of what my task list should look like in a digital tool because I had already spent three months inside of the bullet journal figuring out how that process works and figuring out what the constraints were and figuring out what the problems are in those systems. So I would recommend if something looks really appealing to you, but it’s kind of a complex piece of software, take a couple of steps back unless you’re absolutely certain that you need that complexity.

08:43 Dovetailing off of that point, it’s also important to embrace constraint. Powerful tools often remove many of the constraints that are helpful to us early on in our productivity journey. As I just mentioned, I learned a ton using the bullet journal for a few months instead of a digital task manager and that was because there are constraints involved with paper. There are constraints involved with the bullet journal system and sometimes those constraints can be your friend when creating a longterm productivity solution and system. Remember from our last episode that building your own productivity system is a creative process, so embracing constraint will actually get you a lot further than looking for the perfect tool, which I know is something that many of us in this space struggle with.

09:42 If you’re trying to build a system or have a system or have a tool that can help you get done what you want to get done in life, it’s very easy to try to find the short road of just trying new applications or new methods to find the perfect one. But in reality, the way to a perfect system for you is to embrace the constraints that you have now, learn from them, and ultimately build on top of your system. Which leads me to my last principal for today, which is to build iteratively. This is a skill that I picked up within the last couple of years with productivity systems. Start with where you are right now and then add layers on top of it as the need comes up. So if you’re taking notes for class inside of Bear, one way to build iteratively is to just start with the notes you have right now and create a tag for the notes that are relevant in your system at this point in time.

10:44 Then if you choose to start taking book notes inside of Bear, you can start to create other tags as that need arises. That’s an iterative building process. Or for example, in my bullet journal, I’ve started off with the base bullet journal system, but I’ve added my own custom spreads in the bullet journal such as a project time tracker where I track time on projects in 30 minute increments by just putting a little slash mark next to the project. Or I have a gratitude spread where I write down or try to write down at the end of the day three things that I am thankful for that day.

11:25 That’s one way to approach iterative building. Another way is to have some experimental time, so if you want to look at using Bear or Evernote, a new tool in your system, something like that, then what you need to do is set a little bit of time to experiment with it. Don’t completely up end your system because you found something that you think is cool. Instead, keep your system as it is and then add a little experimental item into it. This is what I did with Notion and my project management materials. I needed a place to store them and so what I did is I kept all of my tasks for projects inside of OmniFocus and I put my project reference materials inside of Notion. This was an experiment and I did it for a couple of months and I found out that it really stuck and worked for me. So now I’ve realized that Notion is a very powerful tool in my workflow and I’ve fully committed to it and my workflow to handling my project management.

12:37 Building those kinds of experiments might vary for you and what that looks like, but it’s something to keep in mind. The grand scope of things, having a simple system is really something that gives you flexibility and freedom. Oftentimes complex systems break down when we have moments in our life that are stressful or there’s a lot of change going on. I’ve been through that recently and I’ve changed my system three times now as a result of it. First going to the bullet journal, then back to OmniFocus and now back to the bullet journal with the combination of Notion handling some of my project management stuff. I’ve found that I need flexible tools in a flexible system to allow me to have different levels of capacity for different seasons of my life.

13:32 Again, productivity is a very personal experience. Building your own productivity system, whether you choose to base it on Getting Things Done or Agile Results is something that’s very personal and a very creative process and it’s something that you ultimately own. I hope these principles that we discussed today help you have a good foundation for what a productivity system that’s simple looks like because you don’t want it any more simple then it needs to be, but you also don’t want it any more complex than it needs to be either.

14:09 Well, that’s all for this time. If you want to join in on the discussion for this episode, head on over to the Effective Remote Work Community at community.effectiveremotework.com. Be sure to join our Patreon at effectiveremotework.com/patreon to get access to our exclusive members-only content. If Twitter’s your thing, you can find me at @justindirose, and the podcast and community @effectiveremote. Lastly, if you like this show, rate us on iTunes or recommend us on Overcast! My name is Justin DiRose and join me next time on Process.

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Sometimes when I feel my system gets too complicated, I’ll reboot by starting over with pen-and-paper. It takes out all the flash of widgets, extensions, macros, and whatever comes with technology, apps, and hardware. I figure if I can strip everything down to pen-and-paper, I return back to the essence of my system. Then I’ll slowly introduce technology back in.

I also went back to figuring out my habits/routines and then added calendar notifications from my iPhone/Apple Watch. Then I added back the most essential Keyboard Maestro macros and Siri Shortcuts I needed. I had to throw out all those extra Shortcuts and macros that I had hoarded over the last year. Now I have a streamlined workflow working for me.

The simplest system is the one where we don’t have to think about the habits and routines. I can focus more time on projects and tasks rather than remembering all the steps.

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