Sherlocking My Systems
How to step back to go forward
As a freelancer, I have to motivate myself. To do this I have a lot of systems in which I set goals and plan ahead. In other words, I structure my life like a madwoman. There is a ton of advice out there about how to be structured and hundreds of productivity apps for building systems. This article will not be about all that. Rather, it’s about my favorite part of having systems: that their data can save me from going off track by revealing the patterns of my life.
When I Planned Myself Off The Track
I have plans in spreadsheets with conditional formatting. I have a post-it note wall that keeps expanding. I keep track of my accomplishments and my failures in a journal. These systems encourage me to stay productive and I love them for that. The little thrill of seeing a task turn the color of success in my spreadsheet can make my spirit rise to the ceiling. The same goes for taking down a post-it note once completed. It’s pure gamification and it works.
But there is a danger to such systems. They might work so well at keeping me on the track that I don’t notice it’s the wrong track. In the daily hustle and bustle of following my plans, I risk forgetting my desires and my dreams.
To combat this I have a planned date with myself and my systems once a month where I reevaluate and adjust. However, one day I realized that when I planned this way it still kept going wrong … and I wondered why.
In time, I came to understand that the issue was my mindset. When I planned to plan, it became another task in the system. I would take my planning post-it note and say to myself “it’s time to plan.” Based on last month’s goals, I would make a new set of rational SMART goals and consider the planning-task as completed. However, in this process, I was handling the task as a “worker,” whose main focus was to complete the task.
But planning your life should be more than a continuous chain of SMART goals. You are after all planning for your future happiness. The mindset needed for such a task should be broader than just “the worker.” It should also include the mindsets of other parts of one’s human character like the “philosopher,” the “innovator,” the “critic,” and the “optimist.”
My planning routine prevented me from utilizing such a broad mindset. It’s like in a company, where you notice things that need improving or adjusting. You inform your boss, who says it’s something that should be addressed at the yearly planning meeting. At the planning meeting, you get a list of last year’s goals and are asked to create new ones. In such a setting you forget the things you wanted to change and instead focus solely on the goal-setting.
Being a freelancer, I have the freedom to run my business the way I want to. So, when I realized that the monthly planning didn’t work as I had hoped, I experimented with finding a new solution. The solution I came up with was far more organic than structured. Far more human than planned.
Break Out the Sherlock Emergency Kit
What was the solution? Well, I still keep up my planning date every month, but I now also stay open to the organic point of planning. It’s the point when the subtle whispers of my mind and body inform me that something is off. These whispers are puzzling questions or vague feelings that persist over a period of time. They are never concrete, which might be why I used to ignore them. But I don’t ignore them anymore because they are an emergency alarm that inform me that replanning is needed.
So, now when I feel that I’ve reached an organic point of planning, I follow my new emergency routine and break out my four-step process.
Sherlocking My Systems — The Process
Step 1: Take Time
As soon as possible, I set aside time to focus. During this time, I’m not allowed to think about project briefs, client emails, grocery lists or whatever tends to occupy my mind. It also includes wearing a silly hat to put me in the right mindset. That part is of course optional, but try it out – you will be amazed how big a difference the right hat can do.
Step 2: Sherlock Your Systems
I then go to my systems like a detective. While I brew a big pot of coffee, I try to remember the earliest signs that something was “off.” I then take out all my systems and go through my “data” starting from one week before the first day I felt off. I try to find patterns in it that can be the “clues” to solving the puzzle of my discontent. Was there a specific event that set it off? How were my projects performing? What was my main focus (and did I stick to it)?
Step 3: Relax Your Mind
When I’ve gone through it all, I put it aside and do whatever I most want to do in that moment. I do yoga, eat fries, watch a movie, meditate, watch pelicans fly by or soak in the tub. Whatever I feel like and whatever makes me relax. I let my mind drift. This is often the hardest part to do because it feels more productive to go back to work, but it is a crucial step because it lets my mind work on its own. Nine out of ten times the answer to the puzzle will come to me during this time. The patterns in the data I’ve looked through will start to emerge. If they don’t appear, I don’t fret about it. My brain is processing the data, and it will give me an answer at some point.
Step 4: Solve the Puzzle & Replan
When the patterns have appeared the root cause of my issue is often so clear that the solution presents itself at once. If it doesn’t, I ponder it for a while or seek advice from a trusted friend. Once I know the solution, I go through my plans and change them accordingly, thereby pulling my tracks back in place or laying them on a better route.
The Organic Replanning in Action
The first time I followed this routine I had been feeling frustrated and agitated for a while but had no idea why. After going through the above steps, I found a pattern of failing to finish tasks that didn’t have hard deadlines. I had so many plans that I couldn’t keep up. Without realizing it my frustration level had increased because I felt a little sting of disappointed every time a task had to be moved.
With that knowledge in mind, I modified my systems so they had better time-tracking features and were optimized to show when I started to fall behind on a task. For the next couple of weeks, I tracked my time vigorously to better understand my time-use. I realized that I grossly overestimated what was possible to cram into a week.
I needed to make my plans more realistic, so I started to replan. I felt awful while doing it. Taking down goals, which I had expected to be able to reach, made me feel depressed and claustrophobic. It was the anti-feeling to the success color-change of my conditionally formatted spreadsheets. But it had to be done, otherwise, I would have collapsed completely under the weight of my own expectations. As an added bonus it also made me realize which of all my goals really meant something to me.
When I love systems as much as I do, it is not only because they keep me motivated. They also save me from myself. The process of stepping back and reassessing my own path has saved me countless times. But the process is only possible when I can see my steps. The systems I’m using can supply me with the data that I need in order to make changes on more than a confusing gut feeling or unclear memories.
This process helps me adjust when I do something too much or too little. It helps me find the balance between the things in my life I need to do, want to do and dream of doing.
And by the way, I don’t smoke a pipe and I don’t own a deerstalker hat. So in real life, it looks more like this (it’s a Scandinavian licorice pipe):