Epistemic status: Anecdotally strong
Many of the flawed heuristics and biases that the Systemization unit seeks to address are well-known and well-researched (such as the planning fallacy and failure to account for switching costs). The underlying theory of attention draws on a combination of Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory and anecdotal research from thinkers like Richard Thaler and David Allen. The combination of all of these into a generalized strategic intervention has been useful to large numbers of alumni, but has not been rigorously tested and may not be testable in the broadest sense.
The act of systemizing something has many advantages. You pay a (relatively) large cost up front, and save yourself from repeated future costs. You can lock in the best or most efficient version of a process, and then future training and ingraining only reinforces that best version. Often, the process of generating a system forces you to examine your goals and leads to greater insight into what you’re doing, and you can use the extra time and attention you’ve freed up either to do more of what you were already doing, or to add new things to your roster.
Not everything in your life needs to be systemized, of course. Some things deserve the “artisanal treatment”—if part of what you love about cooking is the exploration and improvisation, then there may be no need to systemize a list of meals and ingredients and recipes (though you might still benefit from tweaking the layout and contents of your kitchen). And there are many tasks and activities that are small enough, infrequent enough, or low-cost enough that it’s not worth the up-front investment of thinking through and building a robust system.
Most of our participants, though, find that there is a lot of opportunity for gain from systemization. Try mentally running through the following domains, looking for things that snag or require effort or are annoying or consume a lot of attention:
Waking up: Dealing with the alarm, using the bathroom or shower, getting dressed, gathering the things you need for the day
Meals: Deciding what to eat (and when), shopping, budgeting, taking care of dishes and leftovers
Work: Commute, getting settled, parts of your job that tend to be the same week in and week out
Computer: Startup, tab and window management, sites that you rou- tinely visit and programs that you regularly use
Social: Connecting with friends, planning get-togethers, using email and Facebook and other social media
Bedroom: laundry, clutter, lighting, temperature, floor space, outlets
Bathroom: shower supplies, drawers/medicine cabinet, toilet paper, towels, toothbrush/shaving
Kitchen: sink/dishwasher, cabinets, pantry, fridge, pots/pans/utensils
Living room: furniture, blankets/pillows, bookshelves, entertainment system, plants, carpet
Vehicle: electronics, music, trash/clutter, seats, storage
Workspace: desk, chair, computer, outlets, food
Bag/briefcase/backpack: weight, organization, clutter
Shoulds and obligations
Physical health: eating habits, exercise, medical issues, rest
Financial well-being: banking, budgeting, investments
Intellectual growth: reading, problem solving, formal education
Close relationships: family, friends, loved ones, colleagues
Career: work/life balance, projects, job changes
Emotional well-being: hobbies, sleep, communication and support
Community: volunteering, church/school/club obligations, neighbor- hood events
When setting up productivity systems, changing routines, or streamlining existing habits, many people focus on how to do everything they feel responsible for. In practice, this is often a losing game—the better we get at taking care of everything, the more we tend to take on, and so we always feel behind no matter how much we’re getting done.
Instead, we recommend a specific focus on freeing attention. The question to ask is, “How can I rearrange my environment or my way of interacting with it so that [insert responsibility] takes as little of my attention as possible?” Another good framing is “How can I make problems like this one take care of themselves to the greatest possible degree?” In this way, your systems are acting like personal assistants or secretaries, taking care of the routine and technical tasks and freeing you up to do the more important and interesting work.
In practice, you’ll probably want many systems, each one addressing a different class of distractions. You might use a list to simplify shopping, for instance, but rely on an algorithm for cleaning the kitchen. Some people succeed at using a single master system to keep track of everything, but most people find that the attentional overhead of maintaining one large framework ends up not being worthwhile.
Motivating Perspective #1: Increasing Marginal Returns
One oft-underappreciated currency is undivided attention.
Most people are aware that undivided attention is good in a vague, unspecified sense. They know that they like it when they can deeply focus on a movie they’re watching, or on a date with their romantic partner, or on an art project they’re enjoying.
Few people, though, are aware of just how powerful one’s full, undivided attention can be. Complete and non-distracted focus is a crucial ingredient to flow, à la the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a central component of “maker time,” as opposed to “manager time.” It’s one of the most important prerequisites for deep interpersonal connection.
(And, from a more CFAR-ish perspective: it’s only when we are awake and conscious and fully attentive that it’s possible to take non-default actions, and even have a hope of outperforming our unthinking autopilot.)
Part of why so many people have so few moments of undivided attention in their day-to-day lives is that, once distractions begin to accumulate, it’s easy to lose sight of the value of clearing them away.
Imagine being in a room with a dozen people who are literally constantly screaming at the top of their lungs.
If I were to ask you how much money you would pay to have one of them shut up and go away, you probably wouldn’t give a very high number! Even if one of them goes silent, there will still be eleven more; the marginal return on removing one screaming person is quite low.
However, if there were only three such people, such that peace and quiet was conceivably within reach, you might be tempted to make a larger offer. And if there was only one, you might be willing to pay quite a lot.
The removal of painful distractions, in other words, is a process with increasing marginal returns. Getting rid of the first distraction buys you very little—getting rid of the last is an enormous boost in the quality of your experience.
What this means, in practice, is that people will tend to undervalue removing distractions in general, since the payoff is distant. But the only way to get to the state where you can remove that last, final screaming person is to develop a policy/habit of chipping away at the pile even when the cost of doing so seems to exceed the immediate benefit.
Motivating Perspective #2: TAPs
In the TAPs portion of this sequence, we talked a lot about tinkering with your autopilot—replacing bad actions with better ones, sometimes building in entirely new if-thens.
What we did not mention is that there is a whole other “half” to the autopilot perspective. If you think of [your trigger-action patterns] as a set of responses to stimuli, then one way to improve things is to tinker with those responses.
But another way is to change the incoming stimuli.
In other words, you could (likely) make massive improvements to your life without ever changing a single TAP—provided you could make sure that the only triggers you experienced were those which lead to actions-you-consider-good-according-to-your-values.
This is the same sort of advice as “surround yourself with good people” or “find a vocation that makes you happy,” except that you can apply this perspective to all of your TAPs.
Systemization, then, is the art of improving the outcome of [interactions between the environment and your autopilot] via changes to the environment.
Qualities of good attention-saving systems
Effortless. Many people try to stick to a new diet through sheer force of will. Even when this works, it tends to be a poor allocation of resources. It’s better to do an upstream intervention, such as emptying your house of unacceptable foods and stocking the kitchen with easy- to-grab items from the new diet. Generally speaking, beware systems that require either ongoing discipline or continuous decision-making, and instead look for places where a single burst of willpower or effort can create savings down the line.
Reliable. If you ask your significant other to remind you to get your mother a birthday present, you’ve increased their attentional load without meaningfully eliminating the chance you’ll drop the ball. You want your systems to be as close to foolproof as possible, with dependable reminders and hard-to-miss, objective checks. That way, your emotional mind will be able to actually let go of things once they’re in the system (for example, you might set a location-based reminder in your phone, so that it pings you about your mother’s birthday the next time you’re at the mall).
Invisible. If you put a sticky note on your refrigerator to remind you to take out the trash on Thursdays, you’ll see that reminder every time you look in the fridge. Not only does this take up a minuscule amount of attention in the moment, it also clutters up the space so that the items which do matter at any given moment are less likely to be noticed. Wherever possible, it’s best to make the parts of your system invisible. You could, for instance, make a secondary Google calendar for recurring reminders like the trash, set it to send text reminders, and then keep it hidden.
Advice for getting started
Pay attention. The first step in finding intervention points is noticing the frictions in your life (and the opportunities!). Before launching on a restructuring of the environment around you, spend a week snapping your fingers or making a note on your phone every time something snags your attention in a way you don’t endorse.
Set external reminders. If you want to give a note to a colleague at work, you can fold the paper over the top of your laptop in your bag so that you remember when you get there (and no sooner).
Establish a routine. Putting your keys in a box by the front door each time you come home and then taking the contents of the box with you when you leave gives you an easy way to remember to take things with you. Some people keep their kitchen tidy by (a) always putting dirty dishes straight into the dishwasher, (b) running their dishwasher every night, and (c) always putting the clean dishes away in the morning.
Shape others’ expectations regarding communication. Replying quickly to email trains others to expect that they can reach you quickly by email, which makes it costly to respond slowly in the future. If you instead delay your replies (or send them later using a service like Boomerang) and ask people to call you when there’s an emergency, you can remove the need for things like phone notifications.
Eliminate unneeded communication. When you get an email, ask if you could have done without seeing it, and—if so—how you can avoid seeing anything like it again (e.g. by unsubscribing). The same applies for postal mail, phone calls, etc. (not including communications you do want to see, such as important work memos or friends trying to get in touch with you to plan an outing).
Use checklists. If something is important or complex but infrequent, write down what you do as you do it, so that you have something to refer to in the future (instead of using your attention to remember how it’s done). For example, a checklist can prevent you from having to relearn how to file your income tax return every April.
Outsource. You can pay professionals to design your exercise routine and fix your car, or hire part-time assistants to help with shopping or sort through routine communications. These types of services are often justifiable from a financial perspective, but they are sometimes worth taking advantage of even where they seem like a luxury (e.g. house- keeping), because they generally free you up to be more productive even if it’s not in a moneymaking capacity.
Use inboxes. When an idea comes to mind in a conversation, jot it down in a pocket notebook, or send yourself a quick text. Use a voice recorder or speech-to-text app when in the car. Make it easy for yourself to have ideas and store them without them needing to take up your attention for more than a few seconds.
Triage. If you simply chose not to do the task in question, would anything bad happen? If not, just don’t do it. Afterward, if it turns out that your prediction was correct, see if you can devise a way to prevent similar tasks from catching your attention in the future.
Most systems don’t work perfectly (or even at all) on the first pass. For instance, many people who hire housekeepers find themselves spending just as much time dealing with the fact that the housekeeper has rearranged everything as they would have simply doing the cleaning themselves. In practice, it’s quite rare for a system to work seamlessly right from the start.
Fortunately, one viable solution is—systems! Just as you can create a TAP to remind you to use TAPs, so too can you systemize the process of installing and iterating systems. In other words, you can organize your environment and habits such that your systems trend toward taking less and less attention, rather than needing a constant level of upkeep.
Generally speaking, most meta-systems revolve around some form of feedback loop in which you evaluate and revise your systems after letting them run for a while. These evaluations may be regular (e.g. a one-hour slot set aside every Wednesday, in which you run down your list of systems and check them against standard concerns), as-needed (e.g. you write down problems as they arise, and set aside a block of time to deal with them when it’s convenient), or opportunistic (e.g. you solve problems when you notice them, but only if you have the spare cycles).
Because meta-systems are themselves systems, they should be self-reflective—that is, a meta system should be capable of drawing your attention to its own flaws and making it easy (or at least less costly) to address them. Any elements of your meta-system that are awkward, have high overhead, require regular effort, or otherwise use up attention should be transitional as you work toward effortlessness, reliability, and invisibility.
A general systemizing algorithm
1. Choose an aspect of your life to systemize
Something that regularly costs attention
Something that is awkward, effortful, or annoying • Something you are confident can be improved
2. Identify the specific snags or attention-sucks, and think of targeted interventions to address each one
Do mindful walk-throughs or other aversion factoring subskills
Allow yourself to brainstorm silly or intractable ideas
Look upstream of the moment of distraction for its root cause
Steelman your options—if you have several ideas in mind, is there a way to mutate one so that it has all of the virtues of the others?
3. Reality check
Use your inner simulator, your outer advisors (friends, colleagues), and other methods to check whether you actually believe your system will work once it’s in place (or whether you will successfully put it into place at all), and if not, fix it
Try the Murphyjitsu algorithm, with multiple iterations until you would be shocked at failure
Evaluate the system in terms of effort, or consider whether there are any common sense objections
4. Make a detailed plan
Write down every action you’ll need to take in order to get your new system up and running–are there internal changes you’ll need to make? Changes to your environment? Will you need to create TAPs, make purchases, recruit help?
Try goal factoring and internal double crux if you find yourself averse to the idea of making the initial investment
5. Put your plan into action
If at all possible, do the first few steps literally right now
If you can’t start immediately, create a TAP or set a reminder such that you’re actually confident you will remember, and actually confident the reminder will cause you to follow through
Keep track of problems and ideas for improvement in some central place where you won’t lose them
People tend to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task, an error known as the planning fallacy (Buehler et al., 2010). People focus on what they plan on doing, which is a best-case scenario, and do not adjust sufficiently for the many ways in which things could fail to go according to plan. People tend to make more accurate predictions when they take the “outside view” by considering how long it has typically taken to complete similar tasks in the past.
Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Peetz, J. (2010). The planning fallacy: Cognitive, motivational, and social origins. In M. P. Zanna & J. M. Olson (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Volume 43, pp. 1-62). San Diego: Academic Press. http://goo.gl/3s21N
Scott Adams, the author of the comic Dilbert, has written extensively about the virtues of accessible systems. He also offers several anecdotes that help to illustrate what high self-efficacy can look like even in situations involving repeated failure and apparent setbacks, in part by reframing instances of failure as integral to one’s systems for eventual success.
Adams, Scott. (2013) How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. New York: Penguin. http://goo.gl/P6RKhv
Commitment devices are tools that can help people combat akrasia by letting them impose additional consequences on themselves in the future, so that they will have incentives to act in a way that is consistent with their current goals. Beeminder is a commitment device developed and maintained by CFAR alumni where users set goals and paths toward those goals, and receive financial penalties if they stray too far from that path. The Beeminder blog also has multiple resources related to rationality in general. Complice is another alumni-made goal-setting device, geared more toward accountability for daily intentions, with a focus on strengthening the link between small actions and large plans.
Small factors can have a large effect at channeling a person’s behavior in a particular direction. Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) book Nudge reviews this area of research, including a classic study which found that students were far more likely to go get a tetanus shot after seeing a presentation on the benefits of the shot if they were also asked to check their schedule for a time when they were available to go to the health center. Understanding how these “channel factors” influence people’s behavior can help a person follow through on tasks more reliably.
Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. http://nudges.org/
Getting Things Done provides one system for carrying out one’s plans. David Allen’s GTD system includes identifying the “next actions” for each of your projects/tasks and the context where you will engage in each action. An advantage of this concrete advanced planning is that, when the specified context arises, the planned action can be triggered without a need for further deliberation or planning.
Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done
Another benefit that Allen cites for having an organized system for planning your actions is that it frees up attention, since it there is no need for a project to be on your mind if you can trust that it is in your system. A recent set of studies by psychologists Masicampo & Baumeister (2011) provides empirical support for this claim. They found that unfinished goals led to intrusive thoughts and worse performance on other tasks, but the intrusive thoughts disappeared among those who were given a chance to make specific plans for how to pursue their goal.
Masicampo, E.J., & Baumeister, R.F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 667-83. http://goo.gl/4UkT7
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for co-developing prospect theory, which is a model that merges economic theory with empirical results in experimental psychology. Prospect theory provides a framing for understanding why resources that are measured in terms of the absence of a negative (such as attention and lack of debt) will often have increasing marginal utility curves.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 263-291.
The book The Design of Everyday Things illustrates principles of design that are often valuable to integrate into the design of one’s systems.
Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things (revised and expanded edition). Basic books. http://goo.gl/jiN1JJ
I strongly recommend using handwriting instead of screens for taking notes, e.g. using one of those composition notebooks (which are cheap). Wasting paper as if it was a white board saves valuable time and energy, and worrying about logging is pretty ridiculous in the current climate change environment since the bad outcome will probably happen regardless of public opinion.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something seems to have gone horribly, horribly wrong with using screens and typing as a tool to assist with thinking.
Just thinking aloud:
you can’t “think” when your computer is off / when you are away from the computer;
waiting for the computer to start is an inconvenience;
writing on a smartphone is inconvenient, the screen is tiny;
computers/smartphones contain lots of addictions, you don’t want expose yourself to that whever you try to think (an offline analogy would be to only do thinking in a pub).
Computers definitely have a lot of downsides, but man I can just type so much faster than I can write in a notebook, and the resulting writing is so much easier to process.
A solution I recommend is having a room with an open laptop that has an open document and will not go into sleep mode, and having a “quiet room” with no screens were most of the thinking happens. Or, simple stand up and walk behind the laptop. The important thing is not to be gazing into the screen while thinking. And to maximize distance from any smartphone.
Since most of what I think about is policy/cybersecurity/foreign affairs, this is categorically untrue in my case. Depending on a computer to think about those kinds of things is a massive liability, because on those topics the internet is often not on your side. But that might not be the case at all for things like quantitative thinking or software engineering.
Systemizing has large up-front costs for diminished repeated costs
Not everything needs systemization: maybe you like your inefficient process, or the costs are too infrequent to bother.
Common routines: waking up, meals, work routines, computer, social
Familiar spaces: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, vehicle, workspace, backpack
Shoulds/Obligations: Physical health, finances, intellectual growth, close relationship, career, emotional well-being, community
Framing: instead of trying to “do everything”, focus on “freeing up attention”
Systems as “personal assistants”
Consider having several smaller systems instead of one overarching framework
Increasing Marginal Returns: attention is a prerequisite for flow, deep connection, and non-default actions
The returns are increasing since removing the first distraction is not worth much in a sea of distractions, but the last is
TAP-interactions: Instead of changing responses, improve the triggers
Qualities of good attention-saving systems: Effortless, reliable (otherwise it’s not attention-freeing), invisible (the triggers should be specific, and not always be visible)
Advice for getting started:
Pay attention to friction (e.g., by collecting them for a week)
Set external reminders
Establish a routine
Shape other’s expectations regarding communication
Eliminate unneeded communication, e.g., email newsletters
Use checklists (e.g. for travel or income tax)
Outsource routines (housekeeping) or routine building (e.g., personal trainer)
Triage (can a task also not be done?)
Systems don’t work from the start, and also not forever. Solution:
Systemize the implementation/adaptation of your systems. Options:
Regular (e.g., weekly) time
Irregular, based on a running list of system-problems
Immediately when problems arise
Choose an aspect to be systemized (e.g., costs attention, is effortful, and can be improved)
Think of attention sinks and ideas to address them (maybe: aversion-factoring, understanding the cause of the distraction)
Reality check (with Myrphyjitsu, effort assessment, common sense objections)
Make a plan (set up TAPs, changes in the environment, buy things)
Put the plan into action (start right now or create the next action; have a review system in place)