Designing Good Systems To Get More Done

Illustration by Faridah Faiz

TL;DR

  • I may or may not have ADD, but it doesn't matter - I've built good systems over the years to compensate.

  • Five principles of good system design.

  • Three examples of systems that work in my personal life (and two that don't).

My sister was officially diagnosed with Inattentive ADHD (formerly known as ADD) late last year. Everything that we had struggled with productivity-wise suddenly started to make sense.


That's a topic that deserves its own post - I feel very strongly that ADHD can be a person's strongest asset if managed well. If you met my sister in real life, you'd be surprised that she even had ADHD at all; she thrives at work, all her bosses love her and she's a fantastic project manager. In the words of Tracy Otsuka, host of 'ADHD for Smart Ass Women':


In our community of women with ADHD, we have professors, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. We have women who manage budgets in the billions and women who don’t but now know that they can. What these women have in common is the shared belief that they are successful because of their ADHD, not in spite of it. They are in the right environment, working in an area that takes advantage of their natural strengths and interests. These women are action-oriented. They don’t think about what they can’t do or what they wish they could do. They go out and do it.

In my case, her diagnosis came as a relief because there's a higher likelihood that I may have it too since it's hereditary. Everything I've been trying to manage about myself would make more sense. My natural state, with or without ADHD, meant that I had to manufacture more structure in my day-to-day to mitigate my weaknesses. My traits are mild yet significant enough that I need systems to function - I definitely wouldn't have been able to survive Big Four life without them.


Before we get into what systems and tools I use, and how you can design your own, it's best that we cover a basic framework you can apply when designing any system to manage your personal life.

Through trial and error, I've worked out that every system should ideally have all of these traits to be a good system:



1. Accountability: Create a peer pressure effect. 2. Automation: Set and forget. This helps tasks become almost habit-like.

3. Gamification: Getting rewarded for it.

4. Seamless: Very little friction. Easy to do.

5. Regular review: If the system isn't working as intended, detect early and recalibrate. This often requires a data collection component because you need enough data to understand if it's actually working or not.


Any system I created that 'failed', i.e. didn't help me achieve what I set out to achieve, usually lacks more than one of the five. Like my failed exercise habit and poor sleep habits. More on that later.


An important thing to highlight is that the tools you use don't matter. You could be using sticky notes, or make use of iPhone automation like my brother using the Shortcuts app, or use a spreadsheet and a calendar. The point is not the tool. The tools will change over time. The point is the system.

That's pretty much it! Of course, it helps to put this all into context. Here are three examples of systems that work well in my personal life to help manage my scatterbrain and get things done:


1. Weekly Reviews

Every week, preferably every Sunday but sometimes on Mondays, my husband and I spend 30-40 minutes creating our Weekly Plan. Basically, we set goals for the upcoming week and review how we did in the last week.


Why it works:


Accountability: We have a joint Weekly Plan template on Notion, so we're forced to let the other person see our progress for the week. We also have to do the review together, so it creates a peer pressure effect to get things done.

Regular Review: Self-explanatory. In terms of data collection, we manage it differently but I find that Toggl is a great time tracking tool and informs me about how many hours I've spent on X. I've set up other trackers too depending on what the goal is for the week - Forest (for deep work hours), Apple's Health app (for weekly steps), etc.

Sample reports from Toggl, which help with the Weekly Review

Seamless: Fairly seamless because we created it on Notion, so all we have to do is press 'Duplicate' and just edit it for the upcoming week. It also doesn't take very long, which is why it doesn't feel like a chore to do. Gamification: Only a small element of gamification here - I created a recurring task on Todoist. So when we finish the review, I mark it as complete and get more Karma points (it's the little things in life, really).

Automation: It's not quite 'set and forget' but creating a set template is a form of automation. We tried doing it on a whim but it didn't work.


2. Daily Routine widget

This was inspired by Mike Boyd's Dopamine Box. Basically, he built a box that reminds him to complete six tasks every day. When he completes the tasks, he pushes a button assigned to that task and gets a mini dopamine rush. I don't have his engineering or coding skills (yet) to build something similar for myself, so the next best thing is Todoist. This is what I see whenever I unlock my phone:


Why it works:

Accountability: N/A (I'm only accountable to myself). Not ideal but the other features make up for it.

Regular Review: Having the Todoist widget on my phone means that it's the first thing I see every morning. So I review by default. It also allows me to see how long I've procrastinated on the task.

Seamless: Ditto. Widgets make it even more seamless now so it's much easier to do. Automation: Again, Todoist allows you to create recurring tasks, which is why it's the second most important app in my life (after Notion). I just set it to repeat daily. Gamification: Again, I earn Karma points on the app when I reach my Daily Goal. Simple, but so effective.


3. Evergreen Notes/Creative Workflow system


My brain is always buzzing - my husband knows better than to interrupt me mid-thought when we're conversing because I'll lose the idea almost immediately ("What was it you wanted to say?" he'll ask. "Er...I forgot!" is my usual reply). I have so many ideas bouncing around all the time but they almost never get converted into action points because I've forgotten the details. In short, I use the Notion and Todoist apps on my phone or laptop to capture all my ideas as and when it comes. These are just general inboxes to catch raw thoughts so I can review and process them later. I used a similar system at work all the time (because things come in hot and fast in audit) so it was just a matter of adapting it for personal use. The key is the apps always have to be front and centre, so as soon as I unlock my phone, I have access to the widgets. Then, when I get around to processing the thoughts, I either tidy it up to create an evergreen note or follow the following creative workflow if I need to create some sort of output:


Why it works:


Accountability: I created the system as a shared workspace with my husband, so it's only semi-accountable since we don't sit down and review the notes together. But it incentivises me to tidy it up regularly and not let the notes get out of control since I share the digital workspace with someone else.

Regular Review: Cleaning up the raw notes is part of my weekly review, so there's a recurring task on Todoist.

Seamless: Widgets are magic. Seamless because it doesn't matter if I'm on my phone or on my laptop, I can always catch the thought somehow. If neither are near me, I'll write it on the back of my hand (a trait that used to annoy friends at school or work but hey, it works!). Automation: Semi-automatic in the sense that it's not quite 'set and forget' but the system structure makes it almost habit-like for me now. Gamification: Again, Karma points on Todoist (I love that app) because I have a recurring task reminding me to review and clean up the Notion workspace and I can tick off a task whenever I need to create an output of some sort.

Conclusion


Having a systems-first mentality is more motivating than saying "Oh, I can't do [thing] because I'm easily distracted, forgetful and disorganised". It empowers you to gain more control over your day-to-day.


Not all of my systems are perfect. I haven't found a good system to get me to exercise consistently or have a regular sleep and wake schedule, for instance. But having this framework helps me identify where I can start making improvements.


As James Clear puts it, "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems".