The power of systems and routines
Jerry Seinfeld is arguably the most successful comedian. In just one year, he made 267 million dollars. He is exceptionally funny, but his mornings can be predictable, and some people may even think boring. But what if I told you that his boring routine is the secret to his success?
Every morning, he sits down with a yellow legal pad and some coffee, shuts off all distractions, and starts writing. He does it every single day and never breaks the chain.
That’s Jerry’s system.
Why are systems so important?
Systems are nothing but habits that you perform regularly. If you take a pen and paper to write down and review your list of priorities every Monday morning, then that’s a system. Or you could have something a bit more complex that you do every day: to collect new ideas, you may keep notebooks at various places in the home (including in the shower) and note things down periodically, and then at the end of the day, you might collate them together and enter them in a spreadsheet.
As James Clear puts it,
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Your systems help you get to the goal. If your goal is to run a marathon, well, that’s the destination. You need to build the roadways to get to your destination and the journey. The system lets you do that. Remember what the legendary coach Bill Walsh said:
The score takes care of itself.
So the only way to get to your goal is to have good systems, which is obvious once you realize that both winners and losers set goals.
Systems enforce consistency, and with consistency comes the benefits of compounding, which lets you get to the 10x in your craft.
Some other examples
Matthew Dicks is an acclaimed storyteller who has won the Moth StorySLAM a whopping 53 times. He has a few systems in place, of which one is to take a few minutes every day to write down some story worth moments that happened in a day in a spreadsheet.
Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist, made extensive use of a note-taking system called Zettelkasten to become a prolific researcher. He published over 70 books and 400 articles. His formal education didn’t consist of a PhD.
Ryan Holiday uses a similar note-taking system to collect ideas for his books. His book Obstacle is the way has sold more than 1 million copies (and which I have read and enjoyed).
Henri Poincaré, the famous mathematician, physicist, and engineer (who was also a polymath), not surprisingly had a system (according to Wikipedia):
He worked during the same times each day in short periods of time. He undertook mathematical research for four hours a day, between 10 a.m. and noon then again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.. He would read articles in journals later in the evening.
How to build your system?
Once you identify what is important for you, you should be able to get a rough sense of the system will get you there. As Bhagavad Gita says, “Far better to live your own path imperfectly, than to live another's perfectly.” So go ahead and figure out the system that works best for you. This is also why the best TODO system is the one that works for you.
A system is nothing but a habit, so use all the toolkits out of habit building process. I wrote about how I picked up some habits earlier. I highly recommend the book Atomic Habits as well.
On becoming boring
These systems sound like they make a machine out of a person. What about serendipity and randomness? Good systems actually free up more time, so that you can enjoy several other serendipity inducing activities.
You have to be boring to become interesting. So don’t fret it.
So what are your systems?