All Systems Go: Cranking Out Repetitive Tasks in Record Time

by Annie

in brain hacks, ruthless productivity, systematic

Hand holding a gear against a burst of light backgroundYes. It’s the “S” word.

Systems.

I know, I know … but bear with me. I would be willing to bet some small yet significant amount of money that you haven’t read anything on business systems that’s like what you’re about to read right here …

Why Create Work Systems

Most efficiency, work productivity, marketing, and business coach experts will agree that small biz peeps can drastically undercut their own chances at successful growth by failing to set up sensible, workable systems in their businesses.

The reason is obvious: scale. What works when you have 1 or 2 clients will not work nearly so neatly with 10 or 20 clients.

Put another way: a system — a routine set of tasks designed to simplify and to some degree automate tasks or processes that are regularly repeated in a small business’s operations — will save you time and mental energy (maybe even money, too), which you can then devote to more CEO-hat-wearing endeavors. Like planning. Like strategizing. Like pounding back tequila shooters at the neighborhood raw bar … oh wait, that last one might just be me.

Systems have indeed been trumpeted far and wide across the small business web as a must-have, a Holy Grail.

OK, if systems are all that, and everybody oughtta have ’em, then why isn’t anyone actually telling you how to create them???

Because …

(come closer, I’m gonna tell you a secret … )

… creating a system is freaking HARD. 

Shh. I never told you that.

OK, screw that: I totally did. I’ll even say it again, somewhat more emphatically: Systems creation is mind-numbing, time-consuming, complex, difficult work.

And you should still totally do it, ’cause it works. The payoff is worth the crap you have to wade through to get there.

But let me reiterate: it takes time. This is not something you’re gonna get done today, most likely. OK? OK! ONWARD!

Getting Started With System Creation: Identify Your Target

The first step in creating a workable system that can save you time/money/effort is figuring out just where in the course of your work day/week/month a viable target for a system might be lurking.

Targets, in this context, are basically any task or project or process that gets repeated on some basis.

Note: One-off tasks that are unique to a particular client or context might benefit from systems creation but the payoff will usually be low, compared to the time it takes to create the system. Small biz owners will profit much more from systemizing crap that gets done on some recurring basis.

How do you begin to identify targets? Well, cupcake, there are basically three ways to do it:

  1. The Super-Easy Way: Look at your time log. (If you’ve been playing along in October’s Productivity School at this site, you’ve got one week’s worth of logs already.) Identify the repeating tasks. Whatever recurs could be a potential system target.
  2. The Fairly-Easy Way: Hire a coach. For some reason, it’s much easier for an objective outsider to spot potential targets for systemization than for the business owner herself. I think it’s because in our own “houses,” so to speak, we don’t see our days or weeks as a series of discrete actions, usually. A good business coach, though, can take that perspective and help you figure out where systems can help you.
  3. The Not-Quite-So-Easy Way: Analyze yourself and your business. This method requires you to sort of split up your consciousness as you go about your business day/week/whatever, with one half of you paying attention to the task at hand and the other half of you observing you as you go about that task. It’s not as easy as looking at a piece of paper — it requires sustained, focused attention — or as hiring someone else to figure it out for you, but it does work. And the benefit here is that nobody knows your business as well as you do.

Still need some help pinpointing these areas? Here are a few examples of how I’ve worked with clients over the years to create systems in various kinds of small businesses. Maybe some of them will apply in your business.

  • Invoicing, collecting, and recording fees
  • Blogging (that’s a huge one, actually)
  • Client intake procedures
  • Networking with potential referral sources
  • Keeping necessary supplies and tools well-stocked
  • Email processing
  • Scheduling and reminders
  • Actual work processes (for lawyers, virtual assistants, bloggers, web developers, and one aspiring novelist)

Once you’ve got a list of repeated tasks that you can work with, try to pick one to work on initially. Which one? Entirely up to you, hot shot. You know your business better than anyone.

So, ask yourself a few questions.

Where’s the pain coming from in this list?

What hampers you most, out of all the potential targets?

Which process makes you grit your teeth, triggers your procrastination reflex, causes every good feeling to go fleeing out of your body when you even think about doing it?

That’s a good place to start.

Let It Flow

Once you’ve picked your first target, spend some time getting to know that process intimately. Whatever it is, and without changing it at all right now, dissect it like the creepy Area 51 scientist in Independence Day did to that alien. (Except without the ick factor or the risk of strangulation via tentacle …. oops, spoiler alert!)

One of the best ways to start this process that I’ve found is by creating a flow chart. Yeah, just like in school. It forces you to analyze each step and, simultaneously, each mental decision-making process that accompanies each step.

This is what you’re working with — your raw material, if you will.

Now, take a step back — you know the drill: take a walk, take a hike, go for a swim, dance around the living room, whatever — change your physical posture and stop thinking about it. Let it simmer for a bit on the back burner. After the break, come back to the list and move on to the next step.

Creating Your New and Improved System

See what I did there? How I snuck in the fact that you’ve already got systems in place — had ’em from the beginning, in fact?

Yeah, it’s true: we’re not so much creating systems as re-creating and refining and improving them.

See, everything’s a system, in one sense. It might be the most inelegant, inartful, complicated, complex, fucked-up system on the planet, but it’s still a system.

What we’re after here? The opposite. The elegant solution. The artful process. The simplified, the sensible, the effective and efficient.

So looking at each step in your flow chart, start brainstorming. As if your very life depended on it, come up with a better way to do it. A simpler way. A way that does not require the reinvention of the wheel, that handles each piece of information or data once and only once, that captures input easily and in a way that allows you to retrieve it easily.

And finally: don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a one-shot deal. Your systems should be flexible, and always prone to refinement. As new tools become available to the marketplace, or new ideas about old tools become common knowledge, you can apply those tools and ideas to your own systems. Get in the habit of asking periodically “Could this work in my business? Would this make things easier or harder? Cheaper or more expensive?”

Tomorrow, I’m going to share some case studies of specific systems I’ve helped clients create and a few I’ve worked up for myself, too. ‘Cause examples rock, right?

‘Til then, go forth and systemize brilliantly, my friends.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tea Silvestre October 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Excellent advice, Annie. Reminded me of E-myth stuff (you know, the stuff that will ultimately help us create profitable businesses that we might be able to sell at some point). Documenting our systems makes hiring people and growing easier, too. Thanks for the refresher!
Tea Silvestre recently posted..Stella Anokam of StellaAnokam.com

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Annie October 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Heya Tea! Damn it – yeah, that’s right here in the notes I carefully prepared for this post and then studiously ignored: “record system – when you grow/outsource, file will help you train new workers or create job descript. for outsourcing…” You are SO right!

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Sharon Hurley Hall October 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Great advice, Annie. I’ve found it useful to use a time tracker that shows where I spend my time, such as RescueTime or Chrometa or another one. That helps to alert me to possible time-wasting.
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Enhanced Freelance Interview

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Annie October 17, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Thanks Sharon! Good resources there. Also Freshbooks has a built in timer that will also automatically log your tasks into your time sheets. Pretty freaking cool.

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Nicole Fende October 17, 2011 at 5:52 pm

@Annie & @Tea the outsourcing motivator is a big one for me. Especially if its something I hate to do. The sooner it a system is in place, the sooner I can give it to someone else!
Nicole Fende recently posted..Turning Lemons Into a Whole Lemonade Business | Interview with Haralee Weintraub

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Annie October 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Using outsourcing planning as motivation … dude. That’s BRILLIANT.

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Caelan Huntress July 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Snorted out my coffee. “It might be the most inelegant, inartful, complicated, complex, fucked-up system on the planet, but it’s still a system.”

Just like, “It might be an inelegant, inartful, complicated, fucked-up business, but if it brings you money, its still a business.” Or a relationship. Or a life.

I’m making my flowcharts now.
Caelan Huntress recently posted..Ebook Design and Copywriting

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Annie July 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Hope it was decent coffee. There’s nothing worse than snorting out BAD java … Rock on, mi compadre.

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