As I was preparing for a recent interview on ‘Productivity for Perfectionists’, one of the examples I thought it might be useful to talk about (which we didn’t get to!) was the difference between creating a system or a set of rules to solve a problem or resolve a situation, versus allowing a system or a set of rules to evolve to fit what we are doing naturally. It’s a common enough question that I thought I’d share my perspective separately from that interview.
It looks as if the system is giving us some structure and some support to get things done, right?
I’m not so sure…
Productivity is All About Systems. (isn’t it??)
We so often assume that a set of rules, or a system, or a ‘boundary’ is going to be the solution to a sticky problem we have.
Take Louise. Louise is a coach, she’s creating some new projects that she’s hugely passionate about and found herself in a muddle about whether, and what to charge for.
Cathy, I need to set up some rules here so I know what to do. Can we talk about that?
Maybe you’ve experienced yourself doing this with a difficult person in your life, or when a certain behaviour shows up in someone else?
Or maybe it resonates in relation to that project you want to get done:
I need to be more disciplined and set aside writing time in order to get my book done…!
…so you go looking for the best writing system.
Any of those scenarios sound familiar?
What’s Actually True?
I understand that it looks as if the system will solve the challenge we’re facing.
We want to finish the book, so setting aside time is the solution. Isn’t it?
In Louise’s case, she wanted to feel a greater sense of peace and more clarity about what she was charging for and what was free, and she thought setting up some guidelines would create those feelings for her.
Well, first off, she’s connecting a desired feeling with the outcome of an action — and who knows, maybe she’ll feel calmer if she charges, or maybe she’ll feel calmer if she makes participation in her project free. There’s no guarantee either way because those things are independent of each other.
And, secondly, and more importantly in the context of productivity, we’re looking at the effect of what we do, not the cause.
What Do We Know to Do?
In my case, I’m involved in quite a few pro bono projects alongside my paid coaching.
Louise could see that and I think it was one of the reasons she thought this would be helpful to discuss — what had I done that she could learn from?
What I’d done was simply to follow my nose about the sorts of activities I wanted to to, and whether to give away my time and expertise on those projects. There had been very little conscious thought on my part.
At a certain point, I noticed that my pro bono activities tended towards organising and participating in talks, and especially those linked to my political-socio-economic interests. Whereas my paid activities tended towards coaching clients, individuals and organisations, and any one to one work or training I did with them for them.
I hadn’t started out with that boundary in mind; it had evolved.
I was noticing it in hindsight, not creating it as a way to make future decisions, although, having noticed that it seemed to be working for me, it was a general guideline I could follow in future, if I wanted to.
What’s Really Going On?
What’s really going on here is that I’m following what feels like the right choice in any single moment. I’m not saying I always get this right and that I don’t sometimes wish I hadn’t got involved in something for free, or that I’d maybe not been so quick to put a fee on something, but, when that happens, I know I’ve fallen out of alignment with what I know to be true and I try to step back into that place.
It’s the same with productivity systems.
Systems can be great, but they’ve evolved from what someone else found to be true for them.
And, sure, they might give you a shortcut, or some ideas to experiment with, but, on the other hand, they might simply give you more to think about.
Let’s say I’m writing a book and I know deep in my soul this is the right thing for me to focus on. Two things could happen. One, I could find myself having written 1500 words without knowing how any of them got onto the page. Or, two, I could agonise over all the hours I’m not writing and think that following someone else’s ‘get ‘er done’ system will solve that.
So I try it, and it works!
It isn’t because of the system. It’s because my desire to write is so strong and my wisdom has pulled me in the direction of trying a system to help me stay out of distraction.
The actual system I choose matters less than the fact I’ve been able to step out of my obsessive self-criticism, and take action regardless of the mental noise.
It isn’t the system that creates the result. What’s at play here is that, when I allow my self-judgement to settle, I can start to see a solution and I’m out of my head long enough to give it a try.
The system evolves from what we find ourselves doing. Not vice versa.
As I said to my friend yesterday in the productivity interview,
You are less in the driving seat than you think you are.
She laughed, but it was the kind of laugh where she sees the grain of truth and how much she sometimes fights it.
About the author
Cathy Presland is an expert in transformative leadership. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus as a coach is to support impact-driven individuals and organisations to improve their performance, leadership and peace of mind so they can make more of a difference with the work they do. Find out more at https://cathypresland.com