Zia Hassan

Systems Thinking And My Deficiencies

We’re all born with gifts, and we’re all born with anti-gifts. Skills that seem to come naturally to others but are a total mystery to us.

One of those, for me, is Tetris. Being able to fit pieces into gaps, being able to think ahead in a spatial way… are not skills in which I excel.

I’m also bad at having a thick skin. As a highly sensitive person, this never came naturally to me. Other things that never came naturally include being organized and punctual. Maybe it was nature, maybe nurture, but it doesn’t matter.

Somewhere around college, I’d had enough of being late with things, forgetting appointments, and letting people down. So I started reading about the GTD system, which I’ve written about many times, and implementing not only changed my life, but I would argue it saved my life.

It was the first “system” I’d ever tried, and the results were monumental and still help me today, 15 or so years later. I became obsessed. What other systems might help me fill in the gaps that my deficiencies have left me with?

To name a few:

  1. The Konmarie tidying system could help me organize my physical objects more effectively, though I haven’t really implemented it fully.
  2. A weight training program, like New Rules of Lifting, has helped me tremendously. I no longer need to figure out what to do at the gym. I follow the prescribed steps, and I see results.
  3. Meal kit systems like Hello Fresh or Plated have taught me how to cook after years and years of trying.
  4. Goal and Habit Trackers, and the so-called Seinfeld system, or don’t break the chain, has helped me stay active in my projects (in addition to having a functional to do list).
  5. The system outlined in The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg has helped me to change my habits in ways that I was oblivious to before.

Now, any time that I need to make a huge change to my life, I create some kind of system. When my son was born, I developed a system for keeping our house tidy so that we wouldn’t raise him living in clutter. It’s probably something that a naturally organized and tidy person wouldn’t need, but I have tried for years to stay tidy with no luck. So far, we’ve gotten lots of surprised faces at how clean our house is when people come over.

When I worked in the classroom, my students can tell you that we had a ton of systems. One of them, for instance, included see through folders on the wall, one for each student in alphabetical order, for them to turn in work. I could see whose work was missing, and collect the papers in alphabetical order, which reduced the cognitive effort needed to input the grades into a spreadsheet.

I developed a system for giving feedback on 4th grade essays which was pretty complex, but it allowed me to enter in multiple rubric scores and automatically generate a checklist and paragraph of feedback for each student. I could grade 60 one-paragraph papers in about 20 minutes on a good day, whereas the process used to take hours.

I outline my process for making a system as such:

  • I figure out what my system will automate in my life. Even if it’s not technology oriented, instilling a habit so that a process is nearly automatic (like brushing your teeth every morning) takes away the cognitive load.
  • I do research to figure out what may have worked for other people.
  • I figure out the exact steps and frequency of the steps needed to achieve a functional habit loop or system where I don’t need to intervene too much.
  • I implement it and scale it and review it. If it works, I keep it, and if it’s not working, I adjust it.

There are many people who laugh at the lengths I go through to create and maintain these systems, but that’s because they’re missing the point. The point of these systems is to make life a little less chaotic, yes, but it’s also to remove a lot of unnecessary thinking so that I can focus on being a creative parent and consultant.

This is not always easy work. In fact, it’s difficult quite often. There are some systems I’ve been tweaking for years.

But… it is a lot better than waking up every day and trying to tackle the day in an improvisatory way.