Streamline Your Life

Quick note: Every Wedneday is Simplicity Day on Zen Habits, and for the next few weeks, these posts will be a series called Creating Simple Systems. This is the second in the series. The former series, “Edit Your Life,” will resume after a bit of a break.

If you ever feel like your life is a bit chaotic or unstructured, it’s most likely because you haven’t given enough thought to the various systems in your life — how you go about handling the different things in your life — and you haven’t streamlined those systems as possible.

What are systems? Basically anything that happens regularly in your life — errands, laundry, email, kids lunches, etc. And systems can be either simple or complicated — depending on whether you’ve given them some thought and streamlined them.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Laundry System
Complicated: You take off your clothes and leave them in a pile on a chair. Every now and then, you pick them up and toss them in a pile in the laundry room. When you have time, you might pick through them and throw in a load, dry them, and then toss the clean clothes on your bed, where they sit and get wrinkled until you need to wear them.
Simple: You take your clothes off and hang them (if they’re clean) or put them in a basket according to color (one for whites, one for colors, etc.). When one basket gets full, you throw it in the washer, dry them, fold them or hang them, and put them away. Alternatively, you could designate a laundry day.

Errands System
Complicated: You need some groceries, so you go to the grocery store. When you get home, you remember that you forgot the milk. The next day, you go and pay one of your bills. The next day, you remember you forgot to pay a second bill, and run out and do that during lunch. Then after work, you go and pick up some dog food. The next day, you criss cross all over town getting things ready for a party. Lots of driving and wasted gas.
Simple: You designate a single day as errands and grocery day. You keep an errands list and a running grocery list. The night before Errands Day, you plan your dinner menu for the next two weeks and complete your grocery list, then look at all the errands on your errands list and plan out the most efficient route. On Errands Day, you spend a couple of hours doing all the errands on your list and then buying all your groceries. One trip, planned efficiently, saves gas and multiple shopping trips.

Email System
Complicated: You’ve got your email notifier on all the time, and when new email comes in, you immediately stop what you’re doing and check it. But you don’t have time to do the things requested in the email now, so you leave it in your inbox until later. This process continues all day, and your inbox is overflowing with hundreds of emails, most of which require a response or action. Now you’re dreading going through all of that email, and you feel frantic because you’re not sure what tasks need to be done and when.
Simple: You designate certain times for email processing (at the top of the hour, or 30 minutes 3 times a day, for example). You turn off email notification, so that you’re not interrupted during your non-email times. When you process your email, you do them one at a time, from top to bottom, dispensing with each one immediately. They’re either replied to immediately, put on a to-do list, forwarded, or deleted. In any case, they are archived or deleted, and none remain in your inbox. Now you’ve got a to-do list with all your tasks, you’ve answered all your email, and your inbox is empty.

These are just a few examples, and the simple systems given are not the only way that a simple system could be designed for those types of tasks. But you get the picture. Give your systems some thought, and streamline them, and your life will be much simpler and saner.

Make a list of all the systems in your life that you could simplify. Here are a few more examples:

I’m sure you could come up with more. Now here are some suggestions for streamlining and creating simple systems:

  1. Give your system a name. Formalizing the system will make you more likely to stick with it. Also, write it down, step by step, and post it up somewhere.
  2. Designate things. It’s best to have designated days for things, and designated areas. That gives order to your week or day, as well as your working or living space. It turns chaos into simplicity.
  3. Group things. Grouping all errands into one day, for example, saves time and money.
  4. Stick to the system. It will take a little while, but you’ll need to focus on sticking with your system at first. After awhile, it’ll become second nature.
  5. Re-evaluate the system. Every now and then, it’s good to step back and take a look at whether your system is working, and if it can be further streamlined or improved. No system is perfect.

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