There are some things in life that don’t have solutions, yet optimistic people keep trying to find a cure: death, unjust suffering, and convincing someone they should rinse out their coffee cup with water before placing it in the sink.
There are people who are “hoarders” messy and there are people who are OCD clean, where they intuitively know if a DVD isn’t in alphabetical order. Most of us fall somewhere in between, though likely more toward the messy side. But there is no reason for any of us to live on the messy side of life. I’m not one to point fingers at the messy people. I’ve been one of you. Sometimes I still am (in case the wife reads this…). But I’ve been making progress. If being messy is a disease, systems are the miracle drug.
Let’s examine what happens to the mail.
I walk to the mailbox and retrieve my daily stack of mail. About 90% of mail is junk, %5 are bills that have already been auto-paid, and the rest is random. What happens with that mail? Does it go on the kitchen counter? Does it stay in the back of my car because I was on my way home? Instead of the mail going somewhere, the mail goes everywhere – the entry way, the kichen counter, the trash, the back of my car, and on and on. It just piles up until you eventually lose your sanity and have to spend the entire weekend throwing away expired Burger King coupons from behind the couch.
The solution to the madness is a system. Systems have inputs, outputs, and rules. The system can be changed, but you can’t deviate from the system for it to work.
For sorting the mail, I’d have a folder for bills, coupons, and personal items to process. Everything else could get thrown away. That also means I don’t put the mail down anywhere except that container. No dropping it on the way in or leaving it in my car. I bring it with me because that’s the rule. The biggest enemy against most systems is yourself. You’re most likely the one who is going to get lazy and forget or “not feel like it” because you ate a cupcake when you weren’t even hungry and don’t have the energy to put the mail where it needs to go.
Why do I love systems?
Systems get a bad rap. “He’s a product of the system,” people say, generally in a way that’s almost never positive. But systems will set you free. Every single person who aspires to do creative work should love systems. The whole point of setting up a system is to free up your mind to enable it to do higher order thinking. How much of your life do you want to dedicate to wondering where you placed the mail, where your keys are, where the dishes go, if you need to do laundry, and a hundred other menial tasks? If you have a system, you no longer have to think about it, you just act. You know where something is because that’s where it always is.
I recently read a book called Work The System which went into detail on this and it just came up on Adam Carolla’s podcast with the coffee cup washing (something I’ve preached to the uninterested since college). Understand and implement systems and you’ll actually have time to think about the things that actually require thought.
Are systems perfect? No. Nothing is perfect. Every system deserves to be analyzed, optimized, and potentially abandoned. Life offers no solutions, just alternatives. And for menial tasks you don’t want to think about, systems are a better alternative to chaos.