I’ve always loved the idea of systems and routines. I’ve mentioned before (not that anyone is reading this lol) that I have a history of buying notebooks, planners, books, tools – fully intending to totally transform my life overnight. That’s how it works, right?
For a long time, the systems I tried didn’t work at all – I’d buy all the things, excitedly put things in place, and immediately abandon them. That could mean something like designing a planner, printing it, punching the holes, filling the binder …and then never using it, not one time.
Back before covid chaos, I was using a bullet journal daily – the same basic spread daily. It worked! Until life threw that big, conspiracy-filled wrench into all of our lives. I’ve been talking a lot with my friend about what systems should be, and what we create instead. The systems I’ve used have worked, until they didn’t.
We need systems that work when life falls apart. They don’t work at all if they only work when things are going according to plan, when we are perfect. They need to be simple and streamlined enough that the system itself does not become its own task, onerous and dreaded.
A few months ago, my grandma gave me a plastic box of old, yellowed index cards. I had no idea what to do with them, so I set them in a random place in my house and ignored them, until one day I needed to scribble out a note to myself, and grabbed one. Over the next few weeks, I found myself repeatedly reaching for them any time I needed to write something out. It’s a small amount of space, there’s no commitment, I can doodle, scrawl, scratch out, toss it in the trash, cut it up, stick it on my wall, carry it in my pocket.
These little index cards freed me from the pressure I always felt with a notebook or planner, especially a new planner. Nothing scarier than that first touch of ink to a clean book. It’s against my religion to mar the first page, at all.
After a few weeks of index cards, I noticed that things had fallen into a rhythm and that tempted me, and I followed. I wrote down the “schedule” for my life, I didn’t make it up, it’s what we were doing! Surely it will work, it’s loose, it’s easy. Ha.
Life shifted, as it always does. I panicked briefly, lost sleep, felt like a failure – then I remembered that I am learning, and I can adapt. The first problem was that I was not waking up at my preferred 5am – and this sent my day into a tailspin. I could just adjust my entire day, in theory, based on when I actually got up. However, my brain is a stubborn little shit, and I needed to trick it into feeling like it was supposed to be based on when I rose, that I was not supposed to wake up at 5am religiously.
Enter the Prototype V1
The first adaptation of the system was building the flexible wakeup time into it. I spent about an hour creating a little index card “book,” figuring it all out – I made a slider, so I could pull the tab out and just start my day based on when I woke up. I knew it was a test, so I did it pencil, with tape, sloppily cutting out the pieces that I needed. The shifted schedule was built in, surely this would work! I amuse me.
A few things happened next. First, I started making plans with people, during times that were already spoken for, because every hour was spoken for with the time blocked system. I started falling behind as I tried juggling and bending to make things fit. The system only worked if I closed myself off from the world.
I also found myself getting caught up in one project or another, and struggling big time with transitions. The system could not account for being immersed, for days when I wanted didn’t want to move on. Then there were other days when I had all the energy and motivation, but I had no idea where to focus it – so those loose chunks of time didn’t help, I didn’t know how to fill them, so I would waste my time spinning my wheels instead. I was also keeping too many balls in the air, so I often felt pulled in multiple directions, overwhelmed, and not feeling like I was actually finishing anything.
This is an important stage to improving a system. You can’t scrap it, start again, or build on it, without first knowing what is wrong. I took a step back and really pondered what wasn’t working.
- Nothing was truly flexible
- There was no room for my whims, whether that was lunch with a friend, or wasting my day drawing a lady
- It needed something that balanced longer-term, big picture goals with the daily whims, that helped me maintain momentum and direction
From past systems, I knew that it could not be hidden, so it couldn’t be a notebook or digital. More than anything, it needed to be simple, taking only a few minutes to manage, and it should fit into the routines that I do have pretty solidly developed.
The most straight forward solution seemed to be a board, like the morning boards found in classrooms everywhere. I want to stick with my daily index card. It works, it’s adaptable, I don’t feel bad if a day doesn’t need it or allow for it – which was always such a big road bump in past systems, one day could snowball so quickly. I needed a board for the bigger picture items, to keep me on track. I opened illustrator and scribbled out a basic workflow that I needed, let it marinate over night – and today we are here.
The biggest lesson I’ve taken from the past few months is that I need to stop over-committing to systems (and hobbies, and daydreams) because they seem like they should work. Stop buying all the things, stop investing my time & energy in something untested, or based on what “should be” instead of what actually is. So I grabbed stuff I had on hand, put no effort into making it pretty. Instead I focused on the functionality of the system – does the set up phase work? Can I do this once a month? Yes. It was quick, easy, and enjoyable.
The Idea File
In my summer bucket list, I mentioned that I need to figure out my ideas system – and I knew that could be stage one of the workflow, a repository of nuggets & threads – places I want to go, things I want write about, art to experiment with, things to research, etc. I pulled out the box of index cards my grandma had given me, the cover broken off, yellowed with age. Perfect, stage one. On my monthly planning day, I can flip through this file and pull anything that catches my eye, things I’d like to prioritize in the month to come. I can jot down ideas anywhere, as I have index cards available – and they can be filed during my normal processing times.
The Monthly Intentions
Once a month, I want to sit down and really focus on my intentions for the month, create a small vision board, and pull together the projects I want to build on. I’d like to cut back on starting new projects (other than client work, of course) in the middle of the month, trusting that I can pick it up in the next month. This is not a hard and fast rule, I know that sometimes I will need to pull a thread immediately, see what unfolds. I want to practice setting things aside until later, however, and keeping focus on the projects I have in progress already.
The Weekly Goals
On Sundays, during my routine weekly prep time, I can pull the projects out of the monthly section, and into the weekly. This tells me that they are my top areas of focus for the week – so on those days when I have no idea where to focus my energy, it’s already decided.
The Daily Card
This is the one that has the most flexibility, and in observing how things have been going in the past month, I learned a big lesson. I like hyper-focus, I love the feeling when I lose myself to a project, surrender to what shows up. I also realized that even though I felt amazing in that work, there was a growing anxiety as other things were neglected. How can I create space for whims, for indulgence, without that feeling of failure?
Each day, I will feel out what I’m being pulled to do, what I’d love to lose myself in. I’ve been practicing this for the past few days, and it works well so far. Once I know what that thing is, I can think about the other things I want to accomplish that day. Those things come first. This has a double benefit – I move more easily in the other tasks or projects, more focused and relaxed, because it feels good to be choosing them. I also know that I will get to do the other thing later, instead of trying to force myself to stop in the middle, or feeling bad for not being able to.
The daily card (as it has been for a while) will be done during my morning routine, along with my daily tarot spread, reading, and drawing exercises. I can refer to my weekly goals to help me identify my priorities and plan my day.
I want to be sure that I am sharing what I am doing, that I am not just tucking things away to collect dust. So when I complete a project, they move from the weekly section, and into the done & document section – for now, that is blog posts. Eventually, I’d like it to be videos on Tik Tok. I’m working towards that behind the scenes right now. So the documentation is really a second task list of projects I can be working on, like this blog post!
Obviously, I just threw this board together, and I have not yet “crossed anything off” – but after I have documented a project, it will move to a final section, that shows me all I have pulled off in the month, so I can analyze, and so I can celebrate.
This is an experiment, it may not work, at all. I can think of a million ways to improve the design of it, make it pretty – the board definitely needs to be bigger. But that is the point of the prototype, it isn’t a final version, it’s not supposed to be perfect, it needs to be functional so I can figure out if it works, and make adjustments based on what does not work. This is concept that can be applied, that I hope to apply, to so many areas of life – focusing first on what actually works, what we actually need, and not on how it looks. I’m not chasing Pinterest perfect, I’m seeking solutions that will help me live my life with more calm, more connection, more freedom to follow my own curiosity.