It’s spring cleaning time. We often equate that with throwing out things we don’t want or need anymore. Why? Because it gives us more room, both for growth but also just breathing room. Today we’re going to apply that concept to our systems. If your systems have too many steps or frustration points for the folks involved, you’re wasting time and energy. Not to mention it feels cluttered and even overwhelming. So, stay tuned and find out how to declutter and revamp your systems with our third spring cleaning challenge.
So we’ve talked about systems in other episodes, but in a nutshell a system is just a set of things working together as part of a mechanism or an inner connecting network. For you personally, that’s often a set of habits that come together for some purpose. Let’s go with the most stereotypical example of the habit of brushing your teeth. That’s just one part of a larger system of oral hygiene, getting ready for bed, or getting ready for the day.
With all systems, you’re doing this group of things for a reason - even if you don’t remember what that reason is. So with brushing your teeth before bed there may be an element of “my mom made me do it when I was little, so now that’s what I do.” Or from an oral hygiene perspective, “I went to the dentist and he said brushing isn’t enough, so now I floss too.”
As with many of the topics we discuss - using your talents productively, assessing your habits, assessing your stories - the power of each of those things is intensified the more it’s aligned with your goals or objectives.
Let’s go back to your bedtime routine or system. Part of that is brushing your teeth, but there are other elements as well, like washing your face, reading a book, or drinking some relaxing non-caffeinated tea. The goal is to prepare yourself for bed in a way that preps you for a good night sleep. When the things you do achieve that goal, you have an effective system.
But let’s say your bedtime routine often includes things like binge watching Netflix until 2am, scrolling through Facebook until bedtime, or drinking loads of caffeinated beverages. Those are things you do before bed, but they actually work against your goal of having a good night sleep. I mean don’t get me wrong, if you’re exhausted at 2am you’ll fall asleep, but it might not be very restful or long enough to refresh you for the next day.
If you were spring cleaning that system, you’d ask, “of the things I do before bed, which ones are the most impactful in helping me achieve my goal of getting a good night’s sleep?”
Answer - face washing, teeth brushing, book reading, tea drinking
Then you’d ask, “of the things I do before bed, which ones are getting in the way of achieving my goal?”
Answer - staying up until 2pm (whether it’s Netflix or reading), drinking caffeine, scrolling on your phone.
If you want an effective system - and by effective, I mean achieving your goals with the least amount of energy necessary - you want to keep the first group and reduce if not eliminate the second group. And if you don’t have enough in the first group to make the impact you need, you add some more in.
Now when I was rereading the draft of this episode, I realized it was definitely from the standpoint of a single person without kids. There may be some elements of your bedtime routine that are not ideal, but nor can you simply eliminate the problem. Since you can’t just put your kids in a hibernation pod at a certain time each night, their bedtime routine may actively interfere with your ideal routine. In those cases, you need to take a step back and see if there is anything that can be done to improve the external systems involved. If there isn’t – at least not in the immediate future, you just need to do your best to clean up the affected system, the things you can control so those external factors – aka children in this case – have the least impact possible. But also, maybe invest in this hibernation pod idea. Lol.
Now let’s apply that to work. Although I should point out that the sleep you get absolutely impacts your work. At work you have tons of systems that impact your productivity, your department’s, your team’s, and your students’ success. They can range from your internal system for dealing with emails to the policies and procedures – both formal and informal – of your department. That’s a pretty big range, so let me give you some more concrete examples. As far as internal processes go, here’s some that everyone has…
How you communicate with your team members
How you organize and run meetings
How you manage your team’s performance
How you approach and finish projects
How you manage stress
As for policies and procedures, those are going to vary based on your department. But here are a few general examples…
How students do ____ (i.e. register for classes, get an appointment, appeal a grade, etc.)
How your team requests days off or flex time
How your team organizes events or programs
How you and your team approach problem solving
All of these examples could have many or few moving parts. There’s no right or wrong number of steps or phases. Right or wrong is purely determined by how effectively it achieves your goals.
For example, let’s take the way you communicate with your team members. Maybe you’re so busy, it just consists of emails about specific issues, occasional team meetings, and on the fly meetings/drop-ins when you or they have a question. If everyone is achieving all of their and your department’s goals with that system. Huzzah. No tweaking needed. However, I’m going to say that’s probably not the case with all of the communication points being so reactive.
Now the challenge for this week, is to pick a system – either your internal system or a formal or informal departmental procedure – and clean it up. How do you do that? We’ve talked about it in other episodes, but let’s walk through the communication with your team example. Why? Because I’m guessing 99% of you don’t have an effective system.
How do you go about cleaning up this system? Remember, the point of all of this is to use you and your team’s energy as effectively as possible to achieve your goals and objectives. Let’s start with a few questions…
What goals do we want to achieve in communicating with our team?
What parts of the current system contribute to this? AKA – What’s working well?
What parts of the system get in the way of this? AKA - Think about are frustration points for everyone involved – you, an employee, students, etc.
What do I need to add or get rid of?
I’d say for the most part, communication between you and your team has the goal of making sure everyone is on the same page about what’s going on, what needs to happen – and specifically what each member needs to do, and where the department and institution is headed. There may be some more nuanced goals, but I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
So, if your system consists of emails about specific issues, occasional team meetings, and on-the-fly meetings/drop-ins when you or they have a question, do those get you where you want to be? I’d say there are some helpful components here. Emails can be helpful for quick updates or to get things in writing so neither party forgets what was decided. Team meetings can be helpful when you need to discuss topics or get the same information to all of your team. However, meetings themselves comprise an entire system. How effectively you’re running your meetings is going to impact the communication that happens there.
Okay, so I just unintentionally added another layer there – just like with those pesky kids that won’t go to bed and thus interrupt YOUR bedtime routine. What I don’t want to do is over complicate things. As with all my challenges, you can and should absolutely start small. Making slow steady progress is really the way we accomplish lasting change. In this example, if you discover other systems lurking within the system you wanted to clean up, just make a note but don’t let it throw you off track. What you’re really looking for is one or two tweaks you can make to improve the overall system. After those get fully integrated, you can go deeper and clean up other parts of the system. Remember, your brain hates change so will absolutely try to talk you out of doing anything because “it’s too much work” or “there’s no point if I can’t fix all of it.”
Let’s get back to assessing your communication. Let’s just assume your meeting skills are solid, so we’ll jump to the on-the-fly or drop by meetings for questions and quick check-ins. These often accompany an “open door policy.” Can you and your team members get helpful information this way? Sure. But how disruptive is it? If you’re working on a project and someone comes and interrupts you to ask a question – or give you an update, what happens? You have to stop what you’re doing. Refocus on that person and topic. If there was something related you needed to bring up, you also have to remember what it is in the moment, which can be challenging. Then depending on how long this takes, you either have to go to your next meeting and not get the task you were working on done. Or if you do have time left, you have to refocus. Neuroscientists have found it takes between 20-30 minutes to refocus your attention.
And of course, it’s the same thing for the other person involved whether they’re the one approaching you, or you’ve dropped by on them. Both of you have stopped what you’re working on, had a conversation at least one of you wasn’t properly prepared for, then you both have to go back and refocus on what you were working on. Between the two of you, that’s a lot of wasted energy.
Sure, there are true emergencies where folks need to jump into action to resolve the situation quickly, but that’s only small percentage of our interruptions. But if you don’t have regularly scheduled meetings set with your people, they may feel like that’s their only option. And the same goes for you. To be an effective supervisor, you need to talk to your people on a regular basis. If you’re not setting those meetings ahead of time, you’re both being sucked into constant time and energy wasting with those pop in meetings.
Now that was a quick assessment based on those earlier questions. There are some things that were working, so you can keep those. But there were also some frustration points, like being interrupted all the bleeping time. One way to resolve that issue is by scheduling regular meetings with your individual team members, so they know they’ll have a set time they can discuss any of their questions or issues with you. But it also involves retraining you and your team to hold those questions or issues for those meetings. This may mean setting criteria for what constitutes an emergency. It might also mean reminding folks – and yourself – when they come in about the new procedure. That’s to be expected, because everyone is used to doing this that way. But with some patience and commitment you can change and improve your system for everyone.
So as I mentioned earlier, your spring cleaning challenge is to choose one of your systems – either a personal one or one of the formal/informal processes in your department, and get rid of what’s not working. Depending on what the situation is, you may be able to just get rid of certain steps and not add in anything new. But just like the example before, you might also need to replace X with Y to make sure you’re accomplishing your goals.
And just to make it easier on you, I’d suggest starting with a system that has a pretty obvious flaw OR one that’s working fairly well, so you’re just polishing the apple. Is polishing the apple even a phrase? Lol. What I mean is, if there’s a system that has a lot of frustration points, then doing this exercise might feel overwhelming. But if you pick something that’s working pretty well already, then you’re just making minor tweaks that still save you time and energy. That means making the change won’t be too challenging for you and your team. If you can get a few easy wins under your belt, that will encourage you to do this with other systems.