Streamline Your Systems: How I Stay Productive (And Sane) Working FT and Building a BusinessFeatured

My journey to optimized systems began with a simple problem - my inability to jump out of bed at 5 am. According to the internet’s pervasive productivity overlords, waking up at 5 am should have been the cure to all my problems. It should have granted me additional time in the day to work, take care of myself, build my travel advising business and (when I dared) even have a little fun.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. In fact, no routine, no matter how hyped, was able to do any of that for me. Being neurodivergent, working full-time, and growing a business meant routines were too rigid. If something came along and interrupted the flow of a routine, what then? All of a sudden, my entire day was disrupted. How could I get back on track, pivot quickly, and stay engaged and effective?

Turns out the routine wasn’t the cure — the constraints of routine were holding me back. I shifted my focus from building someone else’s idea of a “perfect” routine and instead optimized my systems. I devoured all kinds of different productivity philosophies, time management tools and integrated aspects of Agile with my favorite bits of Atomic Habits. Instead of trying to shove my chaotic tendencies into well-constructed boxes, I embraced the chaos. I stopped fighting and started organizing. The results were instant.

Systems are built for uncertainty, for chaos. In other words, systems fit my life, my multiple pursuits and my neurodivergent way of thinking. Systems allow me to focus my efforts on constructive action.

Quality systems have done three key things for me (besides enabling me to kick ass at work and in my entrepreneurial pursuits, of course):

  1. Support flexibility and shifts in productivity
  2. Allow for more meaningful deep work
  3. Encourage rest, spontaneity, and joy

One: Good Systems Support Flexibility in Changing Energy Levels and Bandwidth

Remaining flexible is key to juggling a full-time job and building a business. I have to be able to change course as needed without letting anything important fall through the cracks. No two days look the same. Even if I plan tomorrow out to a T, I could get a phone call that throws my day off—like a client who missed a train or has decided they want to book a last-minute ski trip.

When I find my to-do list growing, and my energy waning, I know it’s time to reprioritize. I’ll rank tasks by importance and time to complete (like task sizing in Agile-Scrum) to be able to accomplish all I need to within the allotted amount of time. This also helps to prevent burnout by helping me plan my time better and know when it’s best to leave a bigger task for another day - instead of staying up til the wee hours of the morning to “get it done.”

One key part of this system is how I process my to-dos. No matter how I write them down (be it in a note on my phone, or the back of a receipt or scribbled in my journal) I go through the same process to catalog it in a way that makes it easy to return to whenever needed. If it's something immediate, it goes in my physical planner and GCal. For bigger tasks or things that don’t need to be done immediately, I use Notion – one central project management tool that I use across business pursuits and my life.

On those days (or weeks) when I’m feeling motivated, energetic and alert, I can pull tasks from my backlog in Notion and start knocking things out. In those times when my energy dips (or I’m bedridden with cramps) I can rest easy knowing those tasks are available for me when I’m feeling more energized. I have my top priorities listed out, and the rest can wait. This came in particularly useful at the beginning of this year when I was down with COVID and had a client calling about a trip inquiry. Building a system that accounts for life happening is sustainable and ultimately, freeing!

Two: Good Systems Make Room for More Effective, Meaningful Work

Everything has its time and place. Systems recognize this. Certain times of day, or the week will be more conducive to certain tasks than others. Time-blocking can be helpful for those tasks that feel “too big” or maybe intimidating to start. While I may not complete the task in the allotted time, getting started can be the biggest hurdle, and setting aside an hour or so to work on something kickstarts that process while giving me a stopping point to work towards.

When used mindfully, time-blocking allows you to use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage – that is, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. In other words, if I give myself two hours to revise and edit this article, it will take me the full two hours.

Within a system, I can create “themed days,” particularly useful if I find a certain type of work piling up. I find it difficult to jump from one type of task to another, so batching tasks allows me to be more efficient and effective in my work. For example, this could be sending out inquiries, or creating email newsletters. Bonus points for time-blocking tasks within a themed day!

Documenting processes for things I do often, like intaking a new client, or my itinerary-building process, keeps things simple. It eliminates the need to “think” about what I need to do and just focus on getting the thing done. It saves time and effort when I have an email template saved that I send out to clients before a consultation, or an outline that I follow during consultations. Google Forms is great for this, even just for my own reference.

Particularly with a service-based business like travel advising, I have clients in different stages of the sales funnel at all times. Keeping a running list of contacts and notes for where each client is at in the process enables me to be effective (and attentive) to everyone. Notion comes in handy for this as well. The more information I can take out of my head and put onto paper (or computer), the smoother things go.

Three: Good Systems Support Rest, Spontaneity and Joy

One of the most common reasons I couldn’t stick to routines (besides not being a morning person) was simply that after a week or so, I found them utterly boring. There was no room to jump into something different, or kick my feet up for a minute past my designated break time, which often collided into a run of deep work, completely disrupting my flow.

A weekly reset on Sundays has become an essential system for me. I allot Sundays to clean up, prep for the week, and most importantly reflect on what I’ve accomplished, what needs to be done, and what’s worked best for me. This is how I’ve built systems over time, by running a weekly “retrospective”, moving forward with what’s worked, and being willing to take the time to change those things that don’t.

Beyond reflecting on what works for my work and my business, I’ve also prioritized reflecting on what actually helps me feel rested. Through this effort, I came to realize that a Netflix binge isn’t always the most rejuvenating choice. Don’t get me wrong—I love my couch time, but sometimes that needs to be prefaced by intentional planning of my next tasks, some creative free time, getting outside for a walk, or getting coffee with a friend.

By building systems that work for my work, I found that my rest and relaxation time became more deeply restful, as I wasn’t thinking about all the things I had to get done. Moreover, I grew more confident that the work I needed to do was well-documented, making spontaneous activities and social events more joyful and more frequent.

Systems encourage rest, spontaneity, and doing more of what makes you happy. When you build strong systems, you can trust them to maintain the pace of flow of your work. And therefore, taking time off, resting, or doing something unplanned doesn’t disrupt your workflow or productivity. Instead, the systems just become one part of your life, instead of consuming it all. Where I always found routines limiting and restrictive, systems give me freedom.

This is incredibly insightful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing what has been working for you!
Thank you!! I’m glad you enjoyed
As a fellow neurodivergent, this makes so much sense! I finally understand why following routines like most people advise hasn't stuck with me. I use to-do lists and pacing to make sure I get everything done, but I don't follow a strict routine. Thank you for sharing this!
It’s super validating to hear others experience align. I love to do lists, though I’ve definitely learned the trick is using a small piece of paper, otherwise mine grow out of control πŸ˜…
This has been my life for the last few years and now I'm helping others set up systems in their business. I love how you broke down the benefits, too. Thanks for sharing 🀩
Oh I love this!! It’s become an unexpected passion of mine. Nice to meet a fellow productivity enthusiast! πŸ₯°