Systems, go!

My friend Andrew ( is a pretty smart guy. He helps companies develop processes and systems so that they work more efficiently and with better quality results and products. When someone needs to make a restaurant or manufacturing system work better, Andrew puts on his cape and flies in to look at what they’re doing now, where the bottlenecks to productivity lie, and how things can be realigned to flow more seamlessly (his word – I grabbed it because it’s perfect). I like having coffee with Andrew and hearing about the challenges he helps people work through because really, that approach is essential to success in many parts of life. He reminds me that I am only as good as the procedures I follow; we are at the mercy of the systems we create and live.

Monday mornings happen in a flurry. There are clothes to find, lunches to pack, work or school supplies to assemble, workout clothing and extra snacks to gather, and multiple bodies to get from point A to points B, C, and D at varying times. Then we roll into the work or school day and do the things we do for learning or employment (a whole other set of systems). Work and school end, the evening begins, and supper, cleanup, homework, recreation, projects and other mundane tasks flow into our laps and we switch again. And the efficiency and likelihood all of it depends on the strategies we have in place to make it happen.

If we have a time, place and mechanism for making sure the laundry is clean and in the hands of each owner at the beginning of the week, we don’t spend 5-10 minutes per person per day sifting through five laundry baskets looking for black running shorts in a pile of black clothing.

If I have a packaging system for lunches (enough containers that are clean), my husband doesn’t fumble for 5 minutes in frustration before finally packing his frittata in a shaker bottle (leaving me without one when I look to train later).

There are systems in a family and they sometimes grow organically, without much thought, in reaction to basic needs. We often become reactive instead of proactive and I firmly feel that stepping back periodically and looking at them more critically is essential. There are often easier ways to do things that we overly complicate.

When someone says to me, “I can’t find time to train,” or “I can never follow a nutritional plan,” I’m more inclined to think that the problem is not in their willpower; it’s in the processes that they have set up and follow.

We call them habits and blame ourselves for being weak when we can’t change, but change isn’t about willpower. Change is about setting yourself up with a path that you cannot fail to follow because it is logical and you have thought ahead to the mountains that must be climbed and the chasms of failure and built passes through them and bridges across them.

As far as I can tell, the system categories are pretty similar in most families:

  1. Food – acquisition and distribution
  2. Clothing – cleaning and distribution
  3. Mundane maintenance and finances – i.e. house cleaning, bill paying, lawn mowing, taking the accumulated detritus out of the car, pet care
  4. Transportation
  5. Recreation/activities

If I can’t find a pair of shorts to train in, it’s not because I’m a shoddy housekeeper, it’s because somewhere along the line my clothing system isn’t working. Maybe I need more pairs of shorts. Maybe I need more laundry baskets. Maybe each morning I need to change over the washer before leaving the house. I need to look at that system and make it work for me.

Last fall John and I found ourselves spending about 3-4h each per day driving around because we were sharing one car and there is no public transport where we live. As loathe as I was to have the second vehicle, we bought a cheap run-about and found that now we each spend on average one-third of that time in transit. We changed the system to fit our lives (and incidentally are using less gas in total per day).

We are run by our systems, so it is important that we be the ones running our systems.

Which brings me to food and fitness, two areas that are also systems, but systems to which we often attach emotional judgement. When I don’t have a clean shirt to train in, I don’t say it’s because of a lack of willpower. When I spend too much time driving it’s not because I am weak. Why then would I attach judgemental words to the areas of health and fitness?

If I am not eating well, nine times out of ten it is because I have not used a good system for food. It is likely that I haven’t planned what food to buy, bought the food I planned, prepared the planned food, packaged it so that it is accessible, made sure to have it with me for when I know I’ll need it, and then eaten it (that’s the easy part).

If I am not eating well it’s not because I have no willpower.

It’s because I did not build myself a bridge to the choices I want to make when hungry by creating a system that lets me succeed.

If I don’t train, it’s not because I’m a bad person, weak, lacking willpower, lacking moral turpitude, a bad athlete, or a sloth. Think of all the mean things you’ve said to yourself when you skipped a workout. Now stop.

If I don’t train, it’s because of a weak link in my systems that I have allowed to happen and need to repair.

Maybe I did not plan for when to train. Maybe what I am about to do for activity really is the wrong choice for me and isn’t fun for me. Maybe other systems were allowed to be inefficient and gobble undue amounts of my time. Maybe I didn’t acknowledge that I needed help in determining what to do while I train or help in actually training in the form of a coach or spotter. Maybe it’s because I didn’t make sure I had a place to train. Maybe it’s because my food system broke down and left me without energy to train.

If I didn’t train, it’s because I didn’t look ahead to spot any rivers I might have to cross and make sure I knew where to find a bridge.


While on vacation I trained consistently. I was on a remote island without a gym. I didn’t train because I’m particularly badass (I’m really not) or hardcore (many others love their training as much as I do). I’m not a special snowflake. I trained there because I made a decision to do so and planned out how it would happen. It wasn’t about willpower. It was about making sure I knew what to do (had a program), had somewhere to do it (brought some equipment and found a space), and time in which to act.

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Lately I’m getting my nutrition more in check with the primary aim of being a healthier, stronger, and better human being who lifts. This has involved me looking quite critically at how I interact with food and developing ways of making the things I want to eat easier for me to get at.

It’s a system. I see the same cupcakes and cookies as everyone else, but I plan for the bulk of my food to come from veggies, meats, eggs, fish, and grains/beans/pulses.

I make it easy for myself to find the things I need to succeed.

I choose not to rely on willpower. Willpower is amorphous.

I choose to rely on the systems I set up for my own success.

And when I flail about madly and don’t know how to modify a system to work, I ask for help from the Andews of the world, people who know how to build bridges for the particular rivers I have to cross.

(with particular thanks to my bridge-builders: Nick – programming, Marc, – nutrition, Sandy – household, John – prioritization, Chris – forms and business systems, and Bramble – relaxation)



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