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How I Use Systems to Build Habits, Reviewing My Life

Systems, habits, and workflows are all inextricably linked. I have lots of systems (perhaps too many), and at some point you reach a place where things no longer feel like they flow — more that you’re being bounced all over the place with poor suspension because review inertia has got you this far.

I am a fan of the yearly theme, something talked about by CGP Grey and Myke Hurley, and after the year that 2020 has been, my theme for next year is going to be systems, habits, and workflows. One of the places I’ve been getting started is trying to identify what systems I actually have. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see that a lot of my systems were app based, or that there’s crossover, but I was disappointed to see what sort of mess I’ve got myself into with these. My habits still get me by as far as creating and filing things, among others, but when I sat down to write out the apps I use, and link them to what systems I have, the result was messy.

A rough overview of systems and apps

The next step is looking at my habits and workflows, some of which are relatively simple and logical — or seemingly so — but for others there are extra steps and complexity that perhaps could be simplified. For example, the editorial team here pick an article idea of mine, we add it to our system (1), I add it to my system (2), I create a file that I can write the article in (3), and then I dump my notes about it (4). That’s four systems for one article, excluding the fact that some of my systems interlink with other things (e.g. all my deadlines appear in my calendar, which is technically a 5th system). It’s a habit for me to input these articles in Airtable, and one of my automated workflows then creates a Markdown file in Dropbox and a draft in Drafts. But this has evolved over time, and because I’ve not been reviewing my setup, I need to take a step back and evaluate if this is actually good and helpful, or if perhaps it’s time to streamline things and evaluate needs versus wants. There are some schools of thought that if something works you should leave it alone, but there’s definitely room for simplification here — and that’s something I should work on.


Something I’ve struggled with in particular over the last year are my time of day routines — what I do when I first wake up, when I start or finish work, and before bed. Naturally, with changing to working from home and moving country, as well as temporarily living in a very small space for 6 months, things got far away from the norms I’d been accustomed to, as well as what I would like them to be. I’m attempting to tackle this in two ways. First of all, I’ve broken down each of these routines into individual tasks. Now some things, such as weighing myself, are ideally part of my morning routine, but they don’t need to happen every day. Fortunately, OmniFocus, my task manager, is excellent at handling this. I have one folder for my routines, each of which is a Single Action List (so it does not prioritize any task over the others). Then in each project I have the tasks I want to complete. The tasks are set to repeat based on their defer date — the only date assigned to them. This means that whenever I look at available tasks on that task list, I only see the tasks I should do that day (and in the case of missing something like weighing myself, if I miss a day it shows up until I do that without adding to the badge). The second part of the habit is actually tracking the habit completion. For this I’ve turned to Streaks, it’s our favorite habit tracking app and the purple theme definitely brightens my day. I could have built an automation to check if there were available tasks in my OmniFocus projects for the habit, and if not mark the habit as complete, but for the time being I’m enjoying the manual process of using URL schemes. Part of this is simply due to the awareness I end up having about what I’m doing — I would like everything to be automatic, but automatic from the perspective of I just do it rather than, an automation does this for me. For this, inside each project I have a task that repeats daily (the only task with a due date), and the note contains a URL. This opens the habit in Streaks and marks it as complete for me. (To get the URL scheme for a habit, open Streaks, tap the Settings cog, open the Settings, and then tap Manage Data. Under Actions you can copy the URL scheme.)


This is just the start for my year and its theme. I’m not going to magically implement hundreds of changes overnight on January 1st, I’m starting early, and setting myself up for success. It’s yet to be seen where this theme will take me, and what each milestone on the way will look like, but I can’t wait to look back at the end of the year. Hopefully, this theme will then pave the way for positive changes throughout my life — what I do when I first wake up, when I start or finish work, and before bed.

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