The past year has been all about LESS for me.
At the end of 2022, actually as part of The Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge (new one starting on Jan 1 if you want to join us), my wife and I picked a word we were going to use as our lodestar for the year. We picked ‘less’ because we felt like we were too busy, too overwhelmed, too stressed, too frustrated. I was just exhausted as December ended and I felt like my health, my family, and my quality of life could not face another year of the same.
So as I wrote here, in an article, my goal was:
Less. Less commitments. Less drama. Less busyness. Less screen time. Just less. Part of the reason I want less is so I have room for more. More stillness. More presence.
Looking back, I think we did a pretty good job. I was strict about passing on stuff I didn’t want to do. I asked my assistant not to schedule appointments or interviews or calls on Fridays. I pushed my book back a year—which required some serious negotiations with my publisher and facing a lot of ideas in myself about what it meant to not be so busy and always being doing, doing, doing.
What did this ‘less’ translate to? Certainly not a lot of ‘nothing,’ which is what I think we suspect we’ll turn into if we start saying that powerful word ‘no’ or if we start slowing down. Instead, what happened is that I did a lot more. I did more school lunches and school drop offs. We went on more trips together. My wife and I hung out more. I spent more time on the book that I delayed, and now it’s much, much better.
Now, staring down the barrel of a new year, I intend to continue this trend of less (to get the double benefit, as Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations, of doing the essential things better). But I also wanted to pick a new word to aim at.
This year, the word for me is: Systems.
In Ego Is The Enemy, I tell the story of the day of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration.
In 1953, Eisenhower was entering the White House as the newly inaugurated president, having just returned from his parade. As he walked into the Executive Mansion, his chief usher handed Eisenhower two letters marked “Confidential and Secret” that had been sent to him earlier in the day.
“Never bring me a sealed envelope,” Eisenhower said firmly. “That’s what I have a staff for.”
He wasn’t a snob nor was he being lazy. Eisenhower was a man who lived by systems. He saw the need for an efficient, orderly executive branch, mirroring the way his military units had been. His focus was on delegating, trusting his staff, and maintaining order. As his chief of staff later put it, “The president does the most important things. I do the next most important things.”
A system is a way to do more by doing less. By setting up processes—which can be work up front—you find efficiencies. By setting up clear and defined roles, you can effectively delegate. By setting up standards and expectations, you can not only hold people accountable, but you can measure and optimize those processes to be even more efficient. It’s a positive feedback loop.
What’s an example of a good system?
I’ve talked about my notecard system before, that’s a system by which I research and write my books. I don’t just wing it. It’s a process by which I—and other writers—try to take an enormous and overwhelming task and try to make it manageable. As Robert Greene, who taught me the notecard system, says, “A lot of books fail because the writer loses control of the research. You are either a master of the material or it’s the master of you.”
Sometimes a system is something like that—a process. Other times, systems are a person or a group of people, like Eisenhower was referring to with his staff. “A system,” as Donella Meadows defines it in Thinking in Systems, “is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective.”
A to do list is a system. A chain of command is a system. A rule that says “I never say ‘yes’ in the room” is a system for making better decisions. In fact, there was another insight from Eisenhower called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix that he would use to prioritize stuff. To separate and distinguish immediate tasks from important ones, Eisenhower would group tasks into a 2×2 matrix: urgent and important (quadrant I), important but not urgent (quadrant II), urgent but not important (quadrant III), and not important and not urgent (quadrant IV). It is a system for channeling focus onto tasks that are truly important and contribute to your long-term goals, rather than just reacting to what seems urgent at the moment.
Contrasting with Eisenhower, in Ego Is The Enemy, I also tell the story of John DeLorean, whose management style was once described as “chasing colored balloons.” Coming out of the bureaucratic management style of General Motors, DeLorean tried to make himself the center of everything. The result was chaos—chaos that both fueled his ego (somebody always needed him) and destroyed what was actually a pretty visionary car company.
Few of us are that bad, but we could all do better with better systems. Because it’s really easy, when you don’t have a system, to get caught up just winging it–handling whatever is urgent, whatever someone has randomly brought you, or whatever pops up in your email or whatever you feel like doing in the moment.
One of the reasons I am deciding to focus on systems this year is that it’s unavoidable. For a long time, I kept my life and my business deliberately very small. Brass Check, my marketing company, never had any full-time employees. It wasn’t until 2019 that Daily Stoic hired its first editor/manager. In that time, we’ve significantly increased the scale and scope of what we do–as I wrote about before, part of that stemmed from the decision to be good stewards of our success and direct our profits back towards content that people can consume for free. And then on top of all this, I’ve got kids, our ranch, and a bookstore.
Even after I have eliminated stuff I don’t want to do, it’s just not even remotely possible to operate without good systems.
For example, I’ve had to develop a system to handle speaking requests when they come in: Early in my career, everything ran through me. I wanted to be involved. I wanted to know what was up. But then I got busy and now all the offers go through the folks at VaynerSpeakers. Again, in the early days, I was open to pretty much every offer that came my way. As I have taken on more things in my life, I’ve had to give Vayner strict criteria as to what I won’t even consider, what a fee range is, how I prefer events to go, things I will do/won’t do, even seemingly minor stuff about what microphones I like or how long before the event I’ll arrive (and my rules about how many bedtimes I’m willing to miss from my kids), how I like stuff entered into my calendar. They handle travel, they handle payments, they even handle following up with the event after, sending whoever booked me a thank you gift (usually a personalized and signed special edition of The Daily Stoic). This is a system that separates serious offers from not serious ones, and it streamlines run-of-show at events so everything runs smoothly and I can just show up and do my job.
Before the system, I was at the mercy of everything going right. With a system, things are more likely to go right.
It wasn’t easy to set up and it required a lot of trial and error.
But for me, as I think about 2024, I am thinking about other parts of my life that could benefit from this kind of system.
I want to stop winging it. I want to stop being caught off guard by stuff. I want to stop making the same mistakes multiple times. I want to stop wasting resources (and other people’s energy) on doing things that don’t need to be done or burning them out with inefficiencies. I want to have people and processes in place to prevent preventable errors from happening.
I want better systems for dealing with mail. I want better systems for onboarding new employees. I want better systems for travel. I want better systems for my house. I want better systems for managing inventory at the bookstore. I want better systems for producing The Daily Stoic Podcast. I want better systems for taking care of my animals. I want better systems for keeping my car from becoming a mess. I want better systems for managing my retirement and savings accounts.
So I can show up and do my job…as a writer, as a professional, as a parent.
So I can do a better job at all these things.
Robert Greene said above that the lack of systems is why a lot of books fail, but it’s also why a lot of people fail in general. You are either a master of the items on your to-do list or the day will master you. You either set clear priorities and focus on what truly matters or you get lost in the noise of trivial tasks. You either implement structures and processes that streamline your workflow or you get overwhelmed by the chaos of disorganization. You either delegate effectively and leverage the strengths of others or you try to do everything yourself, struggle in isolation, and burn out. You either have systems or you don’t.
It might mean some more work up front but the sign of a good system is that once you do that work up front, you end up having to do LESS later.
As I said, one of my systems each year is doing The Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge. We build out a new one every year and this year it’s 21 days of challenges—presented one per day, built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. Sign up here before it starts on January 1st.
The challenges are designed to help you:
- Stop procrastinating
- Learn new skills
- Abandon harmful habits
- Be more generous
- Develop immunity to distractions
- Strengthen your character
- Become the best version of yourself….
You can expect:
- Over 24,000 words of all-new content
- Three live Q&A sessions
- Access to a community platform where you’ll engage with fellow Stoics
- A custom printable 21-day calendar to track progress
This challenge is a big part of my year each year—kicking things off with something that challenges me—and I hope you’ll join us on January 1st. Demand more for yourself this year and head to dailystoic.com/challenge and sign up TODAY.