Every since reading Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline many years ago, I have had a different perspective on systems and structure. It is sometimes easy to forget how much the structures we impose on ourselves influence how we live and work. These structures can improve how we do things, but unfortunately they often get in the way from what we really want to accomplish.
Casinos and shopping malls have clearly mastered the importance of structure. Entrances, floor layout, escalators and stairs are all meticulously planned to get you to spend as much time and money in these cathedrals of commerce as possible. The goal is not to help patrons exit the building in an orderly fashion. Instead, the design functions to keep everyone zig-zagging through all the aisles of merchandise or slot machines, encouraging them to spend a little money on the way.
Structures can serve us by making it easier to achieve what we want to accomplish or they can impede our progress by getting in the way. We impose many of these barriers to our own success and happiness ourselves. We may not even see the structures we have inadvertently assembled in our own lives. Take some time to consider the long-term effects of the decisions you are making in your life and you may find it easier to realize your goals and values.
Structures at Home
One of the best ways to improve the success of children is to have families eat dinner together. Children who eat dinner together with their parents develop greater vocabularies, are more articulate, have superior conceptualizing skills, and score higher on reading and language tests. These children are less likely to do drugs, are less often depressed, have better friendships, and are more motivated at school. Children who eat most dinners with their parents generally stay out of trouble. Spend more time with your kids!
People often grumble about not having time to do the things they want. A related problem is found by many parents who complain of their children not talking to them. This is a very easy structural problem to fix. Get rid of your TV! The average North American watches almost 3 hours a day of television. What could you do with and extra 20 hours per week. That is like having two extra work days a week. What would your family do if there was no TV? Maybe talk, play games, sports…together? Would you consume less and save more if you didn’t watch TV commercials? Would your children crave junk food less? That box in your house is likely the cause of many of the problems in your life.
Structure at Work
Larger established companies provide a clear example of the problems of rigid structures. In the airline industry, more recently established companies like SouthWest, RyanAir, and EasyJet have newer fleets of aircraft that are more fuel efficient and require less maintenance. They also have younger employees that work for less money and generally provide better customer service because they like their jobs more. The older airlines have aging aircraft, inflexible unions, and rigid structures that prevent them from innovating. It is no surprise which companies are growing and profitable.
If you want to get more important work done, eliminate distractions and do the most important tasks first. Most people understand the work they really need to accomplish to have the greatest impact on their lives. The problem is that big things generally seem overwhelming and a little scary. Do you want to make that sales call or check your email one more time? Do you want to write the business plan for your dream business or browse the Internet for just a little longer? All of us want to do small fun things and we use it as an excuse to procrastinate.
What is the most important task for you to work on today? Do that one thing before you check your email, read your RSS feeds, browse websites or turn on the TV. It is probably not has hard to discover these high leverage activities as you think. Stop making excuses to yourself. If you don’t know what to do, then your first task is to write down all the important things you want to accomplish and then prioritize that list. Then you will have your key task for tomorrow. If you don’t have the skills to do the work, focus on learning the skills or outsourcing to an expert. If you are afraid of the quantity of work ahead, break it into pieces and just get started. Often you will find that those perceived obstacles, were really just in your mind. If find this particularly true with technology. Sometimes, I don’t want to start using a new web or software application just because I am afraid of the learning curve. I almost always discover that it was not as difficult as I had imagined.
Structures and systems either serve you or work against you. Sometimes these are also called positive or negative feedback loops. Roll a snowball down a hill and it will get bigger with little effort. Roll that same snowball up that same hill and you will start to understand how structures can be your enemy. Your chosen occupation, friends, living accommodations, even the country you live in are affecting the life you live. You have the ability to design many of the structures around you to make it easier to achieve the dreams and lifestyle you want. Make the effort to create the structures you want. Don’t let them control you.