Lots of folks are talking about processes and systems. That’s great! With business operating at internet speeds, we need all the help and automation we can get. But are these terms interchangeable or are they different things? Let’s look at each and see.

To-Do List

You probably have one right beside your coffee cup. At its most basic, a to-do list is a collection of tasks with no particular order or hint of what to do next. There are many techniques for helping filter and sort the tasks on your list.

One notable technique is Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen, where tasks are sorted by “importance” and “urgency”. This weeds out “unimportant” tasks that can be discarded, but leaves the difficult choice between “urgent” and “non-urgent” important tasks. Since we tend to focus on urgent tasks, the equally important, but non-urgent tasks can remain unfinished indefinitely. This is true even if their completion would have a significant impact on the business.

I found a new technique in the book Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden that helps solve this problem. His Focus Funnel builds on GTD and adds a third sorting by “significance” that recognizes the time-value of a task. An important, but non-urgent task like creating an employee training program or documenting the video editing process, can have a higher significance than many urgent tasks. This is because it will have a greater impact (it will matter) over a longer period of time than an equally important but urgent task that will only matter for a few days.

Process

A Process is a collection of tasks combined with rules for how and when to do them. (Software folks use the word “algorithm,” which is the basis of all computer programs.) Allen’s GTD and Vaden’s Focus Funnel are processes for turning an unorganized list of tasks into your ideal sorted to-do list.

Every business has activities that contribute to its success. In some companies, these activities are performed with an Ad Hoc Process, just doing the next thing that comes to mind to get the job done. Ad hoc processes are rarely performed the same way twice, which can lead to problems with quality and timeliness.

The most basic technique for documenting a process is to create a simple text document describing the tasks and rules, print it, tape it to the wall, and follow it every time.

There are lots of other tools and techniques for documenting processes. Internet services like SweetProcess, ProcessStreet, Trello, and many others offer easy-to-use interfaces for creating rich documentation of your processes. Try one today!

By documenting your ad hoc processes, you make them easy to reproduce, and more importantly, easier to delegate or automate, freeing up your valuable time.

System

The words System and Process are often used interchangeably, but I make this distinction: a process helps you work, a system works for you.

A system is a process that has feedback and controls, so it needs little attention from you. Feedback happens when you take the results of one task and send it “back” to change the way an earlier task is done. The classic example of feedback is when a microphone picks up a sound from a speaker, which sends that sound back through the amplifier again, making it louder and louder with each pass through the mic, amp and speaker. Runaway feedback can be disastrous, that’s why a system also needs controls.

Controls are special tasks that make decisions about feedback to change the way the next tasks are done. So combining feedback and controls into a process can allow it to run (mostly) unattended, which frees up even more time.

Investment Payoff

Rory Vaden describes Return On Time Invested (R.O.T.I.) as the value of investing time to convert recurring tasks into processes or systems. Find your most frequently recurring task. Determine how long that task takes each time you do it. Then multiply that duration by the number of times you do the task each year.

For example, say you have a weekly podcast and edit the audio file yourself for 30 minutes each week. With 52 podcasts a year, that’s 26 hours spent doing the task yourself. Investing two hours in documenting or automating that task will save you three 8-hour days! What tasks could you document or automate today? What’s holding you back? Let me know.

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