Skill 03 – Optimize Systems

The Complete List of Essential Leadership Habits for New Managers, Team Leaders, and Change Agents to Lead with Confidence

Great leaders are able to optimize how the work gets done.

Once we’ve mastered our productivity, it’s time to focus on the productivity of your team and the business.

The habits in this area are about systems, processes, and rituals.

Let’s start optimizing systems …

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Habit 6 -​ Systems Thinking


The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge

“Tools for systems thinking help to see underlying structures and patterns of behaviour that are obscured in the fury of daily events and the incessant activity that characterizes the manager’s life.”

A system is a set of interconnected components that work together to achieve a result.

The ability to see all of the moving parts within a system is an essential skill for leaders to master.

Here’s a short video that provides a useful example …

Most leaders are somewhat short-sighted when it comes to understanding systems, being more concerned with producing individual short-term results within their silo.

The ability to step back and see the larger picture of inter-connected behaviours starting at the individual level and moving up to include teams, departments, and programs, can enable a leader to craft better strategy and shape culture.

I highly recommend the classic book The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge to expand your knowledge of systems.

[source] The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge

Habit 10 -​ Optimize 

An easy way to start optimizing is to identify areas of improvement.

Take a look at any system or project and ask these questions …

  • Stop – What things should I stop doing?
  • Start – What habits should I start?
  • Continue – What seems to be working? Keep doing these!
  • Less – What should I do less of?
  • More – Where should I double down on my efforts?

This is an effective process at both the individual level and with teams – replace “I” with “we” in the questions above.

Habit 27 -​ Build Your Trusted System

GTD Workflow

It can be challenging to be effective when your head is filled with multiple things on your various to-do lists.

There’s the work email you need to send, that person you need to follow-up with, the phone call you need to make, that meeting you need to plan, the groceries you need to pick up and the errand you need to run.

We know that attention is a limited commodity and its essential to have a strategy that enables us to focus on doing the right thing at the right time.

This is where a trusted system comes into play.

A trusted system is your personal productivity workflow.

It’s a collection of habits that enable you to capture, process, organize, review, and complete ALL of your various projects and tasks.

Popularized by David Allen in his classic book Getting Things Done (or GTD for short), GTD is a strategy for creating an effective and efficient trusted system.

Before GTD

Before I had a trusted system, I did what everyone else did: attempt to hold it all in my head.

Occasionally, I would write out to-do lists, but for the most part, I kept track of everything in my head.

Unfortunately, this was not very efficient.

I would forget things, I would let external factors get in the way of my priorities, and even after a long day of work, I was not getting my key projects done.

More importantly, not having a trusted system was hurting my credibility as a leader because I was dropping the ball.

After GTD

Since building my trusted system, I’m now much more effective.

I do things proactively, I’m rarely surprised, and when a crisis does happen, I’m much more prepared to deal with it.

To build your trusted system, start with these core habits …

Try them on for a few weeks, assess what works for you, and make adjustments over time.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 28 -​ Empty Your Head

Every incomplete project and unfinished tasks are taking up valuable mental real-estate in your head.

And if your mind is filled with mental clutter, it becomes extremely difficult to stay focused, be creative, and be present during moments of impact.

The problem is that our minds are not designed to remember things when we need them most.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to remember everything on my to-do list when I’m jumping from meeting to meeting.

Now, you can’t just write something down and move on because if your mind doesn’t trust that you will come back to it later, it won’t it let go.

This is where the “trusted” part of the Trusted System comes into play.

We need to create entry points into our Trusted System that we actually trust.

In GTD, these entry points are called collection buckets.

Here are a couple of tips to manage your buckets.

1) Make it easy.

Collection buckets need to be easy and convenient to use.

If it’s complicated or difficult to access, you won’t trust it.

Some typical collection buckets include …

  • Email
  • Instant messages
  • Meeting notes
  • Sticky notes
  • Action logs
  • Journals
  • Todo list apps
  • Paper lists
  • Voice recording devices

2) Make is simple.

Keep the number of entry points into your trusted system to a minimum.

My collection buckets include …

  • Email inbox
  • My old-school journal which I take with me everywhere
  • And a stack of paper on my desk where I capture thoughts and meeting notes

3) Empty them regularly.

You must review and empty your collection buckets regularly.

If things back up or are forgotten, your unconscious mind will lose trust and won’t free up your mental real-estate.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 29 -​ Determine The Next Action

The secret to processing your various collection buckets is to determine your next action.

A next action is the subsequent physical and visible step required to achieve your desired outcome.

No Explicit Next Action

If there is no explicit next action, you either:

1) Discard it.

Put in the trash. Letting go is extremely freeing.

2) Incubate it.

Maybe it’s something you want to think about and consider later. There should be a home for everything you want to incubate. This might be a tickler file or a place you will come back to review and process regularly.

3) File it.

If it’s something you want to reference for later, find a home for these things as well.

Explicit Next Action

When you have identified the next action, you need to either:

1) Do it.

If the next action is going to take 2 minutes or less to complete, then do it, even if it’s not a high priority.

The rationale for the 2-minute rule is that often it’s going to take longer to store and track the item then to just get it done.

2) Delegate it.

If you are not the best person to perform the next action, you should delegate it.

Your trusted system should include tracking activities you have delegated so you can follow-up when necessary.

3) Defer it.

If the next action needs to be completed at some point in the future, you will need to defer it.

i) If the next action involves other people or should be completed at a particular time, then schedule it in your calendar.

ii) If the next action is a stand-alone activity, it should be added to your to-do list and tagged with the appropriate context.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 30 -​ A Home For Everything

Once you’ve emptied your head and figured out the next action, it’s time to find a home for everything.

Each home serves a specific function in your overall system. Here are the main categories:

  • Calendar – For things that need to be scheduled. This includes meetings with other people or booking meetings with yourself to complete specific tasks.
  • Contacts – A way to store and manage your contacts. This might be as simple as a place to store names and emails or as complex as managing every interaction within your network. 
  • Projects – A home for all the projects that you have made a commitment to yourself or others to complete.
  • Next Actions – A system for managing your to-do list.
  • Reference – This includes support material for projects and items you would like to reference at a later date.
  • Waiting – For those things that you’ve delegated and are waiting for someone else to complete.
  • Someday/Maybe – For those things that you haven’t yet made a commitment or without a clearly defined next action.

Each one of these places requires a decision on where this stuff will live and a set of habits to manage.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 31 -​ Review Regularly

You can’t just load your Trusted System with stuff and forget about it.

For your mind to truly let go, it must engage at some level with all your commitments and activities regularly.

You must be assured that you are turning your attention to the right thing at the right time and that you are OK not to do what you are not doing.

I review my trusted system at the following times:

1) Beginning of day.

As part of my morning ritual, I connect with my purpose, review my immediate projects, and determine my three main priorities for the day.

I’ve created a template for this called The Great Leaders One-Page Blueprint, and you can download it here.

2) End of day.

During my work shutdown ritual, I capture all loose ends and place them in my Trusted System.

This allows me to clear my head of the open loops from the day, trusting that I will pick them up tomorrow. 

This also gives a nice separation between my workday and personal life.

3) Weekly review.

Every week, I review everything in my trusted system.

Here’s a sample for the activities that I complete every week:

  • Review all active projects, action logs and to-do lists.
  • Look at the week ahead to see if there are any activities I need to prepare.
  • Empty all my collection buckets ensure everything has a proper home within my trusted system.
  • Follow up with everything that I’ve delegated.
  • Review my goals to determine if there are any projects I would like to begin.
  • Purge things that are no longer a priority.

I’ve found that the weekly review is an essential part of keeping my Trusted System working effectively.

Without it, your brain will no longer trust your trusted system and will go back to keeping track of stuff in your head.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 32 -​ Get Stuff Done

In any given moment, you can be doing any number of things.

Selecting your next action based on context, time, and energy is an essential part of GTD.


What tools do I have available to me? Do I have a phone? Do I have wi-fi connection for my laptop? Do I need to be in the office or at home to complete this activity?

A common GTD approach is to tag all your next actions based on context.

Some of the context tags I’ve used are errands, email, read, follow-up, calls, home, and work.

This allows me to batch common tasks together and avoid multitasking.

Most to-do list software supports some sort of context tagging.

Time Available

How much time do you have to complete an activity before you have to start something else?

You would pick a different activity to do right now if you had a meeting starting in 10 min then you would if you had the next few hours available.

Energy Available

Your energy levels move up and down throughout the day.

Are you most productive in the mornings, afternoons or evenings?

Make sure you take the time to discover what time of day your energy levels are at the highest and reserve this for your most important activities.

I also find it useful to have a list of low energy (aka brain dead) activities that I prepare in advance.

This way, I can still be productive even when my energy is low.

The key is to prepare this in advance because when you are brain dead, it’s tough to think of productive things to do.

[source] Getting Things Done by David Allen

Habit 43 -​ Choose The Right Tool

There are many ways to manage your personal productivity workflow.

You can go completely old-school with paper lists, a personal planner, file folders, and storage cabinets.

There are also a plethora of options for taking everything digital.

Deciding on what tools to use to organize all of your stuff can be a huge distraction.

Here are a couple of rules for choosing the right tool … 

1) Choose a single tool for each category within your overall system.

This means …

  • Sticking to one app to manage your calendar.
  • Choosing one place to store all of your contacts.
  • Selecting one tool to manage your to-do list. 
  • etc.

2) Combine both work and personal.

Avoid using one tool to manage your work calendar and a second system for your personal.

The real power of a Trusted System happens when you can manage both your personal and professional life with the same set of tools.

3) Choose tools outside of work (if you can).

Avoid becoming dependent on the tools that your company provides.

There are two reasons for this …

One, if your system is dependent on internal tools, it will be disrupted anytime you change jobs.

Two, you may get laid off. If this occurs, you may find your login credentials revoked and suddenly unable to access your data.

I recognize that using a personal tool for every category may not be feasible since most organizations expect you to use their internal suite of productivity tools (i.e. work email and shared calendars).

However, learn toward having your own tools where possible.

4) Tools take time to learn.

Each new tool has a workflow and comes with a learning curve.

The last thing you want is to sacrifice your system because of a limitation within a tool.

I’ve used just about every productivity tool out there, which I’ve tried to adapt it for my purpose, and there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

5) If you can’t do it old-school, it doesn’t matter what tool you choose.

One final tip, there is no magic pill.

There’s isn’t a perfect application that will make you more productive.

Remember, it’s about building the right habits, not spending weeks and weeks finding the perfect tool.

Start with a pen and journal, and add-on from there.

Habit 58 -​ Practice Kaizen

The Japanese word kaizen means “change for better” and has evolved in English to mean the practice of continuous improvement.

The habit of kaizen involves being on the lookout for ways to improve the overall system, no matter how small.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear shares a story how the British Cycling team goes from the bottom of the pack in 2003, to dominate the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and again four years later at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

How did they do it? By making small adjustments to every part of the overall system.

They made hundreds of small adjustments to the equipment (bikes, helmets, seats, grips, racing suites) and the routines of the riders (pillows, mattress, massage gels). 

Each individual change appears minor on its own, but when combined together, these seemingly insignificant changes compound over time to make a huge difference.

What minor adjustments could you make to your personal routines?

Better yet, what improvements could you implement to the processes and systems in your organization?

[source] Atomic Habits by James Clear

Habit 75 -​ Keystone Habit

A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone piece at the top of an arch. It locks all the other stones into position, allowing the span to bear weight.

Your keystone habit is the habit that holds all of your other routines in place because you do it consistently, at the same time, even day, no matter what.

The secret of the keystone habit is that all of your other habits (habit stack) automatically kick-in because they are built around it.

My keystone habit happens to be 20 minutes of meditation. I do this every morning, first thing when I wake up every single day, no matter what.

It’s the habit that holds all of my other habits in place. If I miss this habit, my habit stack falls apart.

What’s your keystone habit?

Habit 100 -​ Habit Stack

Have you ever made a change in one area only to find that this upgrade cascades into other areas of your life?

Last summer, we renovated our kitchen.

This one change cascaded into multiple changes; An updated main floor bathroom, new furniture in the adjoining family room, and new blinds and curtains all around. We even gutted our ensuite bathroom, which is on a completely different floor.

Habit stacking is the process of creating a cascade of positive habits.

Just like the home reno spilling over to other areas of the house, you change one habit and build upon that success with additional positive habits.

Once you have your keystone habit in place, identify the next positive habit and start growing your habit stack.

Here are some examples of habit stacks that we’ve covered in this guide …

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