Whether you want to maximize your creative output, increase your productivity, or scale a software business, there are three systems you need to build. Contrary to popular belief, systems do not hinder creativity; they enhance it.
Every published author, artist, filmmaker, musician, and successful business owner builds systems to increase their output. The founder of Hashi Corp, Kevin Fishner says that you need to build your first 10 systems before you hire your first ten employees.
Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns. — Donna Meadows, Thinking in Systems
The way you organize your work (workflow) has a massive impact on your ability to get it done (work execution). The key to execution is designing the right systems. As Scott Belsky says in his book Making Ideas Happen, “Creativity X Organization = Impact.”
What is a System?
A system is a set of interconnected elements that serve a function or purpose.
- Schools, societies, communities, and companies are examples of systems that enable people to co-exist in harmony.
- A content calendar is a system that allows authors, bloggers, and podcasters to publish content on a consistent schedule.
There are three components to every system:
Elements are the inputs, raw materials, or supplies that go into a system. For content creators, elements are the tools they use and the work they produce.
- If you are a writer or podcaster, words, audio, and any other tools you use to create your content are elements of your content creation system.
- For visual artists or photographers, your elements are paints, brushes, canvases, etc.
The elements of a system determine its output.
Systems are interconnected because elements affect output. For example, if you only have a pencil, you can only create sketches drawn in a pencil. To publish her work on the Internet, a writer needs a note-taking program, a word processor, and a place to share and distribute her content.
The purpose is the system’s primary function, and publishing content is the main function of a content calendar. With any system you build, you need to ask yourself the question, “What purpose do I want to achieve with this system?”
There are three central systems that every creative needs to build if they want to be productive:
- A personal knowledge management system
- A content creation system
- A content promotion system
Without these systems, creative work will become chaotic and unpredictable, and you’ll spend more time dreaming than creating.
1. A Personal Knowledge Management System
A good personal knowledge management system is the foundation for creative success. Your knowledge management system is how you turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.
Elements of a personal knowledge management system
Information, knowledge, and ideas are the essential elements of a personal knowledge management system. These can include
- Notes from books, podcasts, meetings, and conversations. (Resources)
- Ideas to explore and think about.
- Ideas you should write about (Areas of Responsibility)
- Projects you are working on and tasks you need to complete (Projects)
A personal knowledge management system is a second brain that enables you to build a system never to forget anything.
The Interconnectedness of a Personal knowledge Management System
Just like any other system, your knowledge management system is interdependent. The input that flows into it will often determine the output of your content creation system.
For example, reading a book and taking notes might spark insights for something you want to write about. Reading the book Thinking in Systems, it gave me the idea for this article.
Say you meet with a teammate to discuss a project. Your meeting notes will determine the tasks you need to complete to move that project forward.
In summary, what you consume determines what you create.
The Function of a Personal Knowledge Management System
Being effective in the world today requires managing many different kinds of information. Emails, text messages, messaging apps, online articles, books, podcasts, webinars, memos, and many others. All of these kinds of content have value but trying to remember all of it is overwhelming and impractical. By consolidating ideas from these sources, you’ll develop a valuable body of work to advance your projects and goals. You’ll have an ongoing record of personal discoveries, lessons learned, and actionable insights for any situation. — Tiago Forte
A personal knowledge management system serves several functions.
- It helps you externalize knowledge, remember what you learn, capture your ideas, make connections between them and develop new ones to explore and consider.
- You can use it to identify your essential priorities, manage your time, capture tasks and manage projects.
But the primary and most important function of a personal knowledge management system, as Tiago Forte says, is ultimately to advance your projects and goals.
2. A Content Creation System
James Clear says that professionals work on a schedule, and amateurs work when they feel inspired. If you want to build an audience for your work, you must publish content on a schedule The schedule itself doesn’t matter; what matters is that you are consistent.
- Seth Godin has been publishing a blog post every day for more than 10 years. If you wake up tomorrow and there’s no post on his blog, the apocalypse has probably started.
- We air an episode of The Unmistakable Creative every Monday and Friday.
- My friend Gareth Pronovost posts a new video once a week on his YouTube channel.
When you create content on a fixed schedule, you condition your audience to consume it, and your content becomes a habit, not an interruption. To create content on a set schedule, you need a content creation system.
Elements of a Content Creation System
The elements of a content creation system are:
- The content.
- Tasks you need to complete.
- The status of those tasks.
- Tools you will use.
This is my workflow for producing a piece of content.
- Content: I capture ideas and write articles with Mem
- Task Status: After I finish writing the first draft of an article, I change the status of the article to “ready for revision”
- Tasks and Tools: I use Grammarly to proofread each article.
- Workflow: after I proofread the article, I hand it off to my VA. She uses Storychief to publish the article to our website, Medium, and send those articles to our newsletter.
The elements of our content creation system for the Unmistakable Creative Podcast are a bit different.
- Content: The audio from the podcast episode
- Tasks Status: Every interview in our database is marked as scheduled, recorded, or published,
- Task and Tools: I use Riverside. Fm to record my interviews.
- Because the workflow involves so many steps, I’ve include a visual of it below.
Once you know the elements of your content creation system, it’s much easier to streamline your workflow. You spend less time talking about your work and more time doing it.
The Interconnectedness of a Content Creation System
Systems are also interconnected with other systems. Because your knowledge management system is where you capture ideas, it’s interconnected with your content creation system. You might pull quotes from books, podcasts, and other sources of information inside your knowledge management system.
The Function of a Content Creation System
Like the other systems, your content creation system has several functions: It helps you manage your content creation schedule, the tasks you need to complete to stay on that schedule, and where you continue developing your ideas. But the real function of a content creation system is to maximize your output.
3. A Content Promotion System
The Internet is not the field of dreams. You have to tell people about your content if you expect them to consume it. As Ryan Holiday says in Perennial Seller, marketing is a YOUR job if you are a writer, a startup founder, or an artist. That’s why you need a content promotion system.
The Elements of a Content Promotion System
The elements of a content promotion system include:
- The content (i.e., the article you wrote, the book you published, the podcast you recorded).
- The distribution channels you use (i.e., your website, social media, or a newsletter).
- The tools you use to get that content into those distribution channels.
The Interconnectedness of a Content Promotion System
Your content promotion system is interconnected with your knowledge management and content creation systems. The more you capture, the more content you can create, and you have to promote.
When you notify a podcast guest that their interview is live, it flows out of your content creation system and into your content promotion system. If the guest refers another guest, the person they referred flows into your knowledge management system.
Discussing about your recent blog post with someone on social media could spark a new idea for something you want to write. That person could then become a fan of your work and eventually a customer.
The Function of a Content Promotion System
The functions of a content promotion system are to make people aware of your content, generate interest and have people consume it. There’s a three-stage life cycle for everything you create: awareness, interest, and commitment.
- Awareness: You publish an article, send it to your newsletter and share it on social media.
- Interest: Someone opens your email or clicks on the link,
- Commitment: Someone reads the article, becomes a fan of your work, and subscribes to your newsletter
How to Design The Three Systems
1. Document The Process
For most knowledge workers and creatives, the process of capturing, creating, and marketing is repetitive. For this reason, they do not document their processes. However, it is difficult to delegate tasks without documenting them. Delegation without documentation leads to massive inefficiencies for knowledge workers and creatives.
- First, documenting your processes saves you time and reduces the likelihood of errors.
- Second, documenting your process makes it much easier to delegate it to other people. You may only need a minute to explain to someone how to do a task, but it’s the time management equivalent of dying by a thousand little paper cuts.
- Third, documenting your process conserves your mental bandwidth to focus on getting your work done instead of managing the workflow.
The easiest way to do this is to use Scribe, which lets you create a screen-by-screen guide to completing any task. Unless you document a process, you can’t standardize or scale any of these systems.
Note: The Team at Scribe was nice enough to provide my readers with a discount. Use the promo code SCRIBE30200 and get three months of the pro version for free.
2. Standardize Procedures
If your procedures for managing your systems are not standardized, they will reduce your efficiency instead of increasing it. You need to standardize your processes for knowledge capture, content creation, and promotion.
The Zettelkasten method is an effective strategy for capturing notes or personal knowledge management because the format for each note is the same, even if the content changes.
You can also apply this approach to your content creation and sales enablement systems. Every time I publish a new article, the approach to publishing does not change.
- Write the first draft in Mem
- Revise it and proofread it
- Create a Google Doc and assign a task to my VA to prepare it for publication
For your content promotion system, you could standardize it by using the same sequence of social posts. If you are hosting a podcast, your promotional sequence could include 2 quotes with images and a link to the content,3 quotes as plain text with a link to the content, 2 audiograms, 1 article based on the episode.
Storychief has a great article on their blog about creating an evergreen funnel to generate consistent traffic. The more you standardize your workflows, the easier it is to automate your workflow.
3. Automate Your workflow
Automation is not as complicated as it may sound, and it’s as simple as creating a set of “if, then” instructions for each of the three systems and using technology to automate the steps that do not require human labor.
Last week, I was chatting with the head of customer success at Mem about managing requests in their Slack channel. I created an Airtable database that automatically routes and categorizes all bug reports, feature requests, and support requests in two minutes.
When I wanted to automate the workflow for publishing new articles, I set up Zapier to assign a task to my VA to prepare an article for publication as soon as a new document was available in the a folder on google drive.
All Systems Have Products
Systems have by-products. If you understand the by-products of any system, you can use them to increase the output of those systems.
When you make something you make something else. Just like they say you can not not communicate, you can not not make something else. Everything has a by-product. Observant and creative entrepreneurs spot these by-products and see opportunities. Jason Fried
Every Business Has Byproducts
In my article on the invaluable trait that helps you make the most of a situation, I related the following hypothetical scenario of two business owners who own apple trees: Pissed-off Patty and Rich Robert.
Patty sells her apples at the local farmer’s market. She makes enough to keep a roof over her head, but she’s pissed because Rich Robert also owns an apple tree across town, but he makes enough money to drive a Mercedes and live in the nicest neighborhood in the city.
Patty is poor because she thinks she needs to sell more apples to make more money. On the other hand, Robert is rich because he gets the most out of his apple tree. Where she sees limitations, he sees opportunities because he sells his byproducts.
Instead of selling apples at the farmer’s market, he sells them to Whole Foods bakery for apple pie, to a beverage company for apple-flavored vodka, and when he realizes how much better his sex life gets. As a result, he partners with another company to make apple-flavored massage oil. In the words of Marie Forleo, “He’s rich, happy, and hot.”
It’s pretty obvious which of the two will build a more successful business.
Every Content Creator has Byproducts
The same goes for personal knowledge management, content creation, and content promotion systems. For example, if you offer a podcast, the transcripts are by-products. You can use these by-products to extract the highlights and create a free e-book to generate leads. Or you can compile them into a book like Tribe of Mentors.
Byproducts Generate Flywheels
Amazon developed Amazon Web Services to run its business. By making it available to other companies, they turned it into a byproduct that increases revenue instead of incurring costs. And it’s one of the most lucrative parts of Amazon’s business.
An example of a flywheel for my business would be selling my automated Airtable podcast production calendar to other podcasters.
If you recognize the byproducts and flywheels that systems create, you can get more value out of those systems. These byproducts create self-reinforcing feedback loops.
Systems Are Interdependent and Dynamic
Nothing in these three systems exists by itself. Each system has both first and second-order consequences. Every input that goes into a system has multiple possible outputs.
What you capture in your knowledge management system will determine the output of your content creation system. Therefore, you must diversify your inputs to develop a bold and compelling point of view.
Creativity thrives in interdependent systems, and building these systems takes time in the short term but leads to exponential growth in new knowledge in the long term. Even if not defined in this way, every publisher, film studio, and prolific creator uses these three systems.
The only question you need to ask yourself is whether you use them by default or by design. If you use them by default, you will not get much out of them. However, if you use them intentionally, you will maximize your output.
Before You Go
In a few weeks, I’ll be offering a free webinar on how to build a personal knowledge management system. If you’re interested, just click on this link and enter your email address.