What is a system?
For me, a system is a set of actions and tools that help me manage an area of my life in a helpful way. Actions are the things I need to do in this area, such as packing, or making travel reservations, and tools are physical or digital products that help me do this, such as my planner or Notion. The system is the way I intentionally combine these actions and tools to make things easier on myself. Sometimes you can have systems within systems, or overlapping systems. For example, I make a yearly photo book for my family that is organized monthly, and my system for putting the photos in each month is nested within my overall photo storage system and overlaps with my monthly planning system.
What is a tool?
Like actions, tools are part of the system, but not the system itself. There are all kinds of physical and digital tools these days, from ones so simple we might not even think of them as tools (a piece of paper) to highly complex digital apps like Notion. While a particular tool can influence your system (e.g. a digital or paper layout that displays information in a particular way), you can also change your tools without changing your system, as I recently did in switching to Notion from Trello. This can occur across mediums as well, switching from digital to physical and anything in between. Incidentally, the same thing is true for actions in a system–you could switch up the steps in your weekly planning system while still retaining the same overall system!
Why is it important to see the difference?
I think there are several reasons it’s important to see the difference between systems and tools. First, while systems can solve challenges in managing time and projects, tools merely support these systems–if there’s no underlying system, the tool isn’t going to work! This is a particularly common challenge with complex digital tools or paper planning systems–the power of the tools themselves leads us to confuse them with being a system, but they are not. When we abandon them a few weeks or months later, because we don’t look at them, or it’s not working, we either blame the tool or ourselves for failing to manage this area. In reality, we just need to create or adjust our system, and choose the tools that support us.
Choosing tools is another area where I think it’s important to understand the difference between a tool and a system. If we’re in a situation where we can choose our tools (such as at home), we can use our system to define exactly what we need, and then choose a tool that we enjoy and will actually use (both are important!). If it’s a situation where the tools are chosen for us (such as an institutional platform at work) instead of feeling frustrated that we can’t use our preferred tools, we can figure out how to use these tools to support the systems that work for us. Similarly, if a tool stops working or becomes unavailable, we can choose another one without too much disruption to our system. Finally, if you’re someone like me who likes to experiment with different tools, you can just try them out as a support piece in your system, without messing up the system itself 🙂.
I’d love to know how you view systems and tools, and how you use them to support yourself in managing different areas of your life! Let me know in the comments below.