Systems Thinking for Notion Users

notion productivity

This article is a follow-up to my previous article. That one was a general introduction to Systems Thinking beyond its specific application to Notion, I recommend reading that one before diving further into this one, it’s short.


Notion is the best platform I’ve ever seen for non-coders to build personal life operating systems, and small business owners to create business operations systems. However, to use Notion most effectively you must shape it into a coherent system. Previous-generation software and productivity tools came with a system and structure built-in, inherent to the platform. Not so with Notion. In Notion you have the freedom to design your own.

This is Notion’s greatest power, and its greatest source of frustration for new users. You not only need to learn the software but also master system design. If you make the investment to solve this piece of the Notion implementation puzzle, the rest will fall into place. And you will have more control over your world, a world of your own design playing to your own personal strengths and preferences. This knowledge will empower you to build a life operating system for yourself or for your business.

My next article will dive into the Notion software directly, and the majority of the articles that follow in this series will be practical hands-on with screen-shares of Notion setups. But I wanted to set the stage with this and the previous video first to establish a systems foundation. A systems approach is central to successfully setting Notion up to be more than a one-off page, table, or simple wiki.


Notion Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is not the mere act of trying to assemble a system. It’s not just learning or analyzing a system. It’s a philosophy on how you do those things and more, emphasizing what you prioritize and what you value most in the system. It’s a world-view or framework for looking at things, a framework in direct contrast to the standard way our society tends to approach issues.

So, what does systems thinking mean for us as we design our Notion platforms?

This article builds up to a central insight, a key element that makes systems thinking lethal for a Notion design. But to bring clarity to that ultimate point, we need to work up to it. So let’s dive in.

First, Systems Thinking for Notion means we need a clear picture of what we want to accomplish. It can change over time, but at the outset we must define our goals and desired outcomes. Is it to save time? Is it to organize complex collections of information, or make elements within your workflow more transparent? Is it to prioritize what matters most at any given moment? Of course, it can be any combination of these or more. But know at the outset what you’re optimizing for. All subsequent choices and trade-offs are weighed against pre-determined priorities.

Then, in the context of Notion platform design, recognize the central tenant of Systems Thinking: all systems are part of larger systems, and every system is defined by its function in the larger system. So we are going to look not only at the system we’re designing, but how it interacts within a larger universe of activity.


Step-By-Step Approach

We start with Step 1: Define the inputs, outputs, and movements. Before diving into Notion, look at these elements in your current workflow because we’ll want to port them into Notion.

What will be flowing into your notion workflow or process, and what will be exiting at various stages throughout? How will that information enter? Where will you be collecting it from? What’s the most efficient way to routinely bring variable data into tables or pages?

When Notion releases the much anticipated API and Zapier integrations, we’ll get more options here. But at the moment, a lot of this will be manual. So you’ll want to think about the quickest and most efficient way to enter the right information (and no more than necessary), at the right point in your personal or professional workflow.

A side note on Notion automations: even while we have the temporary limitation of no Zapier integrations or API to connect external data flows, Notion has already become the king of internal connectivity by replacing four or more independent applications in one comprehensive system. So once inside the Notion system, information is more interconnected and dynamic than it was across numerous patched-together apps. That’s why Notion is already the best platform for this kind of system.

So consider how that information will flow through the system. What triggers and responses will be activated throughout, and at what touchpoints will you personally engage with that information stream? Where are the likely bottlenecks? The bottlenecks will almost certainly be you or a member of your team, so anticipate those points and design for that. Ask what happens to the backup pool that accumulates at the bottleneck? Design for the items awaiting action to pool up in an organized, prioritized manner that makes it easier to process and dig out. When things go sideways and derail, how does the system pause or reset?

This is probably starting to sound complicated, and we haven’t even opened Notion yet. Don’t worry, the purpose of this discussion at this point is merely to connect Systems Thinking with the design work we will be doing in Notion. I’m rattling these questions off to frame an approach of looking at Notion through a Systems Thinking lens, we are not building right now. This is conceptual. I just want you to bring this kind of mindset to the project when we open Notion and start getting our hands dirty. It will serve you well having thought broadly about these issues.

After these first three introductory articles (of which this is the third), the next articles will be working in Notion, with explicit examples of systems that have been super effective for myself and clients. All of these people were struggling with personal and professional systems, and they’re now massively effective performance machines. You come out the back end of this process an aerodynamic rocket ship.

Next we look for reoccurring patterns. Again, reflect on circular patterns in your life and in your work that you hope to enhance with Notion. What are you doing over and over again? What do you want to do less of? And more of? What are your most frequent accomplishments? And re-occurring disappointments? You’re doing two things here — identifying what Notion can help you improve, and obtaining clarity on the elements of your personal system that must be fluid and dynamic in the Notion implementation.

At the very least, make lists of these by category — a Notion Kanban board would work well for this, or Trello, or good old-fashioned pen and paper. Better yet, lay out your process in a flow chart using a tool such as Whimsicle or Miro (both have free versions).


Power Looping

Now we get to the central insight that I alluded to earlier: find and cultivate Feedback Loops, and design your Notion system to facilitate them.

Remember a feedback loop is a self-magnifying or self-diminishing pattern over time. With each iteration, a Feedback Loop increases or decreases in magnitude ­ — perpetually and systematically. The results of the previous cycle pour greater resources and momentum into the beginning of the next cycle, over and over again. Feedback loops can build you up to be the best in the world at something, or they can break you down.

What behaviors or activities will steadily get you closer to your goals? Doing something steadily, even just a little every day will have compounding effects — such routine efforts will increase their impact at an increasing rate, putting you on an exponential growth and improvement curve. How can your Notion system shape your activities to generate these compounding results?

Furthermore, how can the steady accumulation of knowledge and information in your system and in your life fuel your growth? One item of knowledge is valuable on its own, but combining complementary pieces of knowledge creates something more powerful together than the sum of their individual parts. Creativity is less about novel ideas and more about combining disparate ideas into a new combination.

How can your Notion system facilitate the discovery of complementary ideas from diverse fields or sources? How can your system surface those ideas in the right place at the right time?


Design for Emergence

In the previous article, I spoke of the phenomenon of “emergence” within systems — that is, transformational qualities which emerge from a comprehensive system working smoothly together, qualities that do not exist in the individual parts. A well-designed Notion system will create emergence in your life and in your business.

Everything in life and business is cause and effect. Causal relationships embedded inside of feedback loops are massively powerful because of their unrelenting impact. They don’t stop, they keep on driving. You need to shape your notion systems to deliver this unrelenting impact on your growth, personal enhancement, learning, thinking, and business results — perpetually. It’s not what you do on any given day or week or month. It’s what you do week after week, month after month, and year after year.

A system on any platform that perpetually shapes the activities and behaviors necessary for you to become the person you want to be, will deliver emergence in your life. You’ll see qualities you never anticipated, qualities that seem to form without explanation — gradually and steadily if you remain on course. You won’t even recognize who you become. And Notion gives you the design control to shape such a system to uniquely fit how your mind works.

But you have to know how to design the process flow, and how to build emergence into your personal operating system through compounding cause-and-effects. Just as routinely putting money aside in a savings account compounds and increases in value over time at an increasing rate, the same occurs with your activities and behaviors. But only if you implement steadily and consistently.

A well-designed Notion system will shape the path and provide the clarity to guide such behaviors. It can do the same for the collection and distillation of knowledge, or for your content creation efforts, or your personal finances, or your skill development, or anything that matters to you.


Balancing the Machine

While Feedback Loops are the rocket fuel that drives your growth, any system that is to last requires Balancing Processes. You’ll try to build these in from the start, but in reality the work never ends to identify breakdowns or pressure pushing the system out of sync. You will perpetually shape these balancing properties as you operate within the system. You need to look for ways to bring such guardrails and counter-pressures into your system to keep it in equilibrium.

In my experience, the most consistently powerful of these are routine reviews such as the Weekly Review, Monthly Review, Quarterly or Annual Review. Understanding the importance of Balancing Processes helps you recognize and stick to your periodic reviews — you make them part of you system, so you do them no matter what else is going on. Without such counter-balancing measures, any system is operating on borrowed time. We’ll discuss other types of Balancing Processes as we get into specific Notion system implementations in future articles.

And finally, we need to be aware of how our Notion systems interact with other systems — other systems inside our Notion builds, and other systems outside of Notion. This loops us back to the first step above of identifying entry points and exit points within the system. How will data or activity hand-offs be made into and out of each integrated or overlapping system? How will patterns and feedback loops overlap and magnify across these systems? You will see patterns in one system echoed across the other related systems, and in turn the Feedback Loops will magnify across them. When the effect is positive, facilitate it to unleash the greatest impact. When the effect is negative, minimize or cut it off.

And we end up where we began: understanding that all systems are part of larger systems, and every system is defined by its function in the larger system. The key here is to think and design holistically.

In the next article, we dive into Notion and the fun begins.

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