Make Big Life Changes Less of an Ordeal With a Lean Systems Perspective

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640Header by Rory Midhani

Feature image by Shutterstock

Last week, I quit my job of four and a half years. Over the next few weeks, I need to transition all my projects at work; find a subletter for my current New York City apartment; tour new apartments until I find one to my liking; sign a lease; buy a car; pack my belongings; move to Boston; unpack; and begin my new job as a senior quality engineer at a Massachusetts based housewares company. Over that time period I also have two dentist appointments in upstate New York, a previously-booked weekend trip to Denver, and a dinner date with my girlfriend in Boston. There’s a lot going on.

In times like these, I find myself snapping rapidly between two conflicting impulses. One: to organize obsessively, crafting an intensely detailed master spreadsheet — I always have a spreadsheet —  that will anticipate every possible pitfall and lay out my plans, alternate plans, and alternate alternate plans. Or, two: to just like, fuck it. You know? Make plans on the fly and deal with issues as they arise. This is the eternal struggle of my left-brain/right-brain existence. Or at least it feels that way, sometimes.

Both sides of my brain are rainbow, though. Image via Shutterstock.

Both sides of my brain are rainbow, though. Image via Shutterstock.

When I find myself getting mired down in detail, I often find it helpful to step back and look at things from a lean systems perspective. In manufacturing environments, engineers are trained to identify common areas of waste (referred to as “muda,” the Japanese word for “futility; uselessness; idleness; superfluity; waste; wastage; wastefulness”) and eliminate them. There are a variety of math and science-based tools we use to accomplish this, but honestly, I’d say about 90% of industrial/systems engineering work boils down to this super easy exercise: stop for a minute and think about what the main objective is. Now look at what you’re doing. Is that activity getting you closer to the goal? If yes, carry on; if no, pause. Why are you spending time on this activity if it’s not getting you closer to the goal? Is it really necessary? If what you’re doing isn’t adding any value, there’s probably something better you could be doing with your time.

Of the seven common types of muda, my favorite to eliminate is “waste of overprocessing.” This is when people expend unnecessary energy trying  to make things perfect where it doesn’t really matter. In manufacturing, this means things like setting the tolerances too tight, or painting areas inside a product that nobody’s going to see. Applied to my day-to-day life, I think of this as things like obsessively sorting and resorting my pantry, in pursuit of the perfect organization scheme. As a very casual home cook, as long as I can find everything I need when I need it, my needs are met; it doesn’t matter whether I got perfectly matching chalkboard labels or not. Or another example: spending hours comparatively shopping to buy fifteen types of precision eyeshadow brushes so that I have the exact right tool for every possible occasion. For me, this counts as overprocessing, because in my actual lived reality, I only ever do two different looks and don’t even understand what the different shapes are for! Someone else might have different objectives, and those chalkboard labels and eyeshadow brushes might be exactly what they need. But I need to look at my goals, not theirs. If an activity isn’t value added to me and my goals, it’s not worth my time.

That’s the mindset I’m taking with me as I plan my move, and the practical applications are boundless. Do I need to organize the supplies in my craft bin before showing my room to potential subletters? No; they can’t see the inside of the bin, and they definitely don’t care. Do I need to create elaborate inventory lists and put them on the outside of each box labeling the contents before moving it? No; that step is very time consuming and isn’t strictly necessary for me to achieve the goal of moving all my stuff. Do I need to make a ranked spreadsheet of Craigslist ads for housing I’m interested in? Yes, because I only have a few days to tour apartments before I need to choose where I want to live, and I need to be as efficient as possible during that time. That is a value-added activity.

What are some areas in your life where you can apply a lean systems perspective?

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. I would 100% read an advice column that applied systems engineering to all the life problems.

    Love, a fellow spreadsheet aficionado.

  2. I just realized that I have a great big talent crush on you, @laura-m … Also, include me in the list of people who needed to read exactly this thing today.

  3. if you wanted to write a whole thing about your spreadsheet systems… i would read it.

  4. I could apply this to my life – I just quit my job too. Except unlike you being so busy, aside from morning job searching I’ve got so much time… and I’m filling it with muda…

  5. I love your columns, I’m a hapa wannabe process engineer, and your insights always strike a cord!
    Interesting concept of applying optimisation to your day to day activities. I find myself being overly analytical, always watching out for potential problems and improvements so maybe I should use it for the better. Good luck with your new job!

  6. 1- “waste of overprocessing.” – this really hits home for a perfectionist.
    2- SPREADSHEETS!! I am so glad I’m not the only spreadsheet-obsessed person whose entire life is cataloged into excel.

    Thank you for the insightful article, and good luck with all the big moves/changes!

  7. Thank you, Laura! I will definitely be applying this to my job search and other “getting my shit together” tasks.

  8. Great article!

    I do like the Lean system and try to apply it widely. Unfortunately where I work System Engineers are usually the producers of muda! Endlessly frustrating. Can I just direct them here so they understand what they put me through?

  9. Oh I am so going to try and apply the lean system to my life, as opposed to the lazy system I currently use.
    Also I’ve been trying to find a way of stopping my students farting around doing pointless things which do not advance their work, and explaining this process of not over processing may be a way forward, rather than me standing there shouting “do you really need to be doing this?” Or “is this a valid use of your limited time?” when they get into a too many cooks overprocess the broth situation. Thank you so much!

  10. I love this way of thinking!!! I too have a left brain/right brain battle, I’m a scientific illustrator, art/science incarnate, and I always score 50/50 on those right brain/left brain tests (not that I set a lot of store by online quizzes). Sometimes I have the worst of both worlds, but sometimes the best.

    I’m at a stage in my life where I’m shaking things up and thinking hard about how to really make changes, rather than just trying to change things and slipping into old habits. I’m going to take some time to go through that list and have a good think about it.

    • Also, looking at inventory in particular – I’ve been somewhat successful in cutting down the amount of stuff I own, and I’ve come to think of it as a cost rather than wealth. Especially if you’ve been poor, material possessions can make you feel safer. But they cost you, in time, effort and money every time you move house, by taking up space and making it harder to find the stuff you need, by taking time and effort to clean around, and taking up a kind of mental space. But it’s a bit bleak to think of stuff costing you money, so I think of them kind of like pets. When I buy a new thing I think, ‘is it worth the cost to house/clean/care for this?’ Sometimes, ‘I really love this book, but it wouldn’t be fair to adopt it when I can’t care for it properly.’

      • @thesaria Yes, this! I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up several months ago and it sounds kinda hokey but it was the absolute best. It basically says the same thing you just said, with additional tips about how to do a deep clean to get rid of possessions you don’t love, and reasons why it’s okay to get rid of them. Highly recommend.

  11. Ack! Over processing is definitely a thing I do all the time and need to work on. Good luck with your move!! I’m just finishing up a move and I do kind of wish I did label every box in more detail or better organized by category or something cause I’m having a hard time finding things right now since I haven’t had time to fully unpack. But I guess the labels would be pointless when I actually finish unpacking haha

  12. I really associate with the pull between being super organised and planning intensely and the opposing fuck-it mentality where I make decisions because I want to and they make me excited. Explaining to my housemate why I chose my uni, far from home in a place I’d never been primarily because Wales sounded fun and new and because Doctor Who is filmed here. He can’t get his head around it, as I am also a person who will research my plans to within an inch of their life.
    I’m a flip-flopper of decision making processes. But I also think that my off-the-cuff decisions are some of the best decisions I’ve ever made (I’m talking about you, A-Camp).

  13. This is so genius. I have already re-prioritized my to-do list and made some good snacking decisions.

  14. Thank you, Laura (and congratulations on the new job!) This systen seems so obvious now that I’m informed so I’m hopeful it will help me out, too!

  15. OMG, more of this please! I’m moving to literally the opposite corner of the country, and I don’t know how to get my stuff there and I’m freaking out and when I freak out I self-soothe by buying things. Which is counter productive. Can someone write a column about their move? How do you ship things? Is there a lesbian cross-country truck company I can support? How do you find affordable apartments in a place you can’t visit before you get there??

    • I just moved to a new country and I brought two suitcases and decided I probably didn’t need my other stuff! That’s a thing. (You can also ship things but it’s probably hard if you don’t have your destination address yet.)

      If it’s really not feasible to visit before you move there, can you find a sublet type deal for your first month or two, and house-hunt aggressively once you arrive? Then you have somewhere but you’re not tied into a lease in a place you haven’t seen. I did this and the place was bad, but I moved out ASAP, after like 8 weeks, and 8 weeks is not that long! It was all fine!

    • This is a super-late reply, so you may not see it. But, Danielle Owens-Reid and Julia Nunes talk about this exact thing in one of their latest videos. Maybe the question they were answering is yours?

      Also, after moving cross-country multiple times, I completely second what biensurmacherie says. I’ve found that I just don’t need to move most things with me. I usually give away or sell a great deal and then pack everything else up in a car or minivan and drive myself to my new place. I’ve also shipped basically everything for one move in about ten big boxes. (They were actually rubbermaid bins – which I do not suggest for shipping!) Furniture, especially, is usually not worth it to move, for me. Renting a truck or using a moving service cross-country is very expensive – usually more than the sum of what I paid for my furniture. And, to me, part of the fun of a new place is scouting out new second-hand finds for cheap, that work perfectly for the new space. Obviously, if you have more expensive furniture or heirlooms, this may not apply. But I think it’s really helpful to do a quick analysis of what you will be moving, and the cost and time needed to replace it versus the cost of moving it.

      Good luck with your move and new beginnings!

  16. During my first semester of law school, someone told me to just ask myself one question: “is this going to help me do well during finals?” If yes, do it, and if no, don’t. I found it a really helpful mentality, actually.

  17. I love this idea of getting rid of processes that waste your energy. I’m sometimes guilty of that, and even of putting off a thing because I’m not ready to do it perfectly yet, meaning I never do it at all.

    I’m also bad at realising when a process turns from useful to not worth it, diminishing-returns-wise. Because some labelling of boxes adds value, right, like “Here are the emergency snacks for when you arrive and everything’s closed” or “Here are your pyjamas and toothbrush!”, but you have to notice when the labelling becomes “Here’s the pan with the lid but the pan without the lid is in the other box with the books and pens.” Any advice for recognising that particular kind of timesink?

  18. First time reading this column and I loved it! Definitely going through the archives to read more.

  19. I so needed to read this right now as I am struggling with thesis and actually spending half of the time overorganizing related files and structuring absurd lists…

  20. ahhh i love this. i think about the concept of “decision fatigue” all the time [and am working my way out of it] and this fits that whola dilemma perfectly

  21. I’ve thought a lot about this and I think lean systems thinking might be the answer to the whole “deep lesbian processing takes sooooo long” thing.

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