Information on systems thinking and how to use the systems and habits approach to improvement.
There is a saying, “Fake it till you make it,” that I have heard often in life. It might be advice in a book about success or justification from someone acting abnormally.
I have struggled with this saying because of the fact that it can be incredibly helpful to “fake it till you make it.” But at times this simply becomes an excuse for acting against your own values and beliefs.
There are moments that mean more than others when we are trying to improve and reach a goal. But many improvement strategies ignore them and assume every minute is the same.
It could be the moment our friend walks in our dorm to see if we want to hang out that leads us away from studying for our upcoming final. It could be driving home from work when we decide we are too tired to stop at the gym.
We can all look at successful people with envy and wish we could have the success that they enjoyed in their area of focus. Maybe we see someone at our company that has an extremely large salary and think “I wish I made that much!”
Or maybe we see a famous athlete and wish we had the ability to succeed at the pro level and play among the elite. Maybe we see our personal trainer and wish we had abs like he or she has.
Our world is filled with external stimuli. All day long we are interacting with other people, other situations, other places etc.
This makes it easy to give too much control to external sources. We start to think we are powerless and it is up to someone or something else to decide what happens.
Using systems to manipulate our own habits in order to get better is a great way to succeed in almost any area. We can use it to help our finances, health, education, career etc.
The reason is simple. The systems and habits approach takes advantage of the automatic response that our mind and body utilize to keep doing things that it feels are working.
When you utilize the systems and habits approach to improvement, you likely don’t see everything clearly in front of you when you start. Some elements seem easy some seem hard and some seem impossible.
When I first started to improve a few areas of my life I had a very vague idea of where it would lead. I always struggled with having a very clear vision despite reading over and over how important it is to have this vision in the early stages of goal setting.
Using the systems and habits approach to improvement, we have to be willing to try different, new tactics in order to succeed. We can’t just keep doing what we currently do; otherwise we end up with exactly what we have.
But change can be scary. We are wired to find the dangers first, and then the opportunities second, and only if no danger is present.
There is a false belief that only those people with extreme issues and problems should focus on improvement. I have given many speeches about improvement and reaching goals and I have noticed that many people immediately assume that everyone else needs to listen to the message, but not them.
The reason is simple. It is much easier to see weaknesses in others than in our selves. Most self-improvement focuses on ways to improve upon weaknesses. But there is more than can be gained from self-improvement. We can use it to also grow our strengths.
We all know what bad habits are. They are smoking, drinking, eating too much, biting our nails etc.
But these aren’t the habits that we use in the systems and habits approach to improvement. The habits that are important to leverage in order to improve are often much more subtle.
Whenever we are manipulating a habit or system, we want to find small things to improve. But it can be tricky to know what to actually do. That is where the systems thinking concept of leverage is important.
Points of leverage in a system are the parts of the system where a small action produces a large outcome. It could be that we leverage time by doing something over and over again until it starts to become a habit. Or it could be to focus on key times when decisions and actions create the most important outcomes.
In a lot of motivational and self-help books the authors explain that in order to be accountable for your goals, you have to share them with others.
The idea is that if others are watching then you are more likely to actually do it. And when you struggle, others are more likely to help you keep moving.
Too often when we want to change something in our lives to get better, we assume that the answer is that we just have to be tougher. We have to fight against the urges that we know lead us in the wrong direction.
We have to focus. We have to be strong. In short, we have to rely on our willpower in order to succeed and reach our goal.
When it comes to setting goals and trying to get better, most of us inherently gravitate towards effort. We think we just need to put forth more effort in order to succeed.
Effort is important. Without at least some effort any attempt at improvement will likely fail. But because most people only know effort-based execution, they can’t see the horrible limitations that are imposed if all we can do is give more effort.
Most of us are surrounded by events and actions that we judge as either good or bad. We can usually find reasons to justify our reasoning and then we react accordingly.
But what if that part of our thinking is actually wrong? What if judging something is flawed in a way that predisposes us towards unhappiness?
Our ability to use systems thinking to see the whole is important. Instead of relying on linear thinking and only seeing small sections of the whole system, we can envision the interrelationships, patterns, structures and mental models.
But why is it that linear thinking tends to guide us towards only a small snapshot of the whole? Why does it become difficult to see the full picture?
We all know the feeling. We have some big problem weighing on us. Any moment that we aren’t distracted by something else we think about it.
We worry, we stress, and we want so desperately for this problem to go away. We focus so much on wanting the problem to be gone that we try every trick in the book to relieve the stress on our minds.
I read a lot of articles on systems thinking and one thing that I notice is that many times they focus too much on the negative. They point to a large system and show how the structures reinforce something bad or we can never improve as a society because of too much linear thinking.
Systems thinkers become expert critics of everyone and everything else around them. Sometimes they use it to be smarter than everyone they talk to.
Peter Senge talks about a concept called dynamic complexity in his book, The Fifth Discipline. He says that the world is becoming more and more complex every day.
Most of understand this from the standpoint of detail complexity. This is the complexity around the specifics of an issue and around the details.
Creating a new system can be great way to try to improve and change something. By creating a new system to address a problem we are tackling the problem in a very direct and purposeful way.
But creating a new system can be extremely difficult. There is no certainty that the new system will work and no way to know exactly how to structure it.
Blaming others for our problems is incredibly easy. In almost every conceivable scenario we find a way to shift some blame towards something external.
But blaming something “external” doesn’t make sense from a systems thinking standpoint. In linear thinking it does because the way the problem is framed, but it doesn’t make sense when look at the full system.
In systems thinking, speed isn’t looked at the same as in linear thinking. In linear thinking, the faster we can go the better.
The linear thinking goes… if growth in business is good, then faster growth is better; if improving one’s finances are good then gaining money quickly must be better; if getting healthy is good, getting there immediately is better.
Many people have felt motivation to change something in their life at one time or another. The desire to correct for a weakness or get better in some area is common.
What also is common is the mistake that we tend to make where we ignore the structures in place and just assume sheer effort will get us there. We think we just need more motivation to find success.
One of the areas that can be difficult for people who want to improve and grow is to be able to take in negative or constructive feedback and make changes.
This can be an incredible way to gain insight into areas that are holding you back. But you have to be able to calm your emotional response and then evaluate the feedback without strong emotion.
There are three elements to a strong system. First, it has to be simple. Second, it has to be sticky. Third, it has to be self-regulating.
Simplicity is a key to a system being able to sustain because the more complex it is the more likely steps will be forgotten or skipped. If it is complex, it may never even get going because the complexity would be a deterrent for someone trying to take on the system.
Each time there is a deadly mass shooting in the United States, we get a sense of the larger systems at play with regards to guns. Some will point to an aspect of the system and feel they have a solution. Some will defend their position. Some will work to use the event for political gain.
The systems in the United States around guns are incredibly complex and deeply ingrained in the various beliefs people have. This makes a simple, linear solution impossible.
The way we approach new goals and dreams, in many ways, reflects how we feel about learning. The parallels between the two can shed light on ways we might be sabotaging our efforts to improve.
In Presence, by Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, the authors state that, “When we’re learning something new, we can feel awkward, incompetent and even foolish. It’s easy to convince ourselves that it’s really not so important after all to incorporate the new – and so we give up.”
In life there are numerous things that we want to change. Many times we want change to happen for us, fitting neatly in the exact way that fits us best.
But if there is change that we desire, we can’t just sit idly by and hope others do it for us. We have to find a way to move from saying we should change something to actually changing it.
I used to think that to improve meant that you had to have some negative emotion that you were trying to correct. In other words, there has to be something that you don’t like in order to work hard to change something.
Years ago I came across the Yerkes-Dodson curve. The Yerkes-Dodson curve shows that as arousal and anxiety increase our performance increases up to a point and then decreases as we add more arousal or anxiety.
Our society likes to make assumptions about the effort one makes towards a goal. We see a tennis player win a tournament and say their effort is what made it happen.
Or we see a scientific discovery and assume their effort in thinking through the problem was the key factor that allowed them to succeed.
This website has been developed to help you understand the power of systems and habits in your life and then take action to build the person that you want to become. There are over 70 free articles, 1 free eBook, and free videos and links to other system and habit experts.