Information on systems thinking and how to use the systems and habits approach to improvement.
The systems and habits approach to improvement focuses on making small steps towards improvement. It looks at time as something to leverage so it takes the slow road forward and doesn’t expect instant results.
This means that there will be times when things are difficult and times when things are easy. There will be times where we see great results and times when the results don’t come. We will have times when it just seems to flow and times when everything feels like a struggle.
The other day I started reading a new book, Start Here, Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. I saw this book at the library and started reading it, not expecting to gain too much insight from it.
As I read the early chapters, I came across a section that blew me away. It referenced the Tao Te Ching and talked about many themes of happiness and wellness that I have explored, but did so in an amazingly straightforward and insightful way. Suddenly a lot of different areas of exploration in my personal wellness journey came together in a new, yet familiar way.
We all worry at times. Sometimes we worry that our job is at risk and sometimes we worry that a new illness is something more than a cold.
While everyone has moments of worry, some people worry more than others. I used to worry about everything and it consumed my life. At the time it felt like this was something I had no control over and just had to cope with.
I’ve often heard the advice to live life as if today was your last day. I’ve never liked this advice and recently when I heard it, I realized just how much this advice could lead to poor decisions.
When I was younger my philosophy on life was quite different. I drank and partied a bit much so if I were told I would die the next day I would probably choose to live that day partying and having fun. I would ignore any consequences to my actions and give in to any temptations that surface.
Systems thinking is a concept that has been around for decades. Even prior to the official systems thinking experts, you see signs of systems thinking throughout history.
Systems thinking is the ability to think about a whole situation and all of the interconnecting parts rather than just seeing a small snapshot of the full system.
Following the systems and habits approach to improve some aspect of your life you will certainly come up against times when you want to keep going but the discomfort around that builds and builds.
When we try to change ingrained habits we can put the odds on our side by starting small, focusing on progress over perfection and being flexible. But there will still be times when it is very difficult to keep going.
Many people hear me discuss the systems and habits approach to improvement and think that must mean a very rigid, disciplined approach. But that is not correct. In reality the systems and habits approach is incredibly flexible.
Flexibility is important. When software engineers started to realize the traditional, structured approach to project management led to failure, they came up with Agile Project Management. They learned that by having small iterations it doesn’t lock you in like a complex project plan does.
There are a lot of books that talk about identifying your values and then clarifying them so that you can live your life on purpose. The idea is that, if we only know for certain what we believe, we can then live out our life with the purpose and meaning we all crave.
They claim the remedy to an unfulfilled life is simply a better understanding of what you want in life. Find this and everything else will follow.
Most of us know what we should do in most situations. But our behaviors often follow something else.
We go out with friends instead of preparing for the report that is due. We smoke, eat junk food, and watch too much TV, when we know those things are not good for us.
Everyone is different. We all have varying experiences and beliefs that make us who we are. We are each unique and add value in our own way.
But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t common patterns. In fact, many of us probably see recurring behaviors by different people and see the similarity in each person’s approach.
The systems and habits approach to improvement relies on very small steps. We find small improvements that we can do and then we do them over and over again.
By doing this we start to slowly build new positive habits. We think through these changes to make sure they help us get where we want to go. Without this approach the habits form by default by whatever our recurring decisions happen to be.
Plenty of people set goals. We want more money, a bigger house, a better job or more time off. The focus is to gain something or achieve some specific result.
We don’t fully grasp the actions and behaviors that we will have to change in order to gain the reward that we envision. This causes us to overlook crucial elements to reaching this goal.
When I was in middle school I started to play football for my school. I had never played tackle football but was raised in a family that was obsessed with football.
This put a lot of pressure on me. I wanted to succeed and be able to play at a high level to help my team, but I was unsure if I would be good enough to even compete.
We are constantly surrounded by and interacting with systems. On a daily basis we encounter elements of various systems and don’t spend much time thinking about them.
It usually isn’t until there is a problem that we shift our focus to be on the system. As soon as the problem surfaces we want to know how to correct the problem.
When it comes to personal improvement, it may be difficult to know when to act and when to sit back and plan out your approach. If we act without adequate planning we usually find ourselves doing the wrong things.
If we plan without adequate action, we find ourselves in analysis paralysis. We can’t possibly do anything perfectly so we just keep finding fault.
One of the concepts of systems thinking is the idea of emergent properties. Emergent properties are effects that come from the various system components interacting.
These may go unnoticed to the person who thinks through problems linearly because they may not see the intended or unintended side effects that are produced from the system.
In systems thinking, feedback loops are important to understand how a certain aspect of the system functions. There are several types of feedback loops and several situations where they are present.
In our personal improvement journey we can find ways to utilize feedback loops to help us reach a goal. One way is to create a new habit.
Nick Saban is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. His Alabama teams seem to compete for National Championships year in and year out. His winning teams set the standard for college football excellence.
Yet Saban is much less focused on winning than you might think. Obviously winning is important. But, in 1998 he changed his focus from being on the outcome (i.e. winning) to being on the process.
There is a structure that I often see in books, speeches and other resources. It usually goes something like this…
What if I told you that I know the secret to winning the lottery? I know the one thing that every single lottery winner has done that has helped him win the lottery. It doesn’t matter how superstitious you are because this one thing is so powerful nobody will ever win without doing it.
Systems thinking has great benefits for the business person or the individual trying to improve something about themselves. But the benefits of systems thinking provide even greater benefit that doesn’t often get talked about.
The truth is that being able to better understand the world around us can help us avoid overreacting to something. In linear thinking when something happens, we quickly search for what led to it and what will be the consequences, often causing us to overreact. In systems thinking, we can see the full system, and can understand the true scope of this particular situation better, allowing us to remain calm as we determine what to do next.
Sometimes in conversations with others, I see examples where people know what they should do but do something different. We all experience this from time to time.
If we want to get healthy we need to exercise more and eat healthier foods and lower caloric intake. This is common sense, most would say. But it isn’t common behavior.
Since it is the beginning of the year we can start to see all sorts of signs that the majority of people want to change and improve their lives. They set New Years resolutions and promise that this year will be the year they see the results they crave.
Results are usually the measuring stick that we all use. If we start working out to lose weight we want to see the number on the scale decrease over time. We don’t want to set out to lose weight and gain weight instead.
I previously worked with a fairly large corporation. The company had been around over 70 years and built a solid business with thousands of employees.
Because of the fact that the business was older and it was a large corporation, there were constant calls for change. Everywhere people would claim we couldn’t keep working this way. They would argue that the processes and systems were outdated.
Systems are all around us. We all interact with too many systems to count on a daily basis. There are traffic systems in place while we drive to work, work rules that makeup processes and systems, and we interact with others using habits and systematic responses.
With all of the various systems around us, in can be easy to forget how many systems we have control over. These can be looked at as habits, natural tendencies, our daily routines and behaviors etc. Instead of focusing on systems we control we only notice systems outside of our control.
There are many ways to design systems and habits to improve an area of your life. I have worked through many different system designs and habit changes and found that the options are numerous.
With all of those options it can be hard to get started. I always recommend starting slowly (such using the technique setting the minimum). But that still might not be enough information to really understand how to do this.
People have been using systems thinking for decades. While Lao Tzu certainly had no understanding of any formal systems thinking 2,500 years ago when he wrote the Tao Te Ching, his work exemplifies many systems thinking principles.
Today you can easily find a book that explains systems thinking in a very technical manner. You can study about feedback loops and mental models all day to get more clarity around elements that exist within a system.
Dr. Wayne Dyer once said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
I love that quote. Not just because it is insightful but also because I have gone through several transformations of the way I think and each time I experienced this very intimately.
This time of year, everyone seems to be talking about goals and resolutions. Change is in the air. Motivation is up and we start to evaluate what we want to improve in the next few months.
While this can be a good time to boost our self-improvement, it can also form a cycle of start and failure. Many of the goals we set are uncomfortable so we wait until January to attack them.
One of the misconceptions around systems thinking is that using it will suddenly make every decision easy and perfect. By seeing the full system, we assume that we can see the magical solution that we missed when we were thinking linearly.
The reality is that systems thinking isn’t about magic or perfection. It is really more about seeing things differently to get a better idea of the full picture.
There is complexity all around us. The world seems to get more complex by the day. With all of this increasing complexity, we often have to make simplicity a priority.
Keeping things simple can be a great method for handling all of life’s details. By remaining focused on the simple solution we can continue to improve. But the reality is that sometimes we can’t avoid the complex details.
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.