When we want to improve in an area or reach a specific goal we have to set goals based on the process of reaching that goal. In other words, we don’t just pick a random number to shoot for; we investigate what it will take to make progress and then work to implement small systematic steps to get there.
There are various ways to look at systems. In product development it can be common to look at interdependent or integrated systems and contrast that with modular systems.
Horace Dediu does a great job of discussing this in the article Re-framing the dichotomies: Open/Closed vs. Integrated/Functional. In the article he describes the difference between these systems and gives insight into which one is optimal for various situations.
“Interdependent systems have linkages between elements ranging from product components to the members of a product value chain. Essentially, the pieces communicate or interface via non-public or non-licensed protocols and have only specific partners (e.g. the iPod and iTunes).”
He goes on to describe modular systems. “Modular product architectures, on the other hand, are similar to the concept of plug-and-play and resemble building blocks, consisting of standardized interfaces, enabling parts to be easily swapped in and out and multiple suppliers or partners to compete.”
But looking at interdependent systems versus modular systems is helpful beyond product development. Dediu makes a great observation about when each method has an advantage. “So the question is not whether one is better than the other but when either one should be used.”
Taking that same observation to improving the systems and habits in our lives we can take the approach that the integrated method is optimal early in the development of a new habit and the modular approach is optimal once the habit is developed.
So let’s try to look at a real life example. If we decide that we want to get healthy and exercise we can use the systems and habits approach to develop a new process.
We can start slowly and work to find exercises that are easy and we can continue to do them over and over again. We want to stick with it so we should try to control this process as much as possible. We should strive to exercise at the same time, in the same place, by doing the same exercises. This gives us the greatest chance that it becomes automatic enough to form a new positive habit.
But this has its restrictions. First it becomes very rigid. If we are on vacation, suddenly it throws our routine off. If we want to focus on another area of improvement, such as incorporating more strength exercises instead of solely relying on cardio exercises, it can mean we have to start over building the habit.
Once this has been habitualized, then it is more beneficial to think about it as a modular system. Break it into chunks and then mold the exercise around the various chunks in order to get the most out of each exercise. Find variation that will still result in the necessary exercise.
There is a great academic paper by Manuel E. Sosa, Steven D. Eppinger, and Craig M. Rowles that talks about integrated and modular systems that also provides some insight. The paper is called Identifying Modular and Integrative Systems and Their Impact on Design Team Interactions.
In the article the authors state, “We introduce here the concepts of modular and integrative systems, from an external perspective, that is, based on the existence of design interfaces between components of the same product that belong to different systems. We define modular systems as those whose design interfaces with other systems are clustered among a few physically adjacent systems, whereas integrative systems are those whose design interfaces span all or most of the systems that comprise the product due to their physically distributed or functionally integrative nature throughout the product.”
Looking at modular habits when “systems are clustered among a few physically adjacent systems” we can start to form our systems and habits to understand their interaction among other factors. We can apply our strict habit to other variables instead of thinking of it in a vacuum. This will help solidify the habit and will make it more flexible.
But starting out with this level of complexity is dangerous. It is dangerous because we haven’t even developed the discipline to maintain the process. Without that discipline the complexity will just confuse things and push us away from improvement. We will try to be an expert without first being a beginner.
So stick with the basics initially. Focus on maintaining a routine and making slow progress. Once the habit is developed you can then look to the modular systems approach to grow the routine and leverage what you have already done. This will provide the right focus to get started, keep going, and maximize your efforts.