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Know the rules before you break them

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Know the rules before you break them

Scott Miker

Recently my wife and I took our daughters to breakfast.  After breakfast my 3-year-old decided that she wanted pie.  We tried to explain to her that she couldn’t have pie right after eating breakfast.

But she had it in her head that she wanted pie.  So she threw a temper tantrum to try and convince us to give her some pie. 

We tried to explain that we were going to a local store later that made great pies and if she behaved then we would get a pie for later that night. 

But she wanted it now.  So she screamed and cried and hit things.  The more she tried to get pie, the further away she was from us letting her have any pie.  In the end we gave her a time out and she calmed down.  But because of her behavior, we couldn’t reward her by getting a pie for after dinner.

As much as we tried to explain that her behavior was not going to end up with her eating a delicious pie, she fought harder and harder.  There were clear “rules” and she was doing the opposite of what she should have done in order to get what she wanted.

This might seem obvious but even as adults we do this.  It might not be a temper tantrum for pie, but we fall prey to systems that take our efforts and use them against us.

A few weeks ago I was at a picnic.  We were playing a game called corn hole where the object is to throw a beanbag towards a slanted board with a hole in it.  Getting it to stay on the board was 1 point and getting it in the hole was 3 points. 

As I played I tried harder and harder to make it in the hole.  But the more I tried the more tensed up.  The more I tensed up the less control I had over my throw and the more I overshot or undershot.  The more I wanted to get it in, the worse I performed.  Once I realized what I was doing I relaxed and focused more on trying to stay relaxed than on how bad I wanted to win.

In this case my desire to win was working against me.  Instead of helping improve my performance so I could win, it hurt my performance, making it more likely I would lose. 

In the great systems thinking book, The Fifth Dimension, by Peter Senge, he gives insight into what is going on.  “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner.  Conversely, learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them.”

Both the situation with my daughter wanting pie and my desire to win a corn hole game exemplified this principle of systems thinking.  If there are rules to a game but we don’t know the rules we likely won’t win.  But knowing the “rules” of the system means we can play within the rules and improve to achieve victory or go against them in specific ways to change to the system. 

In life there are systems all around us.  These systems are incredibly powerful.  If we want something in our life to change, we have to understand the systems that impact that area of our life. 

Too often we act more like a frustrated 3-year-old in a temper tantrum instead of looking at the system involved and make changes that will help us get what we want. 

Instead we have to know the rules before we break them.  In order to improve we have to be aware of the underlying systems that have enormous control over us.  Many times this takes the form of habits.  Learning to see habitual behavior is crucial if we want to change an outcome from this behavior.  But if we can understand the “rules” of the system, we can design a strategy to get what we want.