In college I was struggling with a problem that I eventually solved in a way that made that problem obsolete in the future. It seemed like a problem that I had to solve over and over until I used a simple, systematic way to make sure the problem never came back up.
That is the benefit of systems thinking to solve problems and reach goals. It extends beyond the specific problem you are facing right now and provides long-term solutions that can eliminate similar problems coming up in the future.
Forgetting to pay bills
I was studying Psychology and Justice Studies at Kent State University in 2001. I had recently moved to an off campus apartment with a friend. While my parents were still helping me with the financial costs associated with college and living on my own, I was still responsible for paying bills on time and maintaining a budget.
At first I thought it would just be easy. I would pay bills when they came to me. I started strong and kept up with this for quite some time. But then I started to make mistakes.
Initially, it was just that I forgot to pay a bill. I saw the bill in the mail and lost it in the numerous papers I had for class. But because this was my only “reminder” to pay the bill I didn’t notice until I received the next bill with a large late fee on it.
From there I decided to make sure to “remember” that I had to pay these bills. Instead of just paying when they came and not thinking much about it, I had to focus to make sure I paid these bills on time each month. But I slipped a couple more times and realized I couldn’t keep all of the information in my head.
I couldn’t remember the lessons from class, the groceries I needed to buy, the bills that were coming due, the bills I recently paid, the bus schedules, the dates of the upcoming parties, the date of the event I saw on a poster etc. It just became too much and it started to stress me out. That just added to my forgetfulness.
Simple, systematic solution
The solution I came up with is an incredibly simple one. This was prior to having smart phones so I started to carry a piece of paper and pen with me at all times. On one side I created a calendar for the next 4 weeks. I added notes and reminders on days throughout the month.
On the other side I created an active to do list. I was always added to it and crossing things off. As soon as I ran out of room I would grab another piece of paper and create another one with the calendar looking out another 4 weeks or so.
This had an amazing impact on me. First, I never missed due dates on important bills, class assignments, upcoming events, etc. I seemed to always remember all of these important dates. It took away a huge burden and suddenly opened up my mind to new information.
Soon after I switched to this new system of organization I realized I still forgot some important information. Any yearly information, such as family member birth dates, would not get added to my written calendars. There was nothing to prompt me to add it (like having a bill with a specific due date show up in my mail).
I realized I was always on my computer so I just used a simple computer calendar and put recurring reminders for all of these on my computer. Then I would always check the computer for upcoming dates to add to my paper calendar.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I was using systems thinking to solve problems. Instead of just finding a way to remember this one bill this one time since I missed the last payment, I focused on putting in place something that would prevent me from missing these important due dates ever again.
Over the years I have refined this system quite a bit and switched over to digital tools that are available and make many of these things even easier (but I still carry the pen for some reason).
A solution that frees our mind for more important thinking
What I have found was that this completely freed up my mind. It gave me complete confidence in the system and allowed me to focus on so many more important things going on in my life.
In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer talks about an experiment where subjects were asked to remember either a 2-digit number or 7-digit number. He explained that it was a memory experiment and they needed to focus and remember the number given to them.
Then he gave them a choice between eating chocolate cake and eating fruit. The author explains, “You probably don’t think the number of digits will affect your choice; if you choose the chocolate cake, it is because you want cake. But you’d be wrong. The scientist who explained the experiment was lying; this isn’t a study of long-term memory, it’s a study of self-control”
He continues, “When the results from the two different memory groups were tallied, the scientists observed a striking shift in behavior. Fifty-nine percent of people trying to remember seven digits chose the cake, compared to only 37 percent of the two-digit subjects. Distracting the brain with a challenging memory task made a person much more likely to give in to temptation and choose the calorie-dense dessert…. The subjects’ self-control was overwhelmed by five extra numbers.”
So the lists I used to better remember information freed up my mind to focus on other things. I gained more self-control just by freeing my mind from having to remember this information.
In a previous article I talk about how willpower is finite. I explain that this is yet another reason why changing your systems and habits is important because you can’t always rely on willpower to push through every obstacle to reach a goal. This seems to be very similar.
A new approach to solving problems
Instead if you can start to better understand systems thinking you can find leverage points to give you a better chance of being successful. You can use a different approach to achieve your goals and not rely solely on effort and willpower.
By addressing a problem we all have (to remember so many things in our daily lives) with an easy, systematic solution, we can clear our minds and build our willpower. Then we can use that clarity and willpower to solve additional problems and move us closer and closer to the goals we set for ourself.