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Finding leverage points in a system and then using them to improve

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.  

Finding leverage points in a system and then using them to improve

Scott Miker

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.

So if you are trying to lose weight, then you want to focus on key leverage points that will give you the most “bang for your buck”.  It could be to change how you make the key decision during work when everyone is celebrating a birthday with cake.  It could be to tackle the moment where you decide to exercise, since that decision will likely mean the difference between success and failure.

These become the decisions and behaviors that we really need to focus in on.  We don’t want to spend our whole workday thinking about how we don’t want to work out and fighting with that internal voice trying to convince it that we need to go.  We want to only focus on the actual moment when we get in our car and drive home or to the gym. 

If we are quitting smoking we want to put all our effort and focus on that moment when we have the greatest cravings.  By doing everything we can to stack the deck in our favor and make it so that we can make the right decision in that moment will be the difference between giving up or moving forward. 

If we want to get control of our spending and get rid of debt we have to tackle the moments when we spend money.  By simply switching from a system where we use credit cards to one where we use cash might be enough to allow us to use that leverage point (in the store about to get in line) to create a major change. 

The reason that leverage points are so important is because those small moments usually decide whether or not we are successful.  So we want to do everything possible to make it easy to make the right decisions.

In Change Anything – The New Science of Personal Success, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler calls leverage points “crucial moments.”  They explain, “As you search for your own crucial moments, consider whether they come at certain times, certain places, around certain people, or when you’re in certain physical or emotional states.  Different conditions affect different people differently.  Only you can systematically search for the conditions of greatest importance to your change.”


Using leverage points to improve

There are several ways to make those decisions easier.  The first is to use the set the minimum technique.  This involves making the behavior after the leverage point easier so that the next time we face the leverage point it becomes an easier decision.  So we say that all we have to do is spend 10 minutes at the gym each day instead of 2 hours.  You can always do more than the minimum but the next day go back to the old minimum.  That makes it easier to keep going since each day resets to only 10 minutes.

Another technique is to reduce that craving to focus solely on that moment.  I did this when I quit smoking by saying to myself “I may go back to smoking but now won’t be the time that knocks me back into smoking.”  Instead of trying to quit for good each craving, I only had to skip that one craving. 

Another technique is to try to start a trend.  This involves keeping a log on a calendar of each time you do something by putting an X on the date.  After a while you will not want to break the trend and it will give you motivation to keep going (Jerry Seinfeld actually used this technique to write jokes when he was an up-and-coming comedian). 

There are numerous ways to tackle those important leverage points that are crucial for us to improve.  We have to continuously make the right decisions during those moments in order to truly change.  But if we can make it easier to tackle those key decisions and behaviors, then we will gain an advantage and momentum to keep going and reach our goal.