Many people have felt motivation to change something in their life at one time or another. The desire to correct for a weakness or get better in some area is common.
What also is common is the mistake that we tend to make where we ignore the structures in place and just assume sheer effort will get us there. We think we just need more motivation to find success.
But this is actually wrong. Motivation is a horrible way to maintain something for a long period of time. Motivation is fleeting and usually can’t sustain us for long enough to have a lasting impact.
Part of this can be explained by exploring structure. Peter Senge, the popular systems thinker said in The Fifth Discipline, that, “We tend to think of ‘structure’ as external constraints on the individual. But structure in complex living systems, such as the ‘structure’ of the multiple ‘systems’ in a human body (for example, the cardiovascular and neuromuscular) means the basic interrelationships that control behavior. In human systems, structure includes how people make decisions – the ‘operating policies’ whereby we translate perceptions, goals, rules, and norms into actions.”
This means that the operating policies that tend to rule our thoughts and decisions are powerful. In fact, this part of us is much more powerful and lasting than any motivation that we experience.
This is a good thing in some ways because it helps keep us on track and means we don’t make significantly different decisions over time. We remain relatively stable.
But this is also the exact reason why change is so hard. This system is in place, specifically, to prevent us from doing things differently. It wants stability and consistency. Yet when we feel motivation to change something, we have to get away from consistency in specific areas in order to improve.
So how can we get around this in order to improve? How can we not have the structures in our lives prevent us from changing something that we want to change?
The systems and habits approach to improvement looks at this and creates a way to improve that takes into account the various systems elements. It helps to find leverage points in the system that we can use to help us improve. It gives us small steps and encourages consistent behavior to override the existing ‘operating policies’ and create new ones.
One of the main elements of the systems and habits approach to improvement is the idea that we need to start very small. We start with very easy steps. Then we work to do them over and over again.
The more we do these steps the more they become ingrained in the ‘operating policies’. We start to change the structures in our lives by consistently thinking and behaving in new ways.
Soon these new structures form from the new steps we have taken. They start to become consistent and stable and there is a real pull towards keeping going. Instead of burning out after a short time of trying to fight the structures in place, we slowly start to integrate new structures.
Once those new structures become stable, then we can keep adding more and more until we start to reach our goals. This approach may take longer than the typical quick fix that we might try but the reason it becomes lasting is because it doesn’t just attempt a quick fix, it reprograms the ‘operating policies’ of our thoughts and behaviors.
Senge goes on to say that, “the ‘structural’ explanation is the least common and most powerful. It focuses on answering the question, ‘ What causes the patterns of behavior?’
When we can get to the structural level in our behavior and develop new patterns of behavior we have a much greater chance at long-term improvement. This is where real change occurs because it isn’t just a fleeting attempt to use motivation and effort for a short-term fix; it relies on slowly changing the structures and systems in our lives.