Many problems that we face in our personal lives can be looked at several different ways. We can find someone to blame. We can try to address the root problem. Or we can try to ease the symptoms.
While finding someone to blame might help us feel better about the problem, it doesn’t do anything to correct the problem area. We end up just keeping on the same path always on the hunt for someone or something else to point the finger at.
Symptoms of a problem are usually the difficult, explicit, pain that surfaces. It might be the low amount in our checking account, growing credit card debt, gaining weight, a pattern of losing jobs, strained personal relationships, etc. Symptoms always seem to be the problem and usually present the discomfort around them.
But often this is just a symptom of a problem. The actual root cause of the problem usually goes unnoticed because it isn’t always directly tied to the symptoms. If we attack all problems by attacking the symptom, we may relieve discomfort but we don’t actually change.
It is too easy to get sucked into a problem and want relief from the symptoms. We continue to gain weight so we want to lose weight. We get further in debt so we want the debt to be wiped away.
This is why quick fixes become so popular. A quick surgery to fix our weight problem and we think we corrected the problem. But all we really did was adjust the symptom of the problem. The actual problem (unhealthy lifestyle habits) remains.
Or we find someone that can help us consolidate our debt. We don’t address how we got ourselves into this situation. We just want the discomfort around the symptom to be relieved. But with the same spending habits, our problems are not really gone; they are just hidden from view temporarily.
Using systems thinking we can gain additional insight into what is happening. Looking at feedback loops we can start to see a structure form. We see a problem that is subtle. This could be an unawareness of healthy eating, it could be using online shopping to cure boredom, etc.
This is often the root problem. It cycles and over time builds up strength. It becomes ingrained in our common thoughts and behaviors. But we don’t really notice this.
If we were making plenty of money why would we care that we like to occasionally go online and buy something when we are bored? Since it isn’t a problem in this situation, how can it be a problem when we start to build up our debt?
Many root problems have a natural delay built in. They don’t show the consequences immediately. There is a delay in the time between the behavior and the symptom.
I noticed this when I was younger. I was working at a retail store in high school. I got in the habit of grabbing fast food for lunch. It wasn’t a big deal at first because 1) I had plenty of spending money and 2) I played football and worked out a lot.
The habit initially wasn’t a big deal. I was at a healthy weight and didn’t resort to credit cards to pay for lunch.
But over time things changed. I kept working there through college and then briefly afterwards. Because I completely stopped any sort of exercise and more of my monthly expenses fell to me (instead of my parents) I started to see the symptoms up close. I gained weight and started to build up credit card debt.
At the time I was constantly focused on the symptoms. I wanted to lose weight without changing my eating habits or my lack of exercise. It obviously didn’t work.
I wanted to get control of my spending by just finding an increase in money. But as anyone who has been in this situation knows, these rarely come and even when they do we seem to find a way to spend it all and then some, rather than using it to start going in the right direction.
It wasn’t until I started to attack the root problems that I really saw any improvement. I had to start exercising, eating better, and budgeting my money. Until I did this, nothing changed the root problem, only masked the symptoms temporarily.
Peter Senge talks about this exact system structure in his book, The Fifth Discipline. He says, “Beware the symptomatic solution. Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not the fundamental causes, tend to have short-term benefits at best. In the long term, the problem resurfaces and there is increased pressure for symptomatic response. Meanwhile, the capability for fundamental solutions can atrophy.”
This is powerful insight. The more we resort to symptomatic solutions the more likely we will turn to them in the future. The more we turn to them in the future the less likely we will be able to address the root problem.
I have seen people who succeed on a crash diet. They tend to lose a lot of weight from the diet and then stop. Then they gain it all back (and sometimes more). So they go back on the diet to lose weight. The more they do this the more likely it will be they do the same thing in the future. And the more likely they do this, the less likely they will shift to solving the root problem with actual lifestyle changes.
If you find yourself up against a problem, take a moment to think about the problem systematically. Are you only addressing the symptoms of the problem? If so change your approach to start to look at your lifestyle (thoughts and behaviors) to find better ways to change and improve. Changing these will likely do more than just temporarily relieve the symptoms.