Patterns are very important to systems thinkers. In order to understand complex systems, we often start by examining the visible patterns to start to figure out what is going on.
We aren’t likely to see the deeper levels of the systems immediately so we want see what the system regularly creates. What the system regularly creates then tips us off to the invisible structures and mental models controlling the system.
In our personal pursuit of improvement we have to put more value in understanding the patterns. We have to realize that if something keeps happening over and over again and we want change, we can’t just wish and hope for something to become different in our behavior. We have to understand what is causing the patterns and then work hard to change the pattern.
In Secrets of Influential People by Steven Pearce, the author says about patterns, “A single bit of bad news or disappointing evidence may mean little, but a pattern or a trend is a different thing altogether. Look out for such patterns; use them to start to question basic assumptions.”
But in our personal lives we tend to avoid asking those questions. We don’t ask why we eat unhealthy when we claim our goal is to lose weight. We don’t ask why we bought new clothes when we should really be saving money.
We just assume we have to use effort and willpower to change these behaviors. But the patterns often point to underlying systems elements that are determining the behavior.
Years ago I found myself with quite a bit of credit card debt. I was running a business and often turned to credit to finance aspects of the business.
But this turned into a problem because I started to get comfortable not paying the full credit card balance every month and letting it build.
I kept telling myself I just needed more income to fix the problem. So I went out and started a new role that drastically increased my income. I thought, “Problem solved.”
But then a few months after the change in income I realized the credit card balance was getting bigger not smaller. I was shocked and couldn’t understand this.
So I start to ask myself questions. I started to look at what I was buying. I started tracking my expenses differently to gain visibility into where the money was going.
I started to see patterns around my spending and quickly started to realize the problem wasn’t as simple as I assumed.
But the good thing is that this led me to a system fix. I started to create a new method for budgeting my money. I started to do a deeper analysis of purchases and focused more on “do I really need this right now?” instead of “here is why I need this.”
This allowed me to be more critical of my purchases and eliminate some purchases that I would convince myself that I needed and wanted now to capitalize on the current sale. Instead I would put the purchase off and somehow after a while I realized I could live without the purchase and didn’t really need it.
The system changes weren’t possible before I started to focus on the patterns surfacing around this area of my life. I stopped assuming it was simply a willpower or effort thing and I put in place systems and habits that would push me closer to my goals.
Patterns are crucial components to systems and clue us into the systematic elements that are often out-of-sight. These underlying elements control much but aren’t easy to spot unless we start asking deeper questions and focus on uncovering the systems controlling the outcomes we see.