When we all proceed through life, we are building structures in our lives that we are often unaware of. We make decisions that we barely think about and then make those decisions over and over again.
Those decisions start to form patterns. These patterns signal a structure that is in place that makes it more likely to keep following the pattern rather than break free from it.
I’ve heard people talk about systems thinking as helping them to break free of the their self-created systems. They see that they are a prisoner to the system but they were responsible for creating that system.
In the case of a truly addictive habit such as smoking cigarettes we can see this. Initially smoking isn’t addictive and there isn’t a great internal force pushing the person to smoke the cigarette.
But over time, as they make the decision to smoke over and over again this force starts gaining strength. Usually it gets to a point where they are being controlled by this system that they created.
But it doesn’t have to be such an obvious system either. It could be as simple as someone being shy and making decisions early in life to avoid any sort of public speaking or attention-seeking behavior. Over time this could become the standard way of reacting to anything that will put the spotlight on them. They create a system and the system gets more and more powerful as they continue to follow the system.
This makes it incredibly difficult to break free from one of these systems. They usually have years and years of behaviors behind them. They have decisions that were made years ago that helped solidify the system. Ultimately these decisions and behaviors created the patterns, structures and mental models that now rule the systems.
This is why it is so tough using many traditional means of improvement to actually see any results. They are using a new attempt to rewrite the system. But these systems are powerful and not easily changed.
Think about a time when you wanted to change something but found it much more difficult to actually do than it seemed at first. Maybe you were trying to start exercising and get healthy. Maybe you wanted to stop spending so much money so you could pay off credit cards.
The same dilemma could be seen for positive systems as well. If you have built solid systems around exercise or budgeting your money then you will probably be reinforced by the system to keep making these positive decisions.
If you have built a very positive system around never letting your credit card carry a balance from one month to the next then you likely don’t even think much about paying off the balance every month. If you have done this for years it probably just feels normal.
If you try to break away from a system, you will likely feel it. If you decide to stop paying the credit card balance in full every month, it will likely result in an uneasy, uncomfortable feeling. If you decide to stop exercising, you will likely find it difficult to not crave the feeling of working out and the normal routines you have followed for years.
I experienced this first hand. When I first started to try and eat healthy I would commit to finding healthy options on a menu. But every time I was at a restaurant, I would talk myself out of spending more money for a fish dinner and instead just order the burger or chicken sandwich like I normally did.
After years and years of finally establishing different habits to eat healthy, I was on a trip with family and decided that I was going to pig out all weekend. We went to a restaurant, I looked over the menu and ordered a fish dinner with broccoli and carrots.
I was teased by my brothers at the time since I ordered such a sensible meal after proclaiming I was going to pig out all weekend, but it made me realize just how powerful system can be. I barely thought about the ordering process. I just followed my normal habits and routines and ended up with something healthy.
Building the right systems and structures in your life can take a long time and be a very difficult process. But once you do, those systems will propel you forward, towards your goals. They can become the foundation that drives you and helps assure you are on the path that you deliberately create, not stuck in a prison from a system you unintentionally created.