Systems thinking allows us to see a larger picture of life. We see more than the parts; we see the whole. We see the connections of variables that make up the full system and relationships between various aspects of the system.
Think of a complex system such as a car. There are many aspects of the vehicle that are important and having one part fail can mean the car won’t operate properly. But it is the interconnection of these parts in just the right way that means a car will operate. Take a pile of the same parts, not configured properly and it won’t run.
It is the engine creating energy and then using that energy to turn the wheels. It is the steering system that allows us to turn and head in the direction we choose. It is the braking system that allows us to slow down and stop. It is the blinker system allowing us to signal to other drivers what direction we are heading.
While we can probably see the interacting parts of a car, it may be more difficult to see the full system in other areas of our lives. Instead we turn to linear thinking.
Linear thinking ignores most of the parts and instead focuses on a smaller number of variables, often just two. This allows us to see how these two interact. Sometimes it is to see an action and then attribute that action to an outcome, or to see an outcome and then attribute it to an action.
For the car example it would be to see the steering wheel turn the car. We can see the driver turn the wheel and then the car changes direction. We don’t need to know the inner workings of the power steering system to know what the system is supposed to produce. But underneath the drivers actions is a whole host of variables that all work together to help the vehicle turn.
When it comes to our personal goals we often take the linear thinking approach. We set a goal and then work to determine what one aspect we need to adjust to get the outcome we desire.
If we are trying to lose weight, we go on a diet or start working out. Maybe we try diet and exercise. But that is only part of the story. In order to get healthy there are many other variables that we likely have to address.
Do we travel a lot for work and find it hard to find healthy food options? Do we use our lunch hour to network and attend many luncheons where food is provided for us? Do we have a lot of friends that primarily interact over meals or drinks? Are we stressed about something in our lives causing us to overeat?
There are many factors at play, even though most people only focus on one or two. When we set goals, we typically don’t address the full system.
But when we shift to focusing on the full system we take a different approach. We might see a leverage point, which is an aspect that plays an important role in one or more systems and tends to be responsible for major changes in outcome. Then we work to change that leverage point.
Many times this is from habit. We evaluate our routines and then make adjustments to the way we do things. We do this over and over until the new ways start to become habits. When they do, we can continue to do them without as much focus or effort.
When it comes to losing weight, many people never even think about their sleeping habits. But in Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD, the author drives home the importance of sleep. He gives some examples of how sleep plays a role in many areas where we might not even realize it.
He says, “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours in a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep – even moderate reductions for just one week – disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.”
Walker even ties sleep directly to weight loss when he says, “Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction.”
Something like sleep habits can be thought of as a leverage point in our health. In influences many aspects and can be something that helps or hurts our ability to get healthier. It is directly linked to losing or gaining weight. But it also has connection to many other aspects with the system of us.
When you start to set goals and improve, don’t just take a linear approach. This could be shortsighted and not give you the full systematic picture. Seeing the full system can be more helpful because it can allow you to focus on leverage points to get the most gain from your efforts.
And if your goal is to lose weight, make sure to listen to the insight from Dr. Walker, “should you attempt to diet but don’t get enough sleep while doing so, it is futile, since most of the weight you lose will come from lean body mass, not fat.” Instead see the full system and address poor sleep habits along with diet and exercise if you desire a slimmer waistline.