The world is filled with systems. Everything around us is a system. Our habits and routines are systems. The way we think and process information are systems.
We can use this to our advantage by applying systems principles to our personal quest for improvement and success. We can take the systems approach to improvement to fine-tune our skills, abilities, understanding, etc. to take us towards happiness and success.
One of the main elements of the systems and habits approach to improvement is to start small with repetitive thoughts and actions. We create cyclical systems. They repeat over and over and the advantage is that we start to build new mental processes along the way.
Our mind starts to respond the same way and we wire our brains to react in a very specific way in a very specific situation. The more we do it the more it gets ingrained.
Many people will misjudge this as being too rigid. They will say that as soon as something changes, the cyclical nature of the system means that it won’t be able to adjust. They say systems thinking is inflexible.
But this isn’t true. What actually happens is that our cyclical systems start to slowly turn into developmental systems. Just as we learn basic math such as 2 + 3 and learn the principles so that we can then add 20 + 30.
Starting with a cyclical system is just training us, giving us the formulas that we can then apply to other areas. If we get in the habit of exercising in the morning but then get a job that forces us to start work earlier, it will be easier to change to an afternoon workout rather than start from scratch. The cyclical system we used is flexible as it turns into a developmental system.
If we use meditation every day to calm our mind, we can use the same ability to calm our mind when we get agitated at work or while driving on the highway and being cut off. This cyclical system turns into a developmental system that can be used in many ways and many situations.
Years ago I realized that my public speaking abilities were actually deteriorating. I wasn’t doing as much speaking in front of groups as I did previously and I noticed that I was picking up some bad habits due to those around me.
I noticed that the leaders in the company would always use excessive “ahs” and “uhms” in their speaking. Every other word would be “uh” and I noticed that pattern started to appear in my own speaking.
So I joined a Toastmasters club. Every Tuesday at noon I would join my fellow Toastmasters for a structured meeting to help us improve the way we speak in public.
We would have specific things we would do. We would ring a bell every time one of us said “ah” or “um”. This forced us to realize what we were saying and avoid those strange sounds that seem to fill the space between words.
This was a cyclical improvement system. We would show up every week at the same time and focus on the same elements. We didn’t have a lot of change and it certainly didn’t seem like it was flexible.
But then I started to realize that this improvement in communication translated to many other areas of my life. It helped me communicate in front of others at work but it also helped me communicate to my spouse or my coworkers.
I started to feel more confident communicating and helped me present information to the board of directors at our company. I would be able to give important information in staff meetings without an overwhelming nervousness.
I even started to realize how to calm my nerves before a speech. But then I realize that those techniques were useful if I had to have a difficult conversation with a subordinate or if I needed to challenge my boss on a project. I could do it in a professional, calm manner and express my views and important points without getting emotional and having the conversation turn into something more erratic.
This is the power of the systems and habits approach to improvement. We start with easy cyclical systems to rewire our mental processes. Then those turn into developmental processes that can take many outside factors and rely on those habitual responses that we developed.
So start with cyclical systems to develop habits, then as those strengthen our abilities, shift to developmental systems, to push the boundaries. This gives us flexibility and a wider range of ways to use those new habits. We can start to break away from only seeing the value in the specific situation or routine we adjusted and see the value spread to many other areas of our lives.