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Force and counterforce

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Force and counterforce

Scott Miker

In the systems and habits approach to improvement we work to achieve much with little effort.  Instead of effort and motivation we rely on small changes to key aspects of the systems and habits in our lives.

These changes include changes to our routines, habits, processes, etc.  In systems thinking these are referred to as leverage points because they often hold great ability to change the outcome with minimal input. 

My favorite book of all time is a book by Wayne Dyer called Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life.  When I first started reading it I found myself feeling as though it wasn’t accurate.  It wasn’t just that I disagreed with a few parts of it; I thought it was completely misleading. 

And I disliked the title.  I felt it was an over-the-top title meant to get people to buy the book but would ultimately disappoint. 

But as I read it, I started to think that maybe it wasn’t wrong, maybe I was wrong.  I decided to read it as though it were the truth and I just had to figure out how it could be true.

The book is Dyer’s analysis of the ancient text, the Tao Te Ching.  The Tao Te Ching is known as being very paradoxical.  It says things that almost seem like opposites but somehow come together to form a truth. 

It can be helpful to think of the Yin and Yang circle that has two halves.  One half is white with a black dot and the other half is black with a white dot.  Put together they form a perfect circle.  But without both sides the circle wouldn’t exist. 

To me this aligns perfectly with systems thinking.  We have to see the full system, not just pull out some parts we like.  But most people are constantly looking at the events in life, the elements that seem separate, with no real connection to other areas of their life. 

Dyer’s book was the first time I had to start to see the full system in order to understand the wisdom of the book. 

In the book there is one particular section that is important.  Dyer says, “Force creates counterforce, and this exchange goes on and on until an all-out war is in progress.”

With an understanding of systems thinking we can easily see that he is referencing a feedback loop.   

As one side pushes against the other, the other side gets agitated and pushes back a little harder.  Then the first side pushes even harder, prompting a response of even more push by the second side.  This goes on and on and builds and builds. 

If you study many historic wars you will see this exact structure play out right before the war breaks out. 

But what would happen if your country suddenly had a missile crash into a city by another country.  The response would likely mean retaliation.  It could be that the missile was due to an attack from your country but that wouldn’t matter.  What matters is this event and we would focus on what our response would be, almost guaranteeing the conflict would keep increasing.

But in our personal improvement journey we see the same thing.  We rely on effort and motivation to get started.  Then the routines and habitual tendencies start to push back against us.   

So we try to get more motivation to push harder.  But as we do those habits push even harder.  It starts to feel like trying to push over a brick wall, the more we push the more resistance we feel.

This is what is known as a balancing feedback loop.  The structure is such that those habits legitimately get stronger as you try to overcome them with force.  Using force only amplifies their power.   

The systems and habits approach to improvement is different.  Instead of trying to use force to overcome habit, we start to slowly deteriorate the habits. 

We take extremely small steps and do them over and over and over.  This repetition starts to rewire the patterned behavior creating new habits. 

The analogy I use is that instead of trying to run through a brick wall, we simply chip away at one brick.  Then tomorrow we chip away at another brick.  If we keep doing this we get through the brick wall, not by forcing our way through, but by slowly changing the structure so we can get where we want. 

This system structure isn’t anything new.  In fact, in nature we see this all the time.  We see water from a stream cut right through layers of solid rock.  It might take time, but that water does what we assume it can’t do.  Water slices right through rock, just over a long period of time. 

Using this mentality to achieve can be very helpful.  It goes against most opinions about strength but when combined with time can be much more powerful. 

If you take this approach to many aspects of your life, you will start out slow but then over time start to change pretty drastically.  And the change will stick because there isn’t the traditional counterforce.  Instead you will have strengthened your habits and routines and can then rely on them to help you keep going towards your goals instead of fighting against you.