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Choose the best available option

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.  

Choose the best available option

Scott Miker

Recently I was in a meeting at work discussing a problem that we were facing.  We were notified of a change that would have a pretty major impact on how we operate the business. 

As we thought through various options we soon realized that we really just had a bunch of bad options.  There wasn’t a great option that jumped out us.  We were presented with about three or four ways to respond, all with their own consequences and not much benefit.

When you hear motivational speakers claim that you always have choices and that success is simply choosing the right way to respond to your situation, it sounds great.  But the reality around that is that many times this isn’t just about choosing the right choice over the wrong choice.  It is about choosing the best choice available, even if all that you have are bad options. 

If life, we constantly have choices but very often those choices are for options that all have their own pros and cons.  If we are living in the U.S. and hate the pattern of gun violence we do have options.  We can move out of the country.  We can live with it.  We can try to lobby for stronger gun laws.  We can accept the risk and continue to live our lives.

If we dislike the way our boss manages the department we can find another job, we can keep working despite our disagreements, we can look for ways to help improve what we are doing, etc.

We always have choices.  That means that we are responsible for our lives and where we are.  That also means that at any time we can make changes.  These can change the direction our life is going.

But it isn’t as simple as starting to choose the right option.  It is probably about looking at the full system and choosing the best among a bunch of bad options.

If we do this systematically we can start to shift how we make these choices.  We can start to put off short-term pleasure for long-term satisfaction.  We can choose to do the hard thing now so it becomes easier in the future. 

One of the benefits to systems thinking is that we can start to see the various options in a new light.  We can see a bunch of bad options but see enough to find a leverage point in the system.

When I graduated college I had a difficult time eating healthy.  If anyone asked me what I liked to eat, I would give a list of unhealthy foods.  I loved burgers and pancakes and hated broccoli and salad. 

Sure I had options but I wanted to eat what I liked, not something I hated.  Yes I had the option to eat something that I despised or I could choose to eat something that made me happy.

Neither option was perfect.  They were both bad options.  I could eat foods that I disliked so that in the future I didn’t have an increasing waste line and decreasing health.  Or I could keep eating what I liked knowing what lay ahead if I did.

Looking at the system though we can start to see leverage points.  First we see time is a leverage point.  Whatever I choose today only really matters if I keep choosing that option.  We can also spot other leverage points, such as where we go when we go out to eat, who we choose to eat with, what we do when we are bored, what we buy and keep as food options in the house, how we cook those healthy foods, what alternatives do we have (such as whole wheat bread instead of white bread), how we incorporate exercise into our daily routine etc.

Systems thinking presents a host of options for us.  But instead of seeing those options and finding some quick, easy, magical solution we see a bunch of options that we probably don’t like.  What we really want is all the benefit of eating healthy and all of the benefit of eating unhealthy without any consequences. 

But with systems thinking we can start to find the best option in a bunch of bad options.  We can see one that jumps out and say, “well that one isn’t that bad.”  Then using the systems and habits approach to improvement we can start to turn that into a new positive habit.

After some time then we can find another small positive step that we can take.  Over time we can build up positive habits that have us going in the right direction without all of the discomfort of changing something that we really don’t want to change. 

After doing this for over 15 years now, I have found that many of the “bad” options I had weren’t that bad.  Sacrificing some satisfaction now did help improve my health in the future but it also started to change what foods I enjoyed. 

Instead of hating eating healthy I slowly changed to enjoy many healthy foods.  I still hate salads but was able to drastically change my eating habits, which changed my taste buds, which changed how I cooked foods, which changed my eating habits, which changed my taste buds etc.  I found a way to create a reinforcing feedback to snowball improvement.

But it all started when I sat down and saw a bunch of bad options to choose from.  I couldn’t keep searching for an easy, quick, magical solution, I had to realize that the structure of the system was what is was and I couldn’t change the rules, so I had to change myself.