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Use systems thinking to leverage behaviors for maximum success

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.  

Use systems thinking to leverage behaviors for maximum success

Scott Miker

We all want to improve.  We want better relationships, greater success, more freedom and increasing wealth.

But the behaviors that most people turn to are very low-leverage behaviors.  They don’t rely on systems thinking and instead fall back on beliefs about change that may not be accurate.



Peter Senge is one of the most popular systems thinkers and does a great job of explaining the difference between systems thinking and linear thinking in his book The Fifth Discipline.  He always talks about leverage points in the system and the ability to maximize system improvement by finding and changing leverage points.

He says, “It’s hard to disagree with the principle of leverage.  But the leverage in most real-life systems is not obvious to most of the actors in those systems.  Our non-systematic ways of thinking consistently lead us to focus on low-leverage changes.  Because we don’t see the structures underlying our actions, we focus on symptoms where the stress is greatest.  We repair or ameliorate the symptoms.  But such efforts only make matters better in the short run, at best, and often worse in the long run.  The purpose of the systems archetypes, such as limits to growth and shifting the burden, is to help people see those structures and thus find the leverage, especially amid the pressures and crosscurrents of real-life business situations.”

While Senge focuses on how to use these leverage points by seeing the full system structure in real-life business situations, we can also do the same thing in our personal lives.


Stress around an upcoming exam

Let’s take an example from the perspective of a college student.  We can see that when stress from an upcoming test leads to a greater chance that we will go out with friends and drink to temporarily relieve the stress around the exam.  This may seem perfectly fine but seeing it as a reinforcing feedback loop (using systems thinking) we can see further than the one-time event.

Instead of thinking this is a great stress reliever, we can see that it only delays the stress we will feel the next day when we are one-day closer to the exam date without having done any of the work necessary to learn the material.

This means that the next day, stress will increase.  If our go-to stress reliever is to drink with friends, the added stress will push us further towards this coping strategy and further away from studying. 

The more we rely on this behavior the more we will fall into the feedback loop that will make it harder to do the activity that will ultimately relieve the stress – studying. 

If we, instead, decide that we need to study to better learn the material, we can start to reduce stress by gaining confidence in our ability.  This can decrease the chance of our using alcohol and going out with friends to reduce our stress.  The less we go out with friends and put off studying the more likely we will learn the material better and perform better on the test.

But most people only see events.  The don’t see that these are systems and relying on these low-leverage techniques to reduce the symptoms will not actually help us relieve the root causes of the discomfort. 

The funny thing is that many times the high leverage activity is common sense.  Most people can immediately spot the right thing to do.  But they choose the alternative because they view it as a single, one-time, event, not a recurring pattern that leads to a higher likelihood that they will choose the wrong choice again.  They minimize it to a single decision in a linear world that doesn’t have any impact outside of this one time. 

But this makes it harder to choose the right option later.  They don’t realize the subtle difference that exists between choosing the right and wrong choice and how these small differences add up and even multiply over time.

When we make this decision over and over it slowly starts to build and grow.  It is true that if we do this once it probably won’t matter in the long run.  But if we make this a pattern and tend to behave the same way every time we are in a similar situation, then we will likely create a structure that takes us away from success rather than towards it.  The low-leverage behavior to reduce stress will actually create more stress in the long-term.


Financial habits

If we take an example of someone with poor financial habits we can see a similar structure.  Let’s say that we barely make enough money to cover our bills.  Some people see something extra that they desire and use credit to purchase that thing.

They put it on their credit card, which they can’t immediately repay.  So that purchase starts to multiply every month that they don’t pay it off.  High interest rates mean that we pay more money for the same item. 

Instead of paying $1,000 once, we instead put it on our credit card and end up paying 19% APR.  We pay a monthly payment of $26 for 60 months to pay off the balance and interest.  We end up paying $1,554 (according to this basic credit card calculator). 

Or we can decide to save for it.  We can decide to save $26 per month in a savings account with no interest for 39 months to have $1014.  We can then spend the next 21 months saving that $26 and have $546 in our savings account. 

So the difference between the 2 scenarios is about $500.  But if our mindset is to charge things we want and worry about it later, we can do that over and over again with higher and higher dollar amounts.  We then might find this money multiplying over and over and being higher and higher.  Instead of one time spending $500 more so we can have it immediately, this pattern forms and eventually we spend 1.5 times the amount for most of the things we buy in life, making it less and less likely that we will get ahead enough to use cash. 

The cost of debt can be incredible and can be a barrier to being able to purchase items with cash or money that we save up.  This decreases the ability to use cash in the future and increases the odds we will use credit.  We start to get into the cycle and follow the pattern of using credit instead of saving, which makes it harder to break away from that pattern in the future. 


Small changes add up

The systems and habits approach to improvement relies on these concepts to help us slowly make progress towards something better.  We value these subtle differences instead of ignoring them.  We put more value in the pattern and structure than in the event.  

This leads to an emphasis on these little decisions and we understand they are much more than this one-time decision but form a feedback loop that leads to much greater discomfort from this one decision. 

We can see that doing the right thing becomes harder and harder the more we choose the wrong path.  But the more choose the right path, the more likely we will be to choose the right path next time.  This starts to add up and turns small changes into significant differences in the future. 

This system can be found throughout our lives.  Instead of ordering fish with broccoli at a restaurant at 500 calories, we choose the burger covered in sauce, cheese and bacon with fries at about 1200 calories.  Do this once and it is no big deal.  Do this every time you find yourself at a restaurant and you can see that you will take in significantly more calories over time. 


Daily Nutrition

Even daily we have the ability to influence feedback loops.  We can get in the habit of packing our lunch to control what we eat and make sure we have healthy options.  Or we can wait until lunchtime to decide what to eat and grab whatever fast food is nearby and sounds good.  So it might only be a difference of several hundred calories this one time.  But if we do that daily and accumulate an extra 500 calories at lunch, we will find that over a year we take in an additional 130,00 calories.


Improving relationships

Even in relationships we see this structure.  I have heard the use of a concept called emotional bank account to explain this structure.  The idea is that when you do something positive for someone, it makes a slight deposit to an imaginary account between you and him or her.

The more (positive) favors you do for them, the greater the balance grows.  When you need a favor, they are quick to see all that you have done for them and easily withdrawal from that account to provide a favor for you.

But if we look individually and each time justify why doing this favor won’t really help us, we never contribute to the account.  Then when we need a favor, we don’t have the balance available. 

If we take this approach throughout our lives we can start to do favors and help out those around us.  Over time we can start to build relationships that are based on mutual help and respect with both parties adding to the account. 



Using these systems thinking concepts we can start to see areas that we need to improve.  If we can then use the systems and habits approach to improvement we can start to make progress towards becoming whom we want to become in order to be successful.  We can slowly start choosing the right option and form the necessary patterns to succeed in any area of our personal life.