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Rules and Chaos

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.  

Rules and Chaos

Scott Miker

One of the things that people mention when we talk about systems is the idea that this is too rigid, too restrictive. They assume systems clamp down on creativity and innovation and leave a world absent freedom.

But systems actually do the opposite. If we have a good system for opening ourselves up to being creative, the system can actually promote creativity, not clamp down on it.

Innovation requires systems. If we think an idea is innovative, it must be able to transform into an executable form. This is where systems really thrive, being able to take a unique idea and create something workable from it.

When I went to college I felt as though I’d broken away from the rules and restrictions of high school and from my parents. Suddenly I could eat whatever I wanted, stay up as late as I wanted, and do whatever I wanted.

So I did what a lot of college kids do. I overdid it. I took those to the extreme. I would eat greasy, unhealthy food constantly. I never ate a vegetable. The more cheese the better. Deep-fried meant delicious. I would say out all night drinking. In fact, I wouldn’t schedule a class to start before noon so I could sleep off a hangover any day of the week.

What I realized was that this new freedom had a cost. Instead of feeling restricted by others, I was creating restriction on myself. Suddenly my health was deteriorating. I was growing more impatient and irritable. I was significantly less happy. I was now restricted in different ways.

Left to our own devices, many of us buy into the notion that instant gratification means freedom. Whatever I feel like doing at this instant is what I should do if I am truly free.

With that logic, why would we ever eat healthy? Why would we exercise? Why would we follow rules? Why not just go through life free from rules but consumed by chaos?

The reason is simple. Systems thinking shows us that the hidden structures in our lives are often very powerful. When we cave to desire, we often sacrifice the future. When we sacrifice the future, in time, we will be much more restricted.

Our choices today create the structures in our lives tomorrow. So when we choose to be free today, sometimes that means we are enslaving the future version of us.

But if we have rules that are designed to help us avoid sacrificing the future, we are freeing our future selves. If the rules provide guidance to avoid the consequences of doing whatever we feel like, they can help us build the right structures in life that will provide greater freedom later.

Rules aren’t just something imposed on us to keep us trapped. They are often there to save us from our self. Left to be free, we would probably just create chaos and future imprisonment. But with the right rules and structures in our lives, we can continue to build for a future that is much freer than anything we could choose today.