When you are designing systems to improve your life, you will be focusing on incorporating three aspects in each system. These are crucial for strong systems and need to be accounted for as you plan your new system.
The elements are simple, sticky and self-regulating. These three factors can be found in almost every strong system.
The first element, simple, is fairly straightforward. We have to keep things as simple as we can in order to make sure it doesn’t become so complicated that we can’t do it automatically. This doesn’t mean there aren’t complicated systems, but when new systems form they tend to be simple and grow more complex over time.
Even when we see complexity, there is usually an underlying simplicity involved. Looking at nature we can witness this complexity. But as we study biology, physics, geology etc, we start to learn the various systems involved. We learn the rules of the system and can then apply them across many areas. Gravity is a force that impacts people in similar ways; we don’t have to understand each instance because it is a fairly constant (until we start talking about space exploration).
The next element, sticky, simply means that there is some type of hook that attracts you. Think of the catchy song that gets stuck in your head. The reason you keep singing it is because there is something inherently sticky about it.
For a system, there could be any number of things that make it sticky. If you take the same routine and do it over and over again it becomes habit (sticky). If it feels good to do it then you want to keep doing it (sticky). If it has physiological elements and becomes chemically addicting it is difficult not to keep doing it (sticky).
The last element is one of ultra-importance when it comes to using the systems and habits approach to improvement. Being self-regulating means that it keeps going and doesn’t burn out.
The other night my wife and I enjoyed a small fire in our backyard. As the fire burned it went through the fuel (wood) fairly quickly. Each time it got low, we got cold and I asked if she wanted to stay out or head in.
This structure made it less likely that we would suddenly be sitting there and realize that the fire went out. As it gets low, we noticed and would react to keep the fire going.
The fire, by itself wasn’t self-regulating. It would burn through the wood and then extinguish itself. But because we were sitting there and it had a noticeable impact on us (getting cold) then it made it easy for us to maintain the fire over a longer period of time.
When it comes to most self-improvement the self-regulating aspect is really just our own discipline. If something is simple and relatively sticky, then it is up to us to have enough self-control to keep going with the system.
Without the discipline to keep going with your new routine you will quickly fall back to your old habits. But with the discipline in place, then you will keep going and going.
But it has to also be sticky and simple. Taking small steps towards a goal can help in the early stages before it gets sticky. In other words, we rely more on simplicity at first, and then as it builds into automatic behaviors it naturally becomes stickier. But to get to that point, you have to be disciplined enough to keep going.
Designing systems in life to improve is a great way to make self-improvement a natural part of your lifestyle. Then you constantly look for small improvements. Over time these become more and more impactful and your life starts to move you towards your goals and aspirations.