The Systems Thinking Approach: How to Excel At Life & Work
Unless you are Elon Musk, living a successful life is not that easy. Day by day, you are juggling your day job, family, social life, health, finances, and daily duties. And every single of these areas is supposed to work flawlessly.
Besides these daily hassles, you have to make sure that all these different activities fit into the bigger picture and eventually lead to your long-term goals. Does your daily fitness routine actually make you lose weight? Do your current saving habits ensure your early retirement?
Put simply, you want to make sure that things work out.
But planning and pursuing all these activities at the same time requires a ridiculous amount of discipline and willpower. You have to push all the time, often outside your comfort zone, to move things forward.
So here is the one-million-dollar-question: What enables us to achieve all of this in the most efficient way?
The Million Dollar Question
To sum up, the desired solution has to include the following things:
- Being able to overview all life aspects and master them as an interconnected whole.
- Steady progress without getting too overwhelmed and frustrated.
- The solution needs to be robust. Even if you have setbacks along the way, you need to achieve success eventually.
- Efficient use of your resources, especially with regard to time, money, and energy.
To find a suitable solution, we have to dig a little deeper. It’s not enough to implement some productivity hacks or to follow tips of our favorite YouTube stars. No, we have to look beneath the surface. We have to understand the real reason why things happen (or don’t happen).
From a scientific perspective, we can rely on one fact:
Life Runs In Systems
Sure, most systems are not directly visible. More particularly, human beings are not good at seeing and analyzing systems. But systems do their work, all the time. Whether you like it or not.
The Universal Power Of Systems
Systems run on a macro perspective:
- The way the earth surrounds the sun.
- The way people work in an open market economy.
- The way a community (family, city or county) handles problems and challenges.
But systems also work on a micro perspective (in your life):
- The way you are expanding your professional network.
- The way you are managing your email inbox.
- The way you are doing your weekly shopping routine.
- The way you (and your biological body) handle stress.
As you can see, systems run the show. Consequently, if you neglect the power of systems, you have already lost. We could go so far as to say that bad systems will tear you down. Despite your willpower, discipline or vision:
- If you don’t manage your To-Do List System, you will have chaos in your life and forget things.
- If you don’t manage your car system (cleaning, car inspection, insurance), your car will be dirty, won’t work or will lose its commercial value quickly.
- If you don’t manage your finance system (savings, portfolio strategy, investor mindset), you will lack liquidity and retirement money.
Don’t Waste Your Life Resources
Ok, systems seem to be powerful. And they are affecting people’s lives. But why should you care about them in day-to-day life? Isn’t that kind of exaggerated? Day-to-day life is already busy enough!
And that’s exactly the point: your life is restricted in terms of your resources, especially regarding time, money, energy and skills. Why should you squander these precious gifts? Life is already difficult enough. You should do things in the most structured and efficient way possible. And in this regard, systems are your best bet.
Once you set up (good) systems, they work on autopilot. They are your seat belt in a fast-paced and chaotic world. They will do the heavy lifting for you because they are reliable, repeatable and efficient. Systems show you what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
Let’s Talk About Your Filing System
Your daily life consists of a lot of small systems. Your wardrobe, your appointment calendar, your shopping routine, your dishwasher, or your image backups. And I can assure you that every single of these systems is flawed in one way or another. Maybe it takes too much time, is too expensive, takes too many steps or is just too complex.
A simple tweak could improve every single of these systems – be it a new arrangement system for your wardrobe, a better process for your shopping routine, or a better software tool for your image backups.
To emphasize the power of the systems thinking approach, let’s take a deeper look at one of the smallest systems in your life – Your Filing System.
Imagine this: You are doing your weekly habit of arranging your files. But, you are annoyed. You don’t find important documents, and classifying new documents takes forever. In simple terms, your filing system sucks.
You decide to do something about this issue. Thus, you start to restructure your complete filing system. You create better keywords, discard unimportant documents and you buy a file cabinet.
By improving your filing system, you will be able to save 5 minutes a week. On first sight, this seems not worth mentioning. But be aware of this: if you will use your filing system every week, for the next 30 years, you will save roughly 240 hours, which makes 10 days of your life!
Successful People About The Systems Thinking Approach
If you’re still skeptical, see what some of the most successful people in the world have to say about the systems thinking approach:
“Average marketers think in campaigns. They work all week, push out a campaign, then start again from scratch next week. That will only take you so far. To get to the next level, you need to start thinking in systems and build a marketing machine. This is the only way to 10x your growth and then 10x it again.” – Neil Patel , internet marketing legend, and co-founder of Crazy Egg, Quick Sprout, and Kiss Metrics.
“Becoming a member of the new rich is not just about working smarter. It’s about building a system to replace yourself.” – Tim Ferriss , (probably) the most popular productivity coach on the planet.
“Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved..” – Peter Senge, lecturer at MIT, author of “The Fifth Discipline“:
Before we dive deeper into systems thinking, let’s define what a system is:
A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole (source).
Besides that, a system produces an output, based on the goal of the system.
So to summarize, a system has three important aspects:
- A system consists of parts
- The parts of a system are working together
- A system has a goal/output
To avoid further theory, let’s jump immediately to practice and look at three examples from daily life:
Your social network is a system:
The parts of this system are the members of your social network, like family, friends, and colleagues. These people are working together (knowingly or unknowingly) on the basis of communication, information exchange, and collaboration. The goal of a social network is stability and mutual value-exchange for all of its members, mainly in the form of resources and information.
Your workplace is a system:
The parts of this system are your boss, staff, customers, partner companies, and technology (IT and machines). All these parts are working together, based on processes and organizational structures. The output of a company is mainly centered around products and services.
Preparing your sandwich for the next working day is a system:
The parts of this system are the ingredients, a knife, your hands, and your hands. You take the ingredients out of the fridge, cut up all the ingredients into small pieces, put them on the bread, and package the sandwich. The output of this process is a fresh and prepacked sandwich in your fridge.
A 3-Step Process To Apply Systems Thinking
One slight note of caution: A systems thinking approach to life will be a challenge for beginners. People are not taught to think in interconnected and circular patterns.
But to pave the way for future systems thinkers, let’s analyze how an easy systems thinking process could look like. This process will be applied to an example which was mentioned at the beginning of this blog post: How do we manage our life successfully as a whole?
Step 1 – Determine Status-Quo
“We need a proper understanding of the past to correctly judge the present if we ever are to foretell the future.” — Craig D. Idso
Before future problems can be solved, you must understand the underlying systems which produce your current results. The following diagram shows how (my) life areas influence each other in either a good (+) or bad (-) way. However, it should be noted that these relations are subjective and can be different for you:
Step 2 – Ask High-Level Questions
Once you have an understanding of the current system, it’s time to stimulate your creativity to find system improvements. This can be done by asking high-level questions about your current system. For this example, these two questions could be interesting:
Which life area has the biggest positive influence on all the other life areas?
The graph shows that nutrition & fitness do have a positive impact on all the other areas. The reason is simple: nutrition & fitness boost your average energy level which can be used to excel in all the other living areas.
Which life area has the most negative impact on my other life areas?
Your career & finances can have the most negative impact on your life because it takes away most of your time and energy throughout the day. In other words, when you work too much, chances are very high that you won’t have enough time for the rest of your life.
Step 3 – Redesign Your System
Lastly, it’s time to redesign the current system. We will achieve this by using two important concepts of systems thinking, leverage points, and bottlenecks.
A leverage point is a (preferably small) change in the system, which leads to a great improvement. As already mentioned, nutrition & fitness does have a big positive impact on all other areas. Additionally, it doesn’t require too much of an effort to achieve a decent level of nutrition & fitness. For a start, you could decide to work on your nutrition & fitness 20 minutes a day.
The second systems thinking concept, a bottleneck, means a fragile part within your system. If this fragile part breaks down, the functioning of the whole system is in danger. In our example, the biggest bottleneck is your career. If your career requires too much time and energy, all the other life areas will suffer. A possible solution could be avoiding overtime and having a good work-life balance in general.
This small example illustrates how systems thinking can be applied to real-life.
However, we just scratched the surface. If you are serious about learning systems thinking, then have a look at this practical introduction to systems thinking.
How To Keep Going From Here
Start to scan your life for systems thinking opportunities. Look for pain points and repeating problems in your life, and then apply the 3-step process.
Systems thinking is a skill most people don’t possess naturally. This is why beginners should start small.
As a first example, you could analyze the way you are cleaning your room. Look at all the parts which are related to the tidiness of your room. How often do you clean your room? Do you have the right cleaning tools? Is your wardrobe badly structured?
Besides that, you could start to analyze your daily morning routine. Do you have enough time in the morning? Which kind of breakfast gives you the most amount of energy? How do other systems (like your sleeping routine) affect your start to the day?
Once you have redesigned and improved these small systems, tackle the next one. There is no need to rush. Look for small wins, learn the basics, and keep going from there. You will gain experience and momentum faster than you can imagine.
As soon as you start to apply the systems thinking approach, you never want to go back. You will create a life that pulls you toward success. Instead of relying purely on willpower and discipline, you are building a finely-tuned machine which does most the work for you.