Systems Thinking: The Success Engine of High Achievers

Unless you are Elon Musk, living a productive and successful life is not that easy. Day by day, you are juggling your day job, family, social life, sports & nutrition, finances, and daily duties. And every single of these areas is supposed to work flawlessly. As if that wasn’t enough, all these areas are constantly competing against each other in your day-to-day life.

Besides these daily hassles, you have to make sure that all these different activities fit into the big picture and eventually lead to your long-term goals. For example, does your daily fitness routine actually make you lose weight? Do your current saving habits ensure your early retirement? In other words, you want to make sure that things work out.

Planning and pursuing all these things 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 make things happen.

And while you are trying to manage all this chaos and challenges in your life, the world keeps constantly spinning. Every day, there is a constant stream of new information, events, and opportunities. And because you want to keep up with the rest of the world, you need to integrate some of this new stuff into your life. Therefore, you must constantly ask yourself whether and how new ideas, concepts, and decisions could enhance your life. For example: which online course skyrockets my career the most? Which workout plan is suited to my needs? Shall I change the location I am currently living in to improve my chance of success?

The Million Dollar Question

So here is the one-million-dollar-question: What enables us to achieve all of this?

To sum up, the desired solution has to include the following things:

  • Being able to overview all aspects of your life and master them as an interconnected whole.
  • Making steady progress without getting too overwhelmed and frustrated.
  • Being adaptable & flexible to change.
  • The solution needs to be robust. Even if you fail along the way, you want to achieve success eventually.
  • Efficient use of your resources, especially with regard to time, money, and energy.

To find a suitable solution for real life, one fact has to be considered:

Your Life Is Run By Systems

The systems in your life may not be directly visible, but they are working all the time, whether you want it or not:

  • The way the universe works
  • The way the people in your company collaborate
  • The way your family handles challenges
  • 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

If you neglect the power of systems, they will most probably work against you. We could go so far as to say that the bad systems in your life will tear you down, no matter how motivated you are or how much willpower you have. But if you reverse this idea, there are some great news for you:

You Can Use the Power of Systems to Improve Your Life Dramatically

To achieve this, start to see the world from a systems perspective. Look at the current events in your life, and examine which systems had led to these outcomes. Systems include everything: environments, processes, organizations, people, technology, tools, habits, knowledge or even your mental mindsets. Once you understand these systems, you can redesign your life in a totally new way. To get the ball rolling, start to ask high-level questions like this:

  • Fitness & Nutrition – How can I redesign my environment so that I need less willpower to start my daily workouts? What are the triggers for my bad eating habits?
  • Finances – What are the key principles of investing? How can I use these principles to automate my saving habits with the help of technology?
  • Happiness – Which daily habits have the most positive impact on my life? Which life area depresses me the most?

These kinds of questions seem to be far-reaching, but they help you to get the big picture. By answering these questions, you will solve your problems in a clean, efficient, and sustainable way. They go beyond the typical “how can I achieve this as fast and easy as possible?”-mindset.

The importance of this approach is easily explained: When faced with a complex task or problem, “doing” is only half of the job. First of all, a problem has to be understood, broken down and analyzed within its context. Every successful engineer will confirm to you that this is how complex problems are solved.

The same is true for your life: If you don’t go deep and look at the root causes of your current outcomes, the systems in your life will produce the same results again and again. So as long as you don’t improve the underlying systems, changing your life will be difficult if not impossible.

Successful People About Systems

If you’re still skeptical, see what some of the most successful people in the world have to say about systems:

“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“:

Systems 101

First of all, 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:

  1. A system consists of parts
  2. The parts of a system are working together
  3. 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 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.

The way you are 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.

Systems Thinking In Your Life

Ok, systems are powerful, and they seem to affect my life, but why should I care about them in my day-to-day life? Isn’t that kind of exaggerated? My 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.

And once you set up (good) systems, they work on autopilot. They are your seat belt in a fast-paced and chaotic world. Systems will do the heavy lifting for you because they are reliable, repeatable and efficient. They show you what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

To emphasize the power of systems thinking, let’s look at a possible example from daily life: You are doing your weekly habit of arranging your files, and you notice one thing: Your filing system is inefficient. You lose too much time while classifying and searching your files. Consequently, you decide to do something about this issue and you start to restructure your filing system. And by doing that, you are able to save 5 minutes a week. But be aware of this: if you use your filing system for the next 30 years, you will save roughly 240 hours, which makes 10 days of your life!

Simple 3-Step Method To Master Systems Thinking

One slight note of caution: The practical application of systems thinking 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 method could look like. This method will be applied to an example which was mentioned at the beginning of this blog post: How do we manage all 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 present and 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 my other life areas?

The graph shows that nutrition & fitness does have a positive impact on all the other areas. The reason is simple: nutrition & fitness does boost your average energy level which can be used to excel in all your 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 & 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. This can be done 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 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.

A bottleneck is a fragile part of 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 your other life areas will suffer. A possible solution to minimize this risk could be avoiding overtime and having a good work-life balance in general.

Conclusion: This small example illustrated how systems thinking can be applied to real-life. However, so far we just scratched the surface. If you want to have a more detailed overview of the topic of system thinking, have a look at this web resource guide.

Apply Systems Thinking To Your Own Life

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 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 morning?

Once you have redesigned and improved these small systems, start 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 looking at your life from a systems perspective, you won’t want to go back. You will create a life that pulls you toward success. Instead of going out without a plan and relying on willpower and discipline, you are building a finely-tuned machine which does the work for you.