How Systems Thinking Can Change Your Life
A way to tackle your complex issues
Written by Andrew Paduano
Do you have this thing where you get older but just never wiser? Have you ever wanted to solve something complex, but never worked it out? Are you a college student? Welcome to something special called systems thinking — which, in a basic definition, is a holistic way to solve complex problems. Anyone could use this to improve their lives!
I’m nowhere near claiming to be a systems thinking expert. But what I do know is that it works, and it works well. This topic is complex, but I will be scaling it down so anyone can have a way to easily try it themselves. Also, this is not meant to get you analyzing every single thing until you go insane, but rather a way to give yourself general roadmaps to follow. Sound interesting? Well, let’s dive in!
Systems Who What Now?
Thanks to a knowledgeable professor at Cleveland State University, I learned about systems thinking in a Humans Systems and Origins of Global Warming class. We explored issues like global warming through this lens of thinking.
On a basic level, systems thinking explores how different variables and patterns affect each other over time and the big picture ideas. In other words, it does not only look at one variable; everything can affect everything.
Illustration of one way to map out a system.
As you can see, different inputs or actions cause variables to affect each other, which in turn impact an outcome or goal. Then, based on feedback from the outcome, one can change inputs as needed, which can change the whole system. This all develops and changes over time.
For example, a baseball game is a system. All the parts of the game —players, coach, equipment, rules, etc. — interact with each other differently as the game plays out. Changing out one player could make a huge impact … or, it could not. It all depends.
A popular Star Wars character - Grand Admiral Thrawn - is known for his immaculate tactics. He often wins in the face of adversity just by outsmarting others. When he loses, he often finds ways to quickly make it up, tenfold. Thrawn uses systems thinking! He continuously evaluates how everything relates to everything, while accounting for how things will change in the future and staying at least 47 steps ahead of everyone.
Of course, we will not dive into such extremities. This may seem vague and look like a bunch of gobbledygook …because it is. But don't worry: anyone can apply this to their lives!
It’s All About the Process
Many people focus on one thing or one goal and view everything as an event, not a process. I’ve been guilty of this a lot.
Many look at successful people and only see what they accomplished, but these are just events. What most people don't think of is the process to get there: years of work and unconscious steps, creating a series of habits that move in certain directions over time. In other words, it was a system that got them there.
For example, people who want to get fit often just go to the gym and end up failing or discouraged. This approach neglects many things worth considering: their diet, sleep, mental health, environment, mindset, body, etc.
James Clear, the author of the self-improvement book “Atomic Habits,” wrote beautifully, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
"Small habits done consistently over time lead to growth."
The Meat and Potatoes
Congrats on making it this far! Now here’s how to actually use this. I’m going to use one basic example of systems thinking in one particular scenario, and then you can modify and apply it to anything.
Okay, so let’s say, hypothetically, you are a college transfer student. Of course a lot is going through your mind, but your main concerns right now are getting a social life and getting in shape.
Outcomes - No friends. You’re lonely and not happy with your fitness.
Some variables - Environment, classes, your past, mental health, diet, sleep, etc.
This current system doesn’t work for you,, but you can change course to reverse the outcomes!
The big picture:
Step back and look at your life. What patterns may have led to where you are now? How could you create new, beneficial patterns? How are your current mindsets and feelings holding you back? What are personal advantages you could use?
Examples of what you could do:
Social life - Join more student organizations, socialize in classes, be more open and accepting, analyze your thought patterns, go to more events, dress better
Getting fit - Start small, eat less sugar, be more mindful of what you eat, walk more, get better sleep, get an accountability partner, learn more about your body
Reflecting after you take these actions:
Did changing these variables lead you to your goals? Make different changes until you move in the direction you want.
Identify new patterns that you discover about yourself.
Look at how changing some things could affect others over time. If you end up going to the gym, that may mean giving up time for other things. If you socialize more, you may have to be more mindful of how you prioritize your time and money.
Also, because systems usually continue to move in their directions, your previous system may “push back” as you move in new directions. Be mindful of this if things start to feel wrong, when it could really just be unfamiliarity.
If we analyze parts of our life like this, we can systematically uproot different processes and change them. In “Atomic Habits,” Clear also explained that small habits done consistently over time lead to growth. It’s all a process. It's all a system!
I hope you found this piece helpful!. Remember everything is a process; don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes, the best answer isn’t as complex as this article; you have to just be and enjoy life. You won't be able to plan or predict everything, but you can get a general sense of where you’re going. Criticize yourself less. Ask questions more.