Stop for a moment and think about your life. It probably conjures an image that looks like this:
Now think about the things you do everyday: brush your teeth, talk to your friends, go to work. Now that image looks a bit more like this:
And let’s not forget everything else that’s going on in your life:
Your life, like everything in the world around you, is a system – a collection of the physical and abstract, and the complex relationships between them. Systems thinking is a way of taking the things around us, like ourselves, and turning them into diagrams, ideas and concepts that can be broken down, analyzed and improved upon (like time). It a process for understanding how things influence one another, and within a whole.
This article is a basic introduction to systems thinking and the theory behind it. We’ve tried to keep it as practically grounded as possible with examples you should be able to relate to. But systems thinking is a way of looking at the world around you that takes time to adopt, understand and appreciate. We’re going to cover what systems thinking is, the relationship between mental models and systems, how you can use systems to learn and do anything and everything, and of course, how to use systems thinking to improve your productivity. You’ve been warned – now read on!
Thinking About Life as a System
Your life is a system. It has a lot of parts: the physical, which include your physical body, your clothes, your house and other possessions. There are also the abstract components: your beliefs, your values, your sense of identity. But then there are also those components that go beyond the limits of your immediate influence: your health, your relationships, your finances.
In fact, it probably looks a bit like this:
But beyond just the parts, are how they interact with each other. For example, do your finances impact how you are able to manage your health?
The sum of these components, and the relationships between them, are a system. And systems thinking, is a set of analysis tools, diagramming techniques and a general way of looking at things that turns a complex idea such as “my life” into something that is easier to understand:
More About Systems
There are a lot of different types of systems.
Some are closed:
A printed book is a closed system (and one of the few at that). It was printed at some point, and mass-distributed before it came to be in your possession. In its completed form, sitting on your shelf, it has no inputs, and no real outputs. Given time, a closed system deteriorates on its own (ok, so you can argue that “time” and “physical deterioration from the environment” are inputs, but they are unintended inputs). But say you take a highlighter, and begin reading – now it becomes a different kind of system – an open system.
Open systems are almost anything and everything – your car, a power plant or a rainforest. Open systems are defined in that their boundaries are set, and they have a number of inputs and outputs. Following the example of your life, your life is an open system. You receive inputs (conversation, money, food) and you provide outputs (conversation, money, physical action).
Beyond that though, your life is also as evolutionary system. These are defined as having system boundaries that constantly change and evolve over time.
Your smartphone, the boundaries of which are defined somewhat by physical hardware but mostly by application software. This is a technological system.
Living organisms, which consume food, and extend their boundaries through influence or technological means.
But you can also think about more abstract systems – your life as a whole, or a subsystem within it, such as your finances, your health, or your relationships.
Models and Systems
OK, so the example is a bit silly, but it demonstrates an important point.
A system, is a model – it is not reality. To borrow a popular phrase, “the map is not the territory”. In reality, you can never break down anything into a set of system diagrams and documentation. But, these diagrams and documentation do serve a purpose – they are simplified mental maps that help us better understand a complex idea, be it a transaction processing system, or a beautiful woman.
Something to remember about systems is that every system has the basic outcome of smooth running. That is, it wants to “work”. And with evolutionary systems, they also want to grow. You can think of this as the system’s “goal”. The interesting thing about this, is that if you have a goal in your life, you can find a system that will help you achieve that goal.
Think of it this way:
So you take the system, which is a set of steps, procedures, ideas and concepts, and add in an input (you), and you get a desired outcome or goal.
This is an incredible idea. It means that you can take anyone else’s system, and immediately apply it to your own life to achieve similar (or the same) results. It is not necessary to come up with the system yourself. If you consider how we learn skills like driving, touch-typing or reading… it all began with us emulating someone else’s “system” in order to achieve similar results to them.
Let’s take reading as an example.
Within our “system” for reading, we already understand an alphabet, we understand printed words, we understand meanings and we understand grammatical structure. We certainly didn’t invent those – we learned them at school, or from others. Once we have those prerequisites in place, we then add in the input of written words – usually in the form of a book – and we output ideas as concepts and images in our mind.
And because everything is a system, what you were able to do with reading, you can also do to anything else – be it playing a sport, learning a speciality profession or, being productive (in fact, most of our articles are “mini-systems” that we have created to increase productivity).
Without systems, we would not be able to understand and navigate in the world around us. There is simply too much going on to have to stop, think, consider and interpret everything that we encounter – every time that we encounter it.
Systems are simplified models for a reason. And that reason is so that you can manipulate them.
Let’s continue the reading example. Most people learn to read – and that’s it.
But let’s change the system a bit:
What we’ve done is taken away the idea of reading words out loud, added in a visual guide for reading, and changed the overall inputs and outputs to being visual-to-visual. This is what people who know how to speedread do – they take words, read them as sentences, paragraphs or entire ideas, and create visual images in their mind to understand them. They do not read words one-at-a-time.
By changing the inputs to a system, or the system itself, you can improve it. And make it deliver the output that you want. If you combine this idea with the notion of taking someone else’s system, you can take any one system, and make it better suited to your own needs. We’ll be discussing exactly this below when we look at how to improve your “life system” with a set of productivity components.
But wait. What if you took a system from one part of your life, and applied it to a different part?
First, it would give you the advantage of a different perspective. But beyond that, it also offers you much deeper insight into what works – and what doesn’t – with the existing system.
As a super-simple example, let’s look at two everyday activities – washing your clothes, and brushing your teeth.
There is almost a one-to-one mapping of ideas here: you have your physical tools – the toothbrush, the washing machine, your “cleaner” – toothpaste and washing detergent, the action – brushing and scrubbing, and output – clean teeth and clean clothes. The process is identical – take an unclean input, apply action and cleaner via a physical tool, and you get a clean output.
But what if you take something more complex and not as related – like economics and online dating.
So from economics we borrow the system (or model) of supply and demand. Which says that in a market for anything, there exist an equilibrium point where what people want (demand) meets what people are providing (supply). Let’s apply this to online dating, in a simplified marketplace.
Let’s say that the good (or item) of discussion is a date with this girl:
Now say she receives an imaginary 100 requests for a date per day. This means that her demand in the marketplace of online dating is high. From her perspective, demand is high. However, because there is only one of her, the supply is low (supply = 1).
In which case, the supply and demand chart looks like this:
In practical terms, this means that as a potential suitor, you become 1 among 100 men (or women) asking for a date with her. She is able to set the “price” or barriers for a date with her. This means that the market is skewed to the supplier’s favor, and the likelihood of you scoring a date with her is fairly low.
Of course, this is simplified. In reality, the online dating market for dates with hot girls looks more like this:
So the demand still outstrips the supply. But now, the raw statistical probabilities are much higher for potential suitors.
But wait, online dating is a system… and so, there are other factors in play – by changing input factors such as a suitor’s age, height, income (!) and greeting message, the economic model of supply and demand also changes.
The advantage of this, is that with a basic understanding of systems thinking, not only can you learn anything and everything (by finding a system that already works and applying it), but you can take an existing system, use it to understand a different area, then modify it to better match reality and your needs.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Not everyone thinks in terms of systems. It is not a natural way to think, and the majority of people prefer the notion that we are born with certain skills, and learn (with difficulty) the rest. What we are really learning are systems, and the ability to question and analyse those systems is just another skill beyond what we already know.
An example of systems thinking versus non-systems thinking would be someone who is organized (and productive) versus someone who is not. Someone who is an organized systems thinker, begins their workday with a checklist (at simplest) – their system is a list of the 6 most important things they have to do and the order in which to do them. They start at number one, and continue working until they finish all six. This is their system. Of course, a true systems thinker tries to improve upon this – their checklist is likely to be more like 60 items deep rather than 6, and they know to schedule in breaks into their working schedule. Someone who does not think in systems, likely does not have a checklist, but rather, just asks themselves “what do I have to do now” and starts doing it, with no sense of priority or planning (and even then, this is a “system” too). But this second person would likely never question the way they go about things, or seek to improve them.
Productivity and Systems
Because your life is a system, it can be broken down, analyzed, and improved upon. And you’re about to find out a really simple way to improve your “life system” and make it more productive.
Let’s start with a hypothetical (but possibly real) situation. At the moment, your life “just happens” – you go to work, you eat, you spend time with your partner, and you vaguely remember watching TV every now and then, but mostly, it’s a blur. It looks like this:
And so, we introduce some productivity tools (i.e., system components).
Now, you know where your time is going and how it’s being spent, and where it’s being inappropriately spent (like watching TV!)
Next, we add in a contact management tool (address book) and somewhere to take notes:
And so, all the random information, people you meet once and tidbits now have somewhere to go. You know where all your important stuff and contacts are when you need to find them.
Lastly, we add in a task manager:
And now we have a sense of priority in what to do, when to do it, and what you need to complete it – these are the basic building blocks of a personal productivity system. Life looks different now. You know that you start the day with a cup of coffee, a read of the morning paper and a 40 minute commute to work. You know that you spend 8-ish hours in the office, with a 30 minute lunch break and 30 minute gym break during the day. You know exactly what you have to deliver at work, and in what order. You know that you spend quality family time from 6-9 in the evening, and a couple of hours each night working on your side business and personal projects. You’ve gained the ability to quantify and measure what you’re doing, and you use this as an input for pushing your life towards where you want it to go.
- Start to observe models and systems at work in your own life – ask where they start, and where they end, and how they can be improved.
- Take something simple in your life – like brushing your teeth – and break it down into a diagram of inputs, processes, and outputs.
- If you’re missing any of the 5 components mentioned in the last section, check out our recommended guides on the homepage and add them into your life.
Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? We reveal them all on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.
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