On Systems Thinking
30 December, 2020 - 7 min read
Systems thinking also known as process driven mentality which is preferred over goal driven mentality has become common these days.
A well-defined process can unload cognitive overhead by nurturing creativity. Creativity never stops. A well-defined process also never stops. But goals do! Systems can act as a superpower or supervillain.
Process vs goals
In my early professional days, I often thought chasing goals would yield happiness. But just like a butterfly, the more I chased goals, the more it evaded me. The moment I abandoned that chase, I found butterflies sitting on my shoulders. Process allows us to be mindful and observe things around us. Process allows to go on a journey.
The mindset isn't about seeking a result — it's more about the process of getting to that result. It's about the journey and the approach. It's a way of life. I do think that it's important, in all endeavors, to have that mentality. — Kobe Bryant
Direction then becomes so much important than speed because goal is time bounded whereas process is not. Process allows us to account for failures and being wrong. It supports the complexity of life and it works beautifully if it has a feedback loop. We can turn the lever up or down depending on how life is on any given day.
Life-changing transformations don't happen overnight. It requires mundane, everyday lifestyle choices over long-period of time. Setting a time bounded goal of eating healthy is a short-term thinking vs a healthy lifestyle. Another example is looking for a quick dollar vs investing for a long-term.
A well-defined process allows for a long-term over short-term outcomes. It accounts for small and incremental changes which then forces us to build right habits, sustainable work-ethic, and positive behavior. However, systems could also backfire. For example, drinking alcohol everyday can also turn into a habit. Systems thinking takes a lot of time and effort, but when compounded over time, it seems to be the best path towards true and meaningful progress.
The danger with goals is that when reached, the motivation seems to decline. Goal seeking mode will lead to a depression wall. Goals are gamed in a way to yield short-term benefits. Goals are outcome-based.
Hence, systems are better than goals. Systems are superpower!
Process itself is the goal
Process itself is the goal. This is my only goal in life when it comes to setting goals. I say this loudly and repetitively to remind myself that goals are trap (to a certain extent). But it didn't start out that way. In an information driven culture, I saw ambitious goals of others, so I also wanted to set ambitious goals for myself. Read 24 books in a year. Start a company by xyz date. Travel x amount of times. Accumulate x amount of wealth.
First, I didn't always accomplish these goals. Reading was the closest thing I could accomplish, but that also became a task. So I abandoned a hobby that I enjoyed so much. Second, I felt empty if I ever accomplished any of my goals.
Then I came across Deep Work by Cal Newport and focused and diffused technique by Dr. Barbara Oakley. I adopted those lessons in my own workflow. However, I still kept up with setting goals for every new year. My productivity increased and I managed to accomplish several of my goals. But the feeling of emptiness persisted.
Goal setting was clearly becoming a status game so lessening the importance of accomplishing x number of goals became a primary objective. I started focusing more on process. A system that would enable the dynamics of any given day.
I started taking an inspiration from Benjamin Franklin's daily system. He was a systems thinker and he also accomplished a lot in his lifetime. He set up a system to ask daily questions at the start of the day and at the end of the day: what good shall I do today? and what good I have done today? This is a very simple, yet impactful system. He spent time reflecting back everyday while moving forward. We call that journaling which I wasn't doing much until very recently.
I started building a system by leveraging on digital tools. Note taking on Apple Notes. Maintaining lists and projects on Trello. To-do lists on Apple Reminder app. At first, it was frustrating to manage so many apps but I started building habits. I tracked down daily journaling, exercising, meditation, conducting deep work, reading and writing. Everything else went into a dumpster list (a list that has no meaning).
The importance of daily habits and activities started to emerge. I used feedback loops to keep refining my process. I am entering my 4th year of no goals and I have accomplished more than I could've ever imagined. And the most important of all, I no longer feel empty. Below is my process that works for me which I'd like to document and share. These tools work for me today, but might change tomorrow. Tools do not shape me or my process, but the process does. However, tools play an important role to keep up with the process.
Notion has been a game changer for me. I no longer have to manage several apps. One does it all. Below is my personal dashboard that I have been iterating over for the last 2 years. This has cultivated several great habits. I no longer have to think about workouts, reading or journaling. Everything is a default.
I also have a simple formula that measures my calmness. If the tags selected are anxious, angry or distracted it shows Not Calm. If the tags consists of positive feelings, then it shows Calm. I measure my mental well being on a state of calmness, not on sadness or happiness.
Lastly, I also measure a sense of urgency every month to see how well I am progressing towards my committed tasks. On top of the page, I assign a slash for each day. Each highlight indicates how many days have gone by in a given month. The slashes in grey shows remaining days to finish up committed tasks. This allows me to stay distraction-free and work with sense of urgency.
I have 4 main folders: life of mi, work of mi, school of mi and house of mi. The naming was inspired by the novel Life of Pi. If I am collecting a list of books, exploring topics or researching a topic, it will go in school of mi folder. The same way I manage work and personal life.
That's my “simple process” which allows me to do systems thinking. However, systems thinking can be supervillain.
Caution against systems thinking
A system is useless without a good goal to guide it. Systems driven thinking has gotten popular because it can lead to mediocrity. You can fool yourself by checking off boxes. For example, just checking off a box that you are working out doesn't indicate progress. If no results have been gained over a period of time, system is broken. You need a system with well-defined feedback loops. Process can invite a participation trophy which is not meaningful at all. If a system is well-defined and used deliberately, it can bring a positive change. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. They both yield results. A meaningful result or not is upon you to decide.