Life is made up of a series of steps and actions. Things we must do to survive. Things we do to find meaning. Things we do to find love. Things we do to stay healthy. In a reductionist viewpoint, these things are all separate. We head to the gym in order to stay fit and healthy but we also skip the stairs each day at work and take the lift. We eat processed food and then supplement our diets with multivitamins as opposed to getting them from our food in the first place.
Each of these actions makes sense in isolation, it is only when we take a step back and look at the entirety of our existence that they begin to look nonsensical. If we treat our life as a series of disparate and disconnected chunks we will never be able to thrive. Worse, I would consider that such a life approach is actively harmful and self defeating. What we gain in one part we lose in another. Every benefit is offset by a harm and we finish our days disjointed and haphazard.
Often, this approach arises out of the goals and life aspirations that we deeply hold. We set isolated goals. I want to get married before I’m thirty. I want to climb Mt Everest. I want to be “ripped” I want to be “rich”. These aspirations, somewhere near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs float within chaos, serving as anchors to fix our actions too.
The set of these anchors are not stand alone islands. They form a web of interconnections which taken in their entirety help to define who we actually are. More specifically, they define who we want to be. Picture them as a series of points linked by elastic ropes, if the points are too far away then the ropes will be under tension and the points will be under strain. This strain symbolises the inner tension and indicates that something will (eventually) have to give.
There are two ways to approach this problem:
- Place the points closer together
- Increase the strength of the connections
Each of these will reduce the overall tension that exists between our aspirational goals and will help to bring us into a greater degree of balance. If done systematically and applied to every component of our life this totality makes up what I will refer to as a systems approach to life. Importantly, in a systems approach absolutely nothing is off limits. Failure to integrate a part of your life will place you into an imbalance and lead to the eventual breakdown. Too much tension on the ropes.
Systems principles exist in many fields ranging from biology to engineering to economics and systems thinking is a useful tool, albeit one that is still just a tool. The nascent field began with Jay Forrester at MIT in the early 1960’s but it reached it’s most popular point with the publication of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. Though this book made several predictions that were later found to be unfounded, technological progress being hard to predict, the underlying logic within was sound.
A systems approach can be further de-constructed into a macro system, the approach to life that sets the overall playing field and a micro system that specifies the set of actions which will enable you to achieve specific things. First, we must consider the macro.
When considering systems it is necessary to understand the connections and flows between different stocks or components. In the classical representation, using something decreases the stock of one part of the system whilst leading to either an increase in stock somewhere else or an outflow from the system. Whilst the original industrial style formulation is less relevant to our personal lives and fulfilment the structured thinking process is still valuable. Conceptually, this is an extension of the Web of Goals style thinking which I first came across from the work of Jacob Lund Fisker in Early Retirement Extreme.
I prefer to think in terms of the higher order Principles which I wish to live my life by. These are by definition non-specific, they say nothing about the what or the how, but they do give me a lodestar. Regardless of what I am doing, if I’m working towards these five things I am likely to be happy and fulfilled:
- Physical strength and health
- Mastery over skills
- Intellectual and personal freedom
- Freedom from hardship
- Fulfilling relationships
These five principles form the surface of my life which I can begin to place points on to, my challenge in lifestyle design is thus to place the right set of points which covers all of these areas. If I miss one of them I eventually begin to get reactive and unhappy, lashing out at the situation around people. On the other hand, if I’m satisfying each of these areas to varying degrees then I will continue to make progress.
The way I approach this set is to look for activities that will let me advance as many of the principles as possible and to avoid activities that don’t meet any of them entirely. For example, getting belligerently drunk every weekend will introduce more hardship, impact my health negative and likely destroy my interpersonal relationships. Whilst a trivial example, it does show the process.
On a positive note, group based Gymnastic training (handbalancing, gymnastic rings etc) helps to build my strength and health, allows me to work towards skills mastery and fulfilling relationships. It hits three of the five principles (it’s very rare to find something that satisfies all five). Compare this to training at a commercial gym doing basic strength and cardio which would only build my physical strength, the scope for building more fulfilling relationships and skill mastery is much more limited.
Once a macro approach has been defined we can drill down into further detail to consider how to approach specific objectives using a micro system.
If a Macro system specifies what we are going to do then the Micro system is all about how we will achieve it. Achieving what we want in life is, unfortunately, not quite as simple as writing it on a piece of paper and waiting to achieve it. Instead, it relates to sustained diligent and focussed effort towards specific outcomes.
Over the course of this effort there will be trade offs that are involved. Setbacks that occur. Unexpected challenges that arise. These are all okay and completely normal. In fact, there’s a great comic by Demetri Martin which was adapted by George Couros which showcases this precisely:
We all want to believe that our personal growth and success will be linear, or “upwards and to the right” in financial language, better yet if it’s an exponential function as well that rapidly improves itself. But, life unfortunately doesn’t give a shit about what we desire. It only gives us what we need.
As such, we need a system for making it through these challenges and continuing to work towards our goals and outcomes. Over time, I have found the best example for this came from a book by Scott Adams - How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life which while having horrific title capitalisation is still an incredibly interesting read.
Adams lays out the importance of designing your systems in terms of things that you can control. In this way he appears to place goal direction and system orientation under the Partial Control (But can influence) bucket as outlined by William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy who uses the concept of a trichotomy of control to help guide our actions. Adams and Irvine both change the framing of a goal. Instead of defining it in terms of something which we have very little control over, the precise outcome, they instead define it as something over which they have complete control over that they know is strongly linked to the outcome they want.
In diet control, rather than setting a specific weight goal for example Adams would instead set a target for the glycemic index of the food he was eating to avoid major sugar spikes and to breaking a sweat every day. In doing so, he converted the goal from the fuzzy “I want to lose weight” into two daily systems which, if followed diligently, should (but are not guaranteed) to lead to the overall outcome that he desired.
This is the micro systems approach in action. Rather than focusing on a large, non-specific and fuzzy goal Adams instead set about and asked the following question; “What little steps can I follow which if done correctly will ensure I achieve my goals?” Once identified he simply started applying the system day in and day out until he achieved what he had wanted.
A systems approach to life makes a lot of sense at both a macro and a micro level, yet, too many don’t seem to apply it. Creating systems is hard and requires continuous monitoring and refinement to ensure that they are working and that they are pointing the wrong way. A system, good or bad, will tend to accelerate you in the direction that it’s been pointed. If it’s pointing you the wrong way then it will simply accelerate you into the wrong direction, an entirely unwelcome outcome.
Refining a system can only be done with experience and judgement. Whilst their initial design can be armchair theorised, sitting back and thinking about what could work their refinement requires real world experience. Without this experience, without the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work in practice, not just in theory, systems are doomed to fail. As such, it is important to implement the designed systems and refine them as soon as possible.