On Thinking in Systems
by Gerardo Ortega
Today, I reflected on the priorities for this year. As always, familiar objectives are present, such as exercising more, taking care of myself and my family, learning new skills, and saving money. Despite our annual commitment to these goals, we often struggle to achieve them. Maintaining the self-discipline required to accomplish our objectives is challenging, even with a well-defined plan.
This year, I have decided to adopt a new approach, focusing on the thought processes I apply, rather than the goals themselves. One effective strategy, particularly in my professional life, is systems thinking.
As a Software Engineer, systems thinking is an essential skill. The challenge lies in applying this skill to other aspects of daily life, creating systems that deter misbehavior and maintain focus on what’s important.
Systems pervade our lives; our body is a system, we live in a social system, and our economies interact with other systems. Subconsciously, we implement various systems in our daily routines, such as commuting, following procedures, and driving. These systems operate seamlessly, without requiring conscious effort.
This year, I aim to develop and optimize systems that can be applied across multiple areas of my life, taking inspiration from the characteristics of effective systems:
- Good systems are easy to track, enabling monitoring to identify what is working.
- They consistently receive feedback from external sources, allowing for continuous improvement. For example, adjusting your driving system to avoid costly future errors based on external feedback.
- They are easy to optimize and adjust for better results.
With these principles in mind, I’m preparing systems to circumvent self-imposed obstacles. Preparation is more valuable than self-control. Consider these starting points for designing effective systems:
- Create systems that deter actions misaligned with your goals and values. Intentionally designed strategies to protect against temptations are more effective than merely avoiding them; self-control can be difficult to maintain.
- Prepare for challenging situations in advance to maintain calm and a clear head when needed. Design systems for proactive planning, reducing the mental burden of stressful scenarios. Focus on systems that maintain an emergency fund or prevent unnecessary spending.
- Learning offers an excellent opportunity for system application. Though continuous learning is crucial, it can be difficult to find the motivation to learn and try new things amidst our busy lives. Creating learning systems helps overcome these challenges. Start with mini-habits, such as reading at least one page of a book on a specific topic per day, or dedicating 30 minutes to a particular class. Simplicity is key, as self-discipline reserves are limited and better used for more challenging or unplanned situations.
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