Changing Stubborn Habits through Systems Thinking

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Home > Articles > Changing Stubborn Habits through Systems Thinking

 Changing Stubborn Habits through Systems Thinking

Jenson Goh | Today's Manager
September 1, 2017

By using the appropriate tools, systems thinking allows us to uncover critical feedback structures within our habitual systems to dramatically improve our quality of life.

I used to be a coffee addict—needing at least three cups of coffee per day to function effectively at work. I dislike the feeling of losing focus, and lethargy
would set in by mid-day if I did not get my three (or more) cups of coffee.

Many of my coffee-addicted friends would agree with me that drinking coffee is beneficial to our health. In fact, they often try to justify this by citing studies claiming that drinking coffee can:

  1. Reduce your risks of contracting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases;
  2. Reduce your risk of type-2 diabetes and liver diseases;
  3. Enhance your brain function and boost metabolism;
  4. Lower your risk of depression and suicide; and
  5. Increase your life expectancy.

It seems like a wonderful thing to be addicted to coffee. Or is it?

As an academic, I am always sceptical about such claims that only play up the good points and downplay the bad. However, I felt powerless against the need to maintain focus at work. I often gave the excuse of how much I enjoyed the taste and smell of coffee, just so that I could support my addiction.










The Causal Loop diagram with coffee addiction as a caffeine reinforcing loop. (J GOH)

It was not until I got rid of my coffee addiction that I began to see how much of a grip this was having over my life. Most of my peers disagreed when I tried to rationalise this with them. However, they became receptive when I showed them a causal loop diagram—a systems thinking tool that explained my coffee addiction.

I need coffee to wake up and to stay awake (whether in the mornings or afternoons) so that I could be effective and efficient at work. This is represented by the variable ‘I need coffee to wake up’. However, more often than not, I have the tendency to drink too much coffee. As a result, I had difficulty getting to sleep at night. This is represented by the ‘I drink too much coffee, so I can’t sleep’ variable. The more I relied on coffee to perk me up and function throughout the day, the greater the likelihood of me drinking too much and having difficulty getting to sleep at night.

This means I rarely get enough sleep, which incidentally leads to me not being able to wake up in the morning. This is represented by the ‘I don’t sleep enough, so I can’t wake up’ variable. The higher the chance that ‘I drink too much coffee so I can’t sleep’, the higher the possibility that I don’t get enough sleep at night and can’t wake up the next day. This increases my reliance on coffee in the mornings or at mid-day to stay focus at work.

A feedback loop (i.e. caffeine reinforcing loop) is formed. The causal loop diagram shows that these variables work in a loop—accelerating my addiction towards coffee over time, and holding it in place. The challenge is that without coffee, I am unable to operate. But when I have had my coffee, I have difficulty going to sleep. This eroded my quality of my life and I became cranky.

Before learning about systems thinking, it had never occurred to me that the simple urge to drink coffee could impact my life in such a profound way. This is in part the challenge that we are facing today. Our education system trains us to be logical linear thinkers. We think about almost everything in terms of cause-and-effect and this has served us well historically. By applying a linear-thinking approach, the simplest way for me to address my coffee addiction would be to reduce or limit my daily coffee intake. I have done that but had never been successful in eradicating the withdrawal symptoms. Now that you have seen via the causal loop diagram how the structure supports my addiction to coffee, it becomes apparent why attempting to curb my coffee addiction has been difficult.

What should I do next to reduce/eradicate my coffee addiction? A closer look at the causal loop diagram showed me that the entire feedback structure is supported by my lack of sleep. Despite knowing the importance of sleep, I never gave it the proper attention it deserved. After looking at this feedback structure, I began asking myself, “Why do I not give myself enough sleep?”

As I examined my mental model of ‘sleep’, I discovered that deep within me, I have long held the erroneous belief that sleep is for the unmotivated. This explains why I rarely give sleep the attention it deserves. Once I understood this, I come to a realisation that the only way to break free from coffee addiction is to simply sleep more.

That was exactly what I did to eliminate my coffee addiction. I started developing good sleeping habits. I sleep early every night and wake up early every morning. I take a short 5-10-minute nap if I feel tired in the middle of the day. It took me several weeks to conquer the withdrawal syndrome of my coffee addiction. But I managed to overcome it completely. I am not saying this to convince you to give up drinking coffee, but am using my coffee addiction as an example of how we can change our stubborn habits through systems thinking.

My story provides some important lessons about how systems thinking can dramatically improve our quality of life. Using the appropriate systems thinking tools allows us to uncover critical feedback structures within our habits. This feedback structure is responsible for generating the systematic behaviours that govern our habits. If you want to inculcate good habits in your life or eliminate bad ones, you need to look deeply into the feedback structure that supports the habits. Understanding this structure will allow us to approach the complexity of our habits with clarity and challenge our existing mental model and spot leverage point (e.g. my lack of sleep) to effect sustainable changes in our lives.

Systems thinking will become a valuable tool that we can all leverage on to improve ourselves especially in increasingly complex times. What is the stubborn habit you would like to eradicate today? Try applying systems thinking and see if it can work for you.



Dr Jenson Goh is responsible for transformational living and learning education in systems thinking as the Director of Studies at the Residential College 4 of NUS. With 20 years of IT and senior management experience, he is also a multi-disciplinary researcher in Information Systems, Business Excellence, and Teaching & Learning.


Copyright © 2017 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 3, 2017

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