7 Mental Models In Systems Thinking To Progress In Pretty Much Everything

Only when you realize the importance of systems thinking you can understand why it’s crucial to embed useful systems in your life. Moreover, you see how bad systems can cause destruction.

Yes, bad systems can lead you to unexpected places of agony.

For me as a writer, the worst thing I can do is not have a writing system. And honestly, I didn’t have one a few years ago. I just wrote sporadically.

The results of this careless behavior?

There weren’t any.

No traffic. No engagements. No sales.

Only when I started to approach my blog as a business and then as a system, I was able to attract more readers to my curated library of ideas and bizarrely insightful newsletter.

All of this talk about systems begs the question: What is systems thinking?

In simple words, this is a repetitive behavior that leads to somewhat predictable results.

Depending on the system, you can become a better decision-maker, more productive, develop adaptive thinking, improve the revenue of your business, or “just” gain more muscle.

To make systems thinking sound more applicable. In this post, I’m observing mental models in systems thinking.

Consider the below as ready to implement mental frameworks that can change the way you think (and act) for the better in a specific area of your life.

Once you get to know them, you’ll spot in advance the hidden traps of life, regroup, and find a better way to react to the current situation.

Keep in mind that the application of the mental models discussed below are more than what I’m suggesting. It’s up to you to find a way to use them in your life to gain the most of them.

7 Mental Models In Systems Thinking:

1. The Tragedy of The Commons

In a world with limited resources. We pursue unlimited gains.

The tragedy of the commons explains something we all try to do. We lock ourselves in an ever-expanding system – a job, a hobby, a relationship(s) – that initially seems achievable but eventually hurts us.

Here’s a summary of the famous example from the ecologist Garrett Hardin explaining the tragedy of the commons concept:

Picture a herdsman in a small village with 50 heads of cattle. The cost for the pastor to add one extra animal to his herd is insignificant. Business-wise, it will surely increase his profits. But what will happen if he adds another one, and then another one, and then one more…

At some point, he won’t have enough energy to take care of his (now) big herd.

But there is something else. What will happen if all the other pastors in the village do the same to compete with him?

Eventually, the extra animals will deplete the resources of the village. Hence, the tragedy.

To avoid a state of disaster. We should realize that there is usually at least one limited resource used by everyone – the pasture in the example above. Then, ensure that the resource won’t be overused. We need to allow the resource to regenerate itself.

On a global scale, educating people on which are the limited resources is crucial if we want to protect our planet – water, energy, waste, etc.

From a personal angle, you need to pinpoint what type of resources are limited and not overuse them. 

A relatable example is the following: We get a job and we let it consume our personal lives. We get so caught up in the race to the top of the corporate ladder that we forget that there are other things in our life besides working – kids, friends, spouse, the need to rest. At first, taking one extra project doesn’t feel like a big deal, but all the tasks add up. Eventually, all we do is work.

Here are a couple of other examples: Trying to please everyone; Taking more work than what you can accomplish; Spending more money than what you earn.

2. Drift to Low Performance

Drift to low performance is a mindset that prevents us from seeing the ugliness of our pathetic performance.

When you don’t have high standards that keep you pushing towards doing better. You get comfortable with doing an average job. You, subconsciously, say to yourself things like: “Well, I’m not doing much worse than what I was doing last month, that’s why I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

This not-expecting-anything-more loop keeps you doing the same old things, which eventually leads to even poorer performance.

Why is that?

Why can’t we spot how we are slowly heading downhill?

Mainly because our goals are not high enough. When our targets are low – or non-existent – the perceived state is also low and there are no actions to correct the underperforming loop.

The main problem, however, is a bit more sophisticated.

When not maintained, our projects, the work we do, body, gradually becomes worse. After all, you don’t wake up 50 pounds heavier. You add the extra weight slowly over a course of a year, for example.

To avoid the downward spiral of mediocrity, do this: Have high standards for yourself.

Instead of comparing yourself with the worst people around you. Look at the people who are performing well and attach yourself to them.

3. Success To The Successful

This mental model is quite popular but under another anecdote: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

If you’re already rich, you can use your wealth to create more wealth.

You can use it to provide better education for your children. Invest. Start different businesses that will earn you even more money. You can even – while surely unethical – win lawsuits by bribing judges.

This loop creates an unhealthy balance in the universe where winners keep winning while losers keep losing.

Obviously, if you are rich, you don’t have to worry about this mental model. You won’t even read blog posts like this one.

If you are not extraordinarily wealthy, though, you have a lot of work to do. You have to do everything possible to escape the rat race where you are solely working to survive.

In an environment with limited resources. If you don’t have an edge, you can’t win. The solution, therefore, is to penetrate a new market.

Don’t compete with the rich for the same thing. Change seats. Play a different game.

While governments try to prevent corporations from becoming monopolies by passing antitrust laws. You can’t expect governments to improve your personal situation. It’s up to you to make the change.

4. Shifting the Burden To The Intervenor

Shifting the burden is a devilish system archetype that prevents you from actively thinking about your problems.

Plainly, when you have a problem. Instead of facing it and finding a solution, you shift the burden to someone else – or something else.

That’s how we become addicted to drugs or alcohol, for example.

Instead of facing our problems. We fill the hole. We consume beverages that intoxicate us and divert us from thinking about the oppressing issues.

This goes beyond just addictions. Big corporations get attached to advisors or routines that make it appear like they are fixing a problem. But in reality, they are just patching holes.

For instance, instead of teaching your staff members how to handle a specific situation. You hire an expert to make the needed corrections. However, what will happen when the consultant is gone? You are back where you left.

The more you are trying to avoid a problem – by binging series on Netflix or refreshing social media like a lunatic. The more it will consume you.

The solution is rather simple: Stop deceiving yourself. Face your problems and take responsibility.

When new obstacles arise. Don’t immediately think about what you can purchase to feel better and forget about the issue or who you can hire to solve it. Try to handle the situation as soon as you can with what you have available – both on your shelf and in your mind.

5. Seeking the Wrong Goal

Systems thinking is like creating an assembly line that leads to a specific outcome with the same quality.

A basic example is this: If you want to gain muscle, you will form a daily system – a routine – that will prompt you to exercise regularly and also ensure that you are careful with the type of food you intake.

If, however, you set the goal like this: I want to become visually stronger to impress girls. Your daily behavior will include supplements that will probably buff you up in the short term but hurt you in the long term.

Seeking the wrong goal mental model emphasizes the importance of setting the correct goal from the start.

The goal is the direction-setter of the system.

If you fail to adequately outline where you want to end up, you will define your goal badly. This, in turn, will lead to undesirable results. Plainly, you will end up in a place you don’t want to be.

Here’s another example:

If you conclude that you want to read more books. You will measure that goal by the number of books you finish. As long as you stack books everywhere in your house, it will appear as you are progressing towards your goal. But is simply reading books a desirable goal?

Sure, it helps to be a prolific reader. You learn new words. You can post about this on your online profile. But reaching your target number of books won’t lead to sustainable changes in our life. Your goal should be more specific.

For example, “Improve my writing skills, negotiation skills, or critical thinking skills to crush critical thinking barriers.”

Defined like that, your goal changes from simply reading books to reading to express yourself better on paper. Or, reading books to close more deals. Or even, if that is what you want, read more books on mental models to learn how to think better.

As you can see, the just mentioned things are sustainably different from the first goal of merely reading.

So, don’t confuse effort with results. 

Take your time to think. Take as long as you need to figure out what you actually want to start producing results, not only effort.

6. Balancing Feedback Loops

Balancing feedback loops are of extreme importance in systems thinking. They are protective mechanisms that can save you from destruction.

The most simple example is a fire sprinkler. If a fire is detected, the fire sprinkler system will discharge water.

Institutions will never allow a hotel to operate without numerous anti-fire measures. This means that hotel owners must meet all regulations to open business. And while this is good for us as hotel visitors, we often neglect the need of balancing feedback loops in our lives.

Regularly changing your fire extinguisher in your car, paying for insurance, having an emergency fund. These are all things that can literally save your life. But since most of these loops are inactive most of the time, we don’t consider them important. That’s why we tend to spend money instead of save money.

What will happen if you lose your job, and you don’t have any savings?

A huge mistake is to strip away your emergency loops because they are not used for years.

Yes, in the short term they seem expensive and useless. But in the long term, we absolutely require specific systems triggered when there is an emergency.

7. Reinforcing Feedback Loops

The idea of reinforcing feedback loops is that they are self-reinforcing.

The more this type of system works, the more it gains the power to work in the same direction.

And depending on the loop, it can be either a source of growth or erosion.

Here’s a basic example: The more you spend and depend on loans, the further you will deteriorate your financial situation. Conversely, the more money you invest, the more interest you earn.

Identifying both the good, the bad, and the evil reinforcing feedback loops in your life is crucial for your long-term success.

If left unchecked, a bad (or evil) reinforcing loop will ultimately lead to destruction.

It might sound like over-exaggeration, but something simple as unmanaged social media usage can cause great pain. The more you engage in pointless online discussions, the more you will do it in the future. Therefore, the less time you will have to read and improve your skills that can lead to growth.

Take a seat and note down the reinforcing loops in your life.

Which one you should keep and which ones you should abandon?

Some Closing Thoughts

When I started writing this piece, I didn’t know where exactly I was going to land. I never know where I’m going to land when I start writing something. In fact, I’m deeply skeptical of any writer that claims they have the precognition to know where they’re going to end up before they’ve even started.

I believe that things are surprisingly similar in our lives…

Regardless of what we do, we don’t know exactly where we are going to land. We can only predict and hope that our prediction will turn out somehow accurate.

Blind hope and inflated self-belief feel good. But these can only carry you so far.

Eventually, reality will pull the rug from under your feet and leave you naked on the cold floor.

To progress. To avoid destruction. It helps to think in systems.

The mental models above are helpful companions that will allow you to implement loops that are not only helpful once. But lead to regular results.

After all, being good once won’t win you a gold medal. It requires stamina and mighty will to continuously improve your craft.

For more on mental models, consider the following:

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