Systems Thinking 101: Part 2

Addressing a part of the issue with a simplistic solution is indeed like playing the game Whack-a-Mole. You hit one of the little mole heads only to have another pop up somewhere else. You either frantically try to keep whacking moles, or give up.

There is a better way: to use mindful awareness to figure out how the game works.

How do all the parts in your life—your system—fit together? A systems orientation would see things in terms of your whole lifestyle (The Five Areas of Weight Loss): food, exercise, movement, relationships, work/life balance, etc. and implement strategies for change with these interrelationships in mind.

Systems thinking holds that the system is all about the interrelationship between its parts. This interrelationship is governed by predictable patterns and rules, what we call habits. 

Habits are your entrenched patterns. Some of these patterns are totally on autopilot. Others are more visible. Mindfulness helps us to shine a light on the habits, figure out which ones are helpful vs. unhelpful, and begin to form new habits.

Systems thinking asks questions that help you to figure out how the game works—the unique way that your life is governed by habits.

If this sounds daunting, take heart. Systems thinking has shown us that a small change in one area can lead to big changes elsewhere in the system, provided you know how to work with the dynamic process.

This ripple effect is great news. It means that we don’t need to take radical steps to solve our problems. It means that meaningful change is within our reach. Also, it means that you don’t always have to solve the weight problem by starting with food. You can explore other entry points into the issue.

The flip side of this is the concept of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the systems’ dynamic tendency to maintain the status quo. This is a common occurrence in weight loss, and we should expect and prepare for it. This is especially true if the change is too sudden or drastic, which is why we aim for small, incremental changes.

An example of homeostasis happens frequently in couples when it comes to losing weight. A wife might want her spouse to lose weight. She may have been on his case for years and years. And when he finally does, what happens? She begins to unconsciously sabotage his weight loss. Maybe she throws a big party with his favorite foods. Maybe she starts to suddenly need him home when he is supposed to be working out.

This isn’t because she wants to make his life miserable, and sabotage his weight loss. This is because she is part of a system (the couple) and the system has been trucking along for years a certain way. Suddenly, things have changed and there is a natural tendency to restore it to the way it was. 

Simply being aware of this tendency (mindfulness) can be very helpful in addressing it when it inevitably pops up. It can also take away some of the blame when we realize that we, and others, are not actively trying to sabotage anything. We are just doing what systems do.

Now that we have a greater understanding of the way systems work, we can really begin to make meaningful progress toward our weight loss goals.

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