The secret to progress may not be seeing your desired future but seeing your current cycles. Let me explain.
In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge argues for systems thinking. We must change from thinking in lines to thinking in circles. In other words, we must stop thinking in simple terms of linear cause and effect. Rather, we must begin to see the larger cycles or patterns or systems at work in any given situation. Systems thinking is a higher level of problem solving.
Low level problem solving says situation A led to situation B. High level problem solving, or systems thinking, says situation A is both a cause and an effect, and similarly, situation B is both a cause and effect. Systems thinking asks what are the larger patterns and cycles influencing the whole scenario.
So the secret to progress is not necessarily drawing a straight line to your desired goal and marching boldly forward. Such an approach would quickly bog down. Instead, systems thinking urges us to consider alterations in meta-patterns that will result in the desired effect.
Senge lists three types of cycles worth considering.
- Reinforcing Cycles. These cycles amplify results and can produce positive or negative trends. A positive example would be sales leading to satisfied customers leading to word of mouth campaign leading to more sales and so forth.
- Balancing Cycles. These cycles stabilize situations. So a house gets colder, then the heat kicks on, then the house warms, then the thermostat kicks off, temperature drops, heat kicks on, and so forth.
- Delay Cycles. Delays cycles have a significant lag between certain causes and effects, and this lag can change the way we behave. Failure to recognize a delay cycle can lead to dangerous consequences. For example, taking Advil involves a delay. You must wait for the medicine to kick in. Failure to recognize this delay could lead to taking more and more medicine which would actually make you feel worse.
Recognizing these cycles is key to change. Without seeing the cycle, you will only fix one piece, which of course is no fix at all. So again, as Senge urges, think in circles. Progress does not come through straight lines. It comes through seeing patterns and circles.
My Own Experiment
So I thought I would apply this kind of thinking to my own life and see what happens. Here are my findings.
As I consider my own ministry effectiveness, I am convinced one of the greatest hindrances to greater effectiveness is my lack of white space to pray, strategize, plan, and so forth. But rather than just grit my teeth and strategize more, I tried to consider the systems and cycles at work. Here’s what I came up with. I call it the hurry cycle.
You can see my desire to do well drives me to get to work right away. But this hurried pace eradicates planning time. This lack of strategy and vision leads to less effectiveness and efficiency overall. The result only redoubles my resolve to work harder, and the cycle continues. Underlying this cycle is the assumption that successful people are busy. So when I desire to do well, I just get busy. This is a Reinforcing Cycle with a negative trend. Having recognized this system, how could I change it so it trends positively?
I must first change my assumptions. I must let die the thought that frantic busyness equals better results. I must replace that assumption with the idea that prayerful strategizing and planning is far more effective. Once I do that, the cycle begins to take a new shape.
Recognizing the presence of cycles, I can now leverage that knowledge to work for me. I can change my first step to one that leads to greater effectiveness and a positively reinforcing cycle.
How about you?
How might this work for you? What areas in your life are constantly producing the same results because your life is repeating a cycle? As Senge suggests, cycles have their own agenda. So what cycle is controlling your life with its agenda? Is it a pattern of thought that leads to a negative action that leads to more negative thoughts and so forth? Maybe you think you’ll do poorly in a class, so you hardly try. Because you hardly try, you do poorly in the class and try even less. How can you change that cycle?
A positive example is exercising. Exercise is a positive reinforcing cycle. When you exercise, you start feeling better and having more energy, and when you start feeling better and having more energy, you exercise more.
Another example would be friendship. When you invest in friends, they will invest in you, making it easier to invest in them, and so forth.
Look for ways to step into positive cycles.
Thankfully, if you are a Christian, we have advantage here. We have God’s truth on our side. His word helps us identify lies and faulty patterns. And his word marks out for us a new course. We don’t have to be conformed to the patterns of this world. We can renew our minds. We can strengthen our inner man. We can pray and find peace. We can set our minds on things above. These are all ways of throwing a wrench in the old cycles and replacing them with God-honoring, life-giving patterns of thought, speech, and actions.
So give it a try. Take a minute to identify a negative pattern, and consider (with the help of God’s Spirit and His Word) how you might alter that pattern. (Here’s a great resource from my wife to get you started).