Changing behaviour with systems thinking

Behaviour can be hard to change when we focus on sole events. But events are just the tip of the iceberg. Under the events, there might be patterns and systemic underlying structures preventing us from change.

When we start to understand the underlying patterns maintaining our behaviour, we obtain leverage to analyze and structurally solve these issues. This is where Systems Thinking can help us, giving us insight on how behaviour is shaped and influenced by systemic forces.

Two streams of thinking


With event oriented thinking, we determine and explain what happens to us in our life; ‘because of A we got B, which led to C’, etcetera. But it falls short in adequately explaining how complex systems of behaviour work, and how underlying forces and structures are influencing these patterns of behaviour.

Thus, systems Thinking differentiates itself from event oriented thinking by looking at reality in a loop structure instead of straight lines. It can be described as the ability to think about a system as a whole, rather than only thinking about its individual parts. It focuses on processes, patterns and underlying relationships, especially focusing on feedback mechanisms within the system.

“Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.” 

– Peter M. Senge

Systems Thinking is a useful tool to visualize behaviour and to see how systemic forces are maintaining circles of behaviour. Specifically, it can help us understand how we drift away from our goals, while trying to break bad habits. It starts with a vision that leads to creative tension between our current reality and desired reality.

Creative tension to change behaviour

A gap between our current reality and our desired reality creates tension. We can view this tension as a visionary gap with a rubber band. The current reality is trying to keep us in the same place, while the vision is trying to pull us towards a new future. This offers two ways to resolve the tension.

Either we submit to the emotional anxiety of change and allow the undesired behaviour to continue, or we muster the courage to create desired behaviour. Changing behaviour and re-placing bad habits is therefore about choosing the right solution.

Weakening the vision

Emotional tension and anxiety can lead to pressure. We then weaken this tension by choosing for an instant but temporary fix. It leads to an adaptation of our vision – we refuse the idea of change because we think it isn’t the time to change our current reality.

This is the rubber band effect that pulls us back into place, with demotivating thoughts and disbelief in ourselves as a result. The additional problem with this solution is that the response is strengthened whenever we will experience creative tension in the future. We will naturally gravitate towards this solution and drift away from our goals if we think we cannot deal with the new reality.

By creating awareness in your own life, regarding your behaviour and habits, you should identify the moments where you allow yourself to bounce back to your current reality.

The fundamental solution

The second option is to find the courage to create an action implementation. However, the time delay of our actions makes it difficult to follow through. Although we can have faith in the outcome, creating a new positive habit is always difficult at the start, because a time delay is required in this solution. That is why this solution requires you to push through the initial barrier of change.

By finding leverage and starting small, we can set ourselves up to choose for this solution as the default cycle when we start to feel creative tension. Along the way we will gain more clarity, and we will eventually be able to create additional enthusiasm for our goal. This reinforces the cycle with a stronger vision with additional action, ultimately leading to a successful adaptation of our reality to our future vision. Read more on how to manifest your future vision here.

Choosing for this solution doesn’t necessarily mean investing as much time as possible in the new goal, but it means that we can see how the bad habits is not leading to the fulfilment of our desired reality.

Systems thinking focuses on feedback loops

Systems thinking is built upon the notion that there are reinforcing and balancing processes that determine our behaviour.

Reinforcing processes

Reinforcing processes are the engine of growth and collapse. A prominent example of a reinforcing feedback loop is a reward system. If a reward is given for a certain behaviour, the behaviour is reinforced and will be displayed again. Depending on the positive or negative nature of the reward, the cycle is either virtuous (positive habit) or vicious (negative habit). Read more on creating positive habits here.


An example of a negative reinforcing feedback can be an external situation leading to heightened levels of stress.

As seen in the diagram above, there is a reinforcing process of negative tension and doubt. We might experience this when we are trying to break a bad habit, or when reality is imposing stress on us that makes us conform to the status quo. Stress then leads to tension and anxiety, which leads to a mental and physical response that increases perceived mental stress.

Balancing processes

Balancing processes are continually trying to keep a system at a desired level or performance, like a thermostat regulating the temperature. They resist change in one direction by seeking to create change in the other direction. The structure takes corrective action to adjust the level until the discrepancy decreases.

Continuing with the example of perceived stress, we can also break free from the reinforcing feedback loops by adding new components. Instead of a reinforcing process where stress leads to more stress, we want to change towards a balancing process that produces stability. This doesn’t imply stability in the sense that we are never allowed to move away from our optimal state, but rather the ability to create corrective action when needed.

We do not want to be stuck in the bad habit with our standard mental or physical response to the situation, but we want to be actively engaged in the balancing process, so that we create an adapted mental / physical response to the situation.

The link to the green balancing process starts with the perception and identification of a gap between our current state and the external influence. In the case of mental stress and emotional anxiety, we can use breathing and conditioning drills to become centered again.

This physical cue work effectively because the mind will always follow the body, since mind and body states are closely intertwined. A relaxed body means relaxed mind. Mental cues can also work to create relaxation. Read more on emotional regulation here.

Delay in feedback loops

Delay in the system is an important thing to take into account A delay in perception can be insidious to our effort to change behaviour. It can take time before we see effect from the changes we make due to the opaque relationship between the cause and effect.

Systems structures with a finite resource

Changing behaviour can also be difficult because there is a finite resource like time. The diagram below displays how obtaining success in one field of our lives creates avoidance in another field.

For example, imagine you have a goal related to living a healthier lifestyle. In order to change and become successful in this aspect of your life, you need to invest time in it. But most people don’t, because time for adopting a new habit is inversely related with time spent for other activities – each minute you spend on a new habit will take away time from something else.

In other words, the reinforcing process of success in your normal life prevents you from investing time in other aspects of your life that need improvement. It now becomes obvious why you are investing time in family, work, hobbies and leisure instead. You are avoiding health, sports and living a healthy lifestyle because the success of investing your time is mainly found in the top loop, which creates strong psychological pressure to avoid health and sports even further.

This system simply displays a dilemma with tension between two different goals. The key to solve this creative tension is to foster alignment between different priorities in your life.

Levels of perspective


The levels of perspective framework gives some pointers to see how you can go from responding to events in your life towards looking for actions with higher leverage. Instead of being reactive to your behaviour and your environment, you should look for ways to become more creative, reflective and generative. By becoming aware of systemic structures, we can change patterns of behaviour. Thus, re-examine your mental models and reflect on your approach. Question your own assumptions and clarify your vision. Seek the bigger picture instead of just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Creating perspective with visualization

Changing behaviour with systems thinking is about creating a new perspective and visualizing it. It is a useful tool to explore the reality in a different way. So if you have the feeling you might be going in circles of behaviour, draw them to break out of it.


Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, 1990

Boris is a Dutch consultant, Lifestyle Coach and Sports fanatic. He enjoys helping others with personal development by creating a change in attitude and behaviour.

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