A Systems Approach to Behavioral Change

“The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” - John Maxwell

We're often an irrational species. We do things like voting for the best-looking political candidate[1] and buying lottery tickets.

Unfortunately, we didn't evolve for rationality at all. We're an emotional species, with a limbic system (emotional brain) that's about 170 million years old and a neocortex (logical brain) that's only 40 million years old. Our rational brain is often out-matched. Some psychologists, like Dr. William von Hippel, believe that IQ is in fact an evolutionary byproduct of EQ, rather than the other way around.[2]

So if we want to behave rationally, we need an upgrade to our software program that can come in the form of meditation. That's why Ray Dalio, who runs one of the biggest hedge funds in the world, meditates and even said, “Meditation, more than anything in my life, was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.”  In the world of investing, emotional decisions don’t produce good returns.

But beyond getting better at making Spock-like decisions, we can also take advantage of another innate human quality: we're habitual creatures. Repeated behavior gets hardwired into our brains and continues to be repeated. It can be useful to take a systems approach to program helpful behavior. A system is a rule that you set for yourself, which becomes a habit.

For example, I might decide to turn off all electronics between the hours 8pm - 8am. Or my system might involve meditating first thing in the morning, no matter what. A system is a structural boundary that you place on yourself. It's like you're entering a piece of code that sets a guideline for your future behavior. And such small, systematic tweaks can have compounding results. If I decide to read 30 pages every night before bed, for example, suddenly I'm reading 45 books per year. That makes me a completely different person than I would be without that system in place.

Mental Fitness Tip: What simple system can you employ starting today that will enhance your quality of life?


[1] Carl L. Palmer and Rolfe D. Peterson, ”Halo Effects and the Attractiveness Premium in Perceptions of Political Expertise,” American Politics Research Vol. 44, No. 2 (2016): 353-382 (356).

[2] The Social Leap, William von Hippel