New Systems Thinking - Part 2: New perspectives, new ideas (and why dieting doesn't work)

Increasing weight loss system diagram_edited
Carrying on with yesterday's introduction of the New Systems Thinking, let's take the example of "Why diets don't work?" and see how we can find holistic solutions to the issue of dieting and weight loss. I am sure we all know of one or two stories of diets gone terribly wrong! In 1990, Wadden et al, published their findings on the long term effects of dieting on resting metabolic rate in obese outpatients and concluded that dieting did not cause resting long term metabolic rate to fall. In other words, you ultimately won't lose weight through dieting. Another study by Stephanik et al in 1998 concluded that dieting failed to lower cholesterol levels in men and women. I could go on with the various different studies but I think one thing is clear, dieting doesn't work. So let us see how we can manage our weight and be successful at it.

1. Identify your system

We mentioned the primacy of the intent and we begin again with it here. Why do you want to diet? To stay healthy? To lose weight? To eat right? Each of these intents represents a different system. With different drivers. So, which is yours? In this example, we take the "losing weight" intent, because, let's face it, we all need to lose a couple, don't we? So our system will be "Increasing weight loss" (Note, this system may be similar to the "maintaining ideal weight" system, but there will be subtle differences.)

2. Discover drivers

In the second step, we brainstorm all the drivers that would impact the system. The tendency for a lot of us is to try to classify (see step 3) as we discover. That has shown to be ineffective and you will miss many of the drivers if you did that. So just go with the flow, identifying all the drivers you can, writing each one down on the sticky before you make it onto step 3.

In this case, the drivers include friends, environment, celebrations, cues, habits, willpower, exercise, food, taste, calories, metabolic rate, physical activities, lifestyle, stress, medication, medical condition, happiness. (There are certainly more and when we did this exercise, these were all we got. If you have more, please share them with us at

3. Categorise drivers into "reinforcing" or "hindering"

Take a newsprint-sized sheet of paper and draw a line across at the middle. At the top, write down your system; in this case, to increase weight loss. Next, annotate the top half as "Reinforcing" and the bottom half as "Hindering" as such:

Categorise drivers 1

Then paste all your stickies onto the paper, identifying if the driver was reinforcing or hindering. Note, you have to look at the impact of the driver for your current system, not for the ideal one. Hence, if yours is a sedentary lifestyle, then you would have to place that driver under "hindering" even if you really know that you should have a reinforcing lifestyle.

When you are done, you should get something like this:

Categorise Drivers 2

4. Interconnect drivers

Now comes the fun part. You know how to do a cause and effect diagram? Well, this is the same thing. Draw an arrow from a causal driver to an effect. Chances are, that effect may well be a causal driver for some other effect. And so one. Be complete. Don't end until you have totally exhausted all the connections. You might see something like this:

System Map

5. Identify centres of gravity

The centres of gravity are those will a lot of lines coming in and out. In this example, "cues" "lifestyle" and "happiness" are the centres of gravity. What is interesting about these is they are more "effects" than causes. Yet, look at the "happiness" driver. It causes both exercise and habits (of course also food, i.e. eating!) And look at "cues". It causes both "happiness" and "food". Meaning to say, when we are in the presence of rich food, it will trigger the happiness driver to eat more!

6. Develop holistic solutions

The key is to decrease the impact of hindering drivers and increase the impact of reinforcing ones. In this case, there is a need to stay away from occasions that cause us to eat, like celebrations. It is not that we don't celebrate, but we could do so in healthy places; or engaging in healthy, physical activities. We must also trigger the happiness driver - to decide to be happy - so as to drive the exercise habit, thereby building it into a lifestyle.

So, 6 steps to the New Systems Thinking methodology. It will open up your thinking and help you find new perspectives for new ideas!

Happy mapping!


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Written by Ian Dyason

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