loves the Earth.


Systems mapping of my coffee habit

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things–little and large–influence one another within a whole, or system. The most obvious example is ecosystems, where numerous elements are working together to create a living equilibrium full of nutrients, air, water and active organisms.

In life, there are many systems. The U.S. economy is a system, as is the national school system. These systems in particular, are very complex and difficult to understand entirely. Often, we only see a part of the it, like our own tax budget or income, rather than the system as a whole. This influences our conception of where there are issues, or places that need intervention, which may not be accurate since we are only looking at a mere section.

Large numbers of people also work very hard to create policies and incentives that will influence the system so it can improve a stock, like the stock of educated youth, or the stock of available jobs. Systems thinking offers a more holistic, and often more definite, view of these large, complex systems in order to identify the most effective leverage points for change.

A Little History

Systems thinking has been around for a very long time. The Mayans used systems thinking to understand the big picture, or what the Mayans referred to as “the divine plan.”1 Current systems thinking was revived into popularity after WWII, and the environmental scientist and teacher, Donella Meadows, is most connoted with the development of modern systems thinking.2

Meadows created a nomenclature and hierarchy of systems tools that can be used when mapping systems and scenarios. These tools take a little getting used to, as they express a very different way of perceiving and describing relationships. As an example, I have created a systems map of my current coffee habit.


Systems Map of My Current Coffee Habit

What is happening here? Currently, I, the system, am challenged with performing in different areas in my life on little sleep. There are several stocks that are demanding performance, but are negatively linked, or move in opposite directions, to other essential stocks. Without these foundational stocks, performance will suffer, even with a steady flow of drinking coffee.

Starting with the Rest stock, it is linked by a positive feedback loop (going in the same direction) to the Personal Wellbeing stock. Note, however, that there is also a time delay, shown by the two parallel lines, between the change in the stock of Rest and how this affects Personal Wellbeing.

Relatedly, Personal Wellbeing stock is connected by a positive feedback loop to Optimistic Thinking and Faith in Life stock, but without such a delay. This means that as Rest goes up, Personal Wellbeing improves over time, which quickly improves Optimistic Thinking and Faith in Life. On the other hand, if the Rest stock depletes, Personal Wellbeing will also decrease after a time delay, which will also decrease Optimistic Thinking and Faith in Life.

We can see that the Rest stock is critical.

The Optimistic Thinking and Faith in Life stock is also connected to several other stocks through positive feedback loops. As this stock grows, so does the motivation and ability to do Work for School, Work for Life/Career, and Work for Internship stocks.

Negative feedback loops, however, connect the Work stocks with the Rest stock. Increases in the Work for School, Life/Career and Internship stocks will decrease the Rest stock. This is a common pattern, and a flow of Drinking Coffee assists with the negative feedback loops between Rest and Work stocks. The flow successfully substitutes for a decreasing stock in Rest to main performance in the Work stocks. Concern of this addiction is unwarranted; unless the Rest stock gets to such low levels that the flow of Drinking Coffee cannot sufficiently supply the Work stocks.

Additionally, with the decrease in the Rest stock, so do the Personal Wellbeing and Optimistic Thinking and Faith in Life stocks decrease. If these stocks decrease too quickly or reach dangerously low levels, motivation will plummet and these stocks will decrease the Work stocks.

However, if Work stocks decrease, a balancing loop occurs: Rest stock can increase and recharge the functionality of the My System. Likely, however, the system will vacillate around these two extremes until other factors influence the Work stocks, like Graduation or a new Career Job stock.

Make Sense?

Systems thinking is a new way of looking at things, but can often uncover interconnected relationships that may not be working together as they should. Instead of purely thinking through the lens of cause and effect, or linearly, systems mapping allows us to conceptualize how complex systems truly function, in intricate and often surprising ways.


1.Lazanski, T. J. (2011). Systems Thinking and Mayan Systems Wisdom for Sustainability in Tourism.Sustainable Tourism: Socio-Cultural, Environmental and Economics Impact, pp. 137-145.
2.Meadows, D. H. Meadows. (1999). Sustainability Institute. Leverage Points, Places to Intervene in a System.