Feb 23, 2023

Living Upstream: The Systems That Make Our Lives Work

      As a parent of five children, I didn’t take long to discover that one benefit of having children is the intense conditioning it puts your immune system through. When the kids, three of whom attend school away from home, return for the spring semester, my wife and I seem to trade ailments like commodities for a few months. During my most recent run-in with some virus or bug, I realized, while lying in bed shivering and staving off the fever-induced body aches, how nearly all of our enjoyment, fulfillment, happiness, and contentment in life exists downstream from our health. This prompted me to explore this notion on a couple of fronts.

1.) If much of the joy I derive from life is downstream of my health, what is upstream of my health?

2.) Can I develop a framework that examines other areas of my life through the lens of what exists both up and downstream?

The first question has been examined in every conceivable way. As a fairly unforgiving self-experimenter and self-proclaimed health nerd, I have concluded that empirical, peer-reviewed data exists to support and/or debunk every diet and exercise program imaginable. However, the differences in the data are less important than the similarities. The overwhelming message conveyed by studying long-term health improvements from diet and exercise programs is this: consistency is king. Study after study has demonstrated that significant differences did not manifest based on which diet or exercise program participants adopted; nearly all diet and exercise programs proved effective to some degree if the participants could adhere to the prescribed program. Another area of clear overlap when it comes to long-term health is adequate sleep and meaningful social connection.

 So, if our health, excluding variables we cannot control like our genetics, is largely a function of diet, exercise, sleep, and social connection, the best approach to optimizing one’s health is to develop practical, repeatable, habitual systems that prioritize consistency. These systems exist upstream of our health.

 Now it may seem like you either have a system for all these variables in place or you don’t, but this isn’t quite right. You either have a system by choice or a system by chance. Very few people (like rounded to the nearest whole number being 0 people) go about each day in a totally random fashion. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, reports that nearly 40% of our daily behaviors arise out of our habits, including both our conscious and subconscious habits. So without a conscious effort to adopt a system of health, you will be left to the whims of your subconscious habits. With much of our ability to enjoy life existing directly downstream of our health, this seems too important a variable to leave to chance.

 As I mulled this idea over in my feverish state, I began to realize that many other areas of my life could be traced to the adequacy of the associated upstream system. Our finances were downstream of our budgetary system. The health of my marriage was downstream of the systems we put in place to protect our time (quite the endeavor in logistics with five kids!) and meet each other’s needs. The health of our children was similarly downstream of the eating, sleeping, and exercising systems we put in place for them. My career success was downstream of my system in place to enhance the necessary skills and attain the necessary education.

 Writing about these personal realizations may seem untethered from the life of a typical retired person, but this framework is broadly applicable. As a person enters retirement, they will need to adopt new systems or modify previous systems. Their health system is less likely to be optimizing for maximum athletic performance and more likely to be optimizing for longevity and prolonging their health. Social connection and status is often derived from a person’s role at work, and this is often brought into sharp relief when a person retires. Seeking meaningful social connection outside of work will, in many cases, be a new endeavor and will require a practical system.

 This brings us to wealth for a retired person. Gone are the days of disciplined saving and investing for retirement. How do we balance the desire to enjoy the money we’ve dutifully saved against the fear of running out? A new system for investing, which likely does not optimize for maximum total returns but rather for consistent cash flows and careful consideration or risk, must be adopted. A system for spending must be adopted as well. Being overly cautious or conservative can leave a person in their 80s or 90s longer on the size of their estate and shorter on their life experiences than they may have wished. Being overindulgent or careless can leave a person relying on Social Security or family in their final years. Each risk can be mitigated with a practical system closely monitored by the retired person and, if they are so inclined, a trusted advisor.

 My systems approach to life may seem too sterile or to eschew spontaneity or adventure, but I would argue spontaneity, adventure, and other life-giving elements can only exist downstream of disciplined systems. Whether you are optimizing for health, wealth, or life satisfaction, it is very likely that these exist downstream of carefully crafted yet practical systems. Begin by asking yourself what rules, routines, or habits - however small or insignificant they may seem at first – you can consistently follow. As James Clear says, before a habit, routine or system can be improved, it first must be established. Don’t allow the life-giving, downstream elements of your life to be controlled by chance. Start to live upstream.


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