Attack the Root Cause, Not the Symptoms

Roots. This image is CC0!

When something is causing us trouble, the natural reaction is to fix it quickly. Such troubles can be waste, as discussed earlier, but a lot of other things can go wrong, too. Unfortunately, just fixing things quickly can be the wrong reaction. Often, only the symptoms of a problem are cured, but not the underlying problem. So the same issues can arise again and again.

Consider a dripping water tap of the classical type, with rubber sealing. Instinctively, we tend to close it with more force to reduce the dripping. This will work for weeks, maybe even longer. At some point in time, the dripping cannot be stopped any more. We have not fixed the real reason for the dripping, the outworn sealing. This real reason is the root cause for the leakage, which is only the symptom. Nowadays, you could even say, even the rubber seal is not the root cause, but the outdated technology of the tap. If you replace it by a modern one with ceramic sealing, the drip-free tap may even outlive you. This is a good example for thinking not only one step further, but more steps.

Earlier, I discussed the “As If” principle. It may seem that this principle is in contradiction to the advice to look for root causes. For some things, like phobias this may be true. As Wiseman describes in “Rip it Up” it is not necessary to understand the cause for a phobia to cure it. For psychological and motivational issues, it may be better not to analyze too much.

However, you can give root cause analysis another twist by inverting the cause and effect arrow, just like the “As If” principle does. One typical example is about the relation between smiling and happiness, which is nearly folklore nowadays. You do not smile because you are happy; you become happy if you smile. This application of the “As If” principle can be written down with cause/effect arrows like this:

Not: happy = cause ==> smile = effect,
but smile = cause ==> happy = effect

Some people may be happy without smiling all the time, but give this one a try:

If you are not happy, maybe the root cause is that you smile to seldom.

You can apply this to many areas. Maybe a negative effect you see is a cause in reality.

  • If your house is a mess, the reason could be that you behave like a messy person (and not because you have too much stuff).
  • If your career is stuck, maybe you behave like somebody who does not want a promotion (and not because your boss does not see your value for the company).
  • If you are overweight, maybe you behave like an overweight person.

Especially difficult problems tend to run into vicious circles, when the direction of cause and effect is not clear any more. One solution could be to change your behavior in the counterintuitive direction.

I never promised that a Lean Self is always easy to achieve. Later, I am going to discuss the Pareto Principle, which should reduce the desperation a little. Sometimes “difficult” can be astonishingly easy.

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