Systems-First Thinking: The Antidote To Tool-First Thinking.

4 min readJul 6, 2021


Earlier, I was able to tell you earlier how tool-first thinking causes you to waste even more time.

This time, I want you to see how you can able to see things the same way as me.

To help me with that, I’ll need the credibility power of two experts: (BTW, no need to watch the video if you don’t have the time. But still, I suggest you do.)

First: Dr. Russell Ackoff, systems thinking pioneer, said in his legendary speech: (emphasis mine)

In any system, when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole doesn’t necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.

Now why do you think this is important?

Well, because everything in the world is a system — a complex one at that. Some examples at the top of my head:

  • Overoptimize a car’s engine and the body won’t probably be able to handle it.
  • Overoptimize your PC’s processor and your graphics card would eventually become the limiting factor.
  • Overoptimize Anki and the entire knowledge acquisition process becomes compromised. (As you may have realized in the last lesson)

I could go on and on, but all of these happen for a single, not-so-obvious reason:

It’s because systems aren’t just a combination of parts.

Systems have connections.

Systems have relationships.

Systems have interactions.

This brings me to the next point.

Second: As Donella Meadows defines it in her book, Thinking in Systems:

A system isn’t just any old collection of things. A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

Therefore, we end up with a profound conclusion.

Pay attention to this.

You might not want to skip this:

It’s the way the parts perform together that determines the performance of the system, not on how they perform separately.

This is called systems thinking.

In our case, tho, let’s just call it systems-first thinking.

Here are a couple of real-world examples of that:

  • The overall processing time of your computer is defined by how well the parts work together to manipulate data.
  • The overall time your car takes to reach 100mph is defined by how well ALL parts work together to accelerate.
  • The overall time you can metabolize a certain amount of food is defined by how well your ENTIRE digestive system works to turn food into a more usable form.

It means that your:

  1. Long-term retention
  2. Comprehension speed; and
  3. Overall study time

…are determined by how well the elements of your study system work together to achieve those goals.

So yeah, you could have the best learning strategies, tactics, and methods at your fingertips, such as:

  • Spaced repetition
  • Active Recall/Retrieval Practice
  • Pomodoro technique
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Feynman technique
  • Mind Mapping
  • Visualization
  • Increasing Distinctiveness
  • Memory Palace Method
  • Mnemonics
  • Major System
  • Story Method
  • Peg Method
  • PAO System
  • Interleaving
  • Elaborative Encoding
  • Zettelkasten Method
  • Cornell Note Taking
  • etc.

(Yes, I just listed out all the legit study methods out there. Wait, where’s speed reading? Oh…)

Or you could even have the “best” study tools for students…

  • Anki
  • Evernote
  • RemNote
  • Notion
  • XMind
  • Tomighty

But simply having all of them does NOT matter if you cannot make them work well together to achieve your very specific goal.

Are you starting to get into the same page?

Do you now see why I don’t want you to think “tool-first”?

Now then, let me ask you a question:

Right now, do you think all parts of your study system work together toward a single goal?

If not, then you absolutely need to learn how to make them work together — otherwise, you’re just producing incredible inefficiencies in your system.

Think of it like adding more gears into an engine that doesn’t even need more gears.

I don’t know if that’s a good analogy, but you get the point…

But imagine this:

How would you feel if one day, you woke up not having to worry about:

  • Forgetting important concepts when it matters most
  • Restudying your notes because you forgot to actually learn about them
  • Overstudying for long hours yet getting no results to show for it
  • Getting behind of class because you can’t absorb new information quickly; and most importantly,
  • Disappointing people (including yourself) for the subpar results you’ve been getting

Must feel pretty awesome, right?

Well, the good news is, you only need to remember 3 things to do all of them.

Specifically, 3 core elements of ANY study system that makes you a more effective learner who dominates any material without having to re-study it.

And trust me, these core elements would throw most hacks out of the window.

You’ll never be paralyzed with indecision again nor feel like there’s some hidden secret to studying. (There isn’t.)

Instead, you’ll be able to start focusing on what matters, absorb new knowledge much faster, and retain what you’ve learned in a single pass.

And look, if you’re constantly studying the same thing 3 times without even remembering the damn thing…then this framework would cut your study time by at least 75%.




Dissident Hindu. Medical Student. Calisthenics Advocate. Knowledge Management Enthusiast.