System change is incredibly boring. That’s why we can all do it

System change is incredibly boring. That’s why we can all do it
13th December 2022 Tim Malnick
black and gold clockface

Let’s change the system!

Let’s save the planet!

Let’s stick it to the man!

Let’s have a revolution!


These things are necessary. And important. And exciting. (I like things that are exciting).

And yet, is the actual work of changing things actually astonishingly boring?

So much so that we will do anything but live real change in our own lives?

I am beginning to wonder.


How to prioritise in order to lead change

We are moving towards the end of a group programme for leaders, founders and managers who want to align the work they do with the ecological, social and political challenges that the world faces. We’ve explored narratives – the different stories we tell ourselves about what is going on. We’ve dived deep into our personal life myths, the deeper visions and inner wisdoms, that tell us plenty about the leadership we are here to take.

And now we are making choices about our leadership. Making commitments.

Where will I stand?

What is my focus?

Who or what will I serve?

How will I start to bring that to life, day by day, moment by moment, choice by choice, step by step?

Bring on the revolution! I am engaged, energised, enthusiastic. I am seeing people change, grow in clarity, confidence and conviction.

Then one participant asks a very practical question.

She asks, “how do we prioritise all this stuff?”

She has a very busy and demanding new job. She is following this programme which requires plenty of her internally. She is integrating personal change and significant professional development after some big changes and challenges in life.

That’s a lot.

She wonders out loud whether she is really doing justice to the programme. She feels she is not managing her time, energy, activities and priorities in a way that helps her to fully integrate her learning, or provide the right foundation for her to lead change.


Change only happens in this moment

At this point, it would be very easy to lose enthusiasm. To feel deflated. We’ve all been there.

Perhaps all this thinking about global narratives is just conceptual word play? Privileged pontificating for well minded liberal professionals? Maybe tuning into deeper questions of life purpose, and heart aspiration is a little fantastical, a little idealistic?

After all, there is always … So. Much. To. Do.

But maybe that’s the point?

Lack of time – this apparent obstacle to creating change in life, might be the very thing to focus on first. Perhaps that is exactly why it calls for our attention in such an irritating and boring way.

Lack of time is not an obstacle to creating change. The perception of a lack of time is in fact an invitation to look anew at our life, or own personal system. Time pressures demand that we deeply think through our actual purposes and priorities in life; our choices about what to focus on.

What is worth our time?

As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “what is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?”

It is actually very difficult to look close to home when we think about change in the world. It is much easier to talk about change ‘out there’. As if our own lives, our micro movements, our daily choices, routines and assumptions are not a big part of what keeps ‘out there’ continuing as it is.

Focusing on changing ‘out there’ and ignoring our hectic, frantic, pressured lives and priorities, is one way of procrastinating. A way of avoiding change.

We can believe that what needs to change is (only) ‘out there’ in the world. I do not need to change, ‘out there’ does. So, I don’t need to look too closely at my own life choices, busy-ness and priorities. It’s also easy to think that the reason I am unable to create or lead change ‘out there’ in the way I’d like to, is because of a lack of time. At some point in the future, I will have the time to create change. But not now.

We thus project our fear hesitation, ambivalence and distraction onto something that seems very reasonable and true – ‘I don’t have time’.


Time constraints are the essence of the Industrial-Growth Machine paradigm

The invitation to address our lack of time forces us to consider deeply how we have introjected the current industrial-growth-mechanistic paradigm.

This means that the industrial paradigm we say we want to change is actually driving us internally. We notice this when we properly consider how we structure and spend our time. When we are overly busy, we are living out personally the same unhealthy, toxic, future oriented, industrial patterns that we see out there in the world and say we want to change.

Keeping everyone busy just keeping up with the current paradigm, allows everything to continue just as it is.

Our busy-ness is thus not at all trivial. Nor is it just a thing to overcome so we can go and ‘do change better’. Examining our compulsion to be busy, and how we are driven to stay so busy, is key to the whole business of enabling deep change in society.


Life, soul and the present moment

Too often we deny ourselves space and time to reflect, to nourish our souls, to tune into what is truly important. Organisations and society reward us for that. We close down space to change patterns, to connect with like-minded others, to tune into purpose and follow passion.

Thus we diminish the very things that resource us to create, play and to alter habitual system patterns (in our own lives and in our organisations). Then we lack the resource or resilience to take the risks required actually to change; to disturb, provoke or play with habitual patterns, norms and assumptions in ourselves and in groups, teams, projects, organisations. We stay blind to the in-the-moment spaces in which all change happens.

Being busy is not what stops us creating change in the world.

Staying busy is the perfect way to keep current patterns going.

The industrial mindset requires that we are busy – productive and efficient. Occupied. We collude by denying ourselves the right simply to be. Denying ourselves the wisdom that arises naturally from just being present. We choose not to trust that quite enough.

The corollary is that deciding to not be (unconsciously and habitually) busy all the time becomes a radical, political and revolutionary action.

Just that.

Cultivating presence to simply be aware and alive in the moment, without a project, plan or goal, is therefore a powerful act of change in the world.


A leader is one who steps off the wheel, (not one who makes it spin faster)

By not simply following the hamster wheel for one more spin, we live an actual change. We have changed a strong pattern in our lives, and in the world. By changing this on the personal level, we are necessarily contributing to change in the wider culture or field.

Not by coincidence is the entire painful world of confused existence (Samsara) described in Indo-Tibetan culture as a gigantic ever revolving wheel that continues to turn and entrap us. Not for nothing is the way to freedom and liberation in that tradition described in terms of noticing and then resting in the gap between one thing and the next, one moment and the next, one pull on our attention and the next.

Prioritising space and time is not what we need to then go and create change.

Finding space and time – amidst all the chaos, craziness and challenge of everyday life and work is the change.

And it is hard.

It is boring and provocative and irritating.

And it is not at all heroic.

Or entertaining.

It’s a bloody nuisance actually. More fun to be super busy and do stuff.

But to rest in moments of space and time is to live, experience and be change. This is a possibility available to each of us in every moment.


Transforming structures from a state of presence:

Does this mean that that alone is all that is needed? No. There are systems and structures out there. There is work to be done – as elder, activist and systems thinker Joanna Macy says, work to be done, stopping damage and injustice, and recreating new systems and structures that are centred on compassion, vitality and wisdom.

To prioritise personal time and space for presence, re-creation and re-new-al, is not the only thing.

But it is a radical, political act of change. And it is where each of us must start.

Because it goes totally against deeply ingrained dynamics of our current systems.

Systems change is incredibly boring.

That’s precisely why we can all do it.