The arrival of a new year is often a time for committing to changes in our lives. These changes are typically framed in terms of what we want to start. Much of our focus, then, is placed on the new things that we plan to do as a means of initiating the changes we hope to see. Nature, however, might approach the idea of resolutions a little differently.

Lessons from nature on letting go

One of nature’s lessons embedded deep in its design is that form fits function. If function were defined as the purpose and intention behind an action, then nature would ensure that processes, feedback loops and behaviors (forms) would align to serve the desired higher purpose. Another teaching of this design is the ease with which nature lets go of a form that no longer serves the function it was initially designed to support.

The oak tree is a wonderful example. When an oak is growing, its leaves gain energy from sunlight and turn that energy into nutrients through photosynthesis. As this occurs, the oak tree gets wider and taller. However, the branches that used to be at the top of the tree stay where they originally were, relative to the trunk. So over time, these early branches and their leaves become overshadowed by higher branches that have grown as the tree ages. Eventually, these lower branches can’t perform the photosynthesis needed to contribute nutrients to the tree because they become shaded by the canopy.

Over time, the oak tree stops sharing nutrients with these lower branches, and the leaves die. Then, in a snow storm or big wind, the branches drop off the tree, and what is left is a self-healing circle that indicates where a branch used to be. I have twelve 100+ year-old oak trees in my yard, and I can attest to the amount of cleanup needed as branches are let go by the oaks after a storm. There is no visible trauma or drama as the oaks go through this process. The design principle of form fitting function is the way these trees adapt to the growth and change they experience as they evolve.

Letting go can accelerate change and evolution

Nature makes this process look easy, but humans seem to struggle with letting go of behaviors, beliefs and habits that no longer serve them. What if we took these lessons from nature and its mighty oak and applied them to our lives and our New Year’s resolutions? First, we would take time to discern what habits, mindsets and behaviors are no longer serving us. The focus of our resolutions would shift to letting go instead of starting up. And we can also model our leadership practice after nature’s design in this way.

In systems change work, accelerating the letting go process is a powerful strategy for influencing transformations in organizations, individuals and communities. One of the things I love about leading living systems is that they are in movement and scale naturally as they grow. The adaptive cycle of nature is a never-ending process (picture an infinity loop on its side) of exploring, launching, sustaining and letting go. Every time the system releases forms that no longer serve function, the energy of release is reorganized to fuel the next adaptive cycle. So, this design principle can be used by individuals or organizations to help us continue to adapt and to see change as a natural, ongoing process that starts with what we release.

This new year, I invite you to reflect on what is no longer serving you – your health, your wellbeing, your ability to evolve – and let those branches go.