Feedback Loops: How to Master the Invisible Hand That Shapes Our Lives, by James Clear
The human body is governed by a wide range of feedback loops.
These systems maintain a careful balance of everything from the amount of water in your cells to the amount of hormones released into your bloodstream.
Feedback loops are always running in the background of our lives, but they influence our bodies and minds in profound ways. When each process works as intended, our bodies function properly and we remain balanced. When something in the system breaks, we steadily slip away from equilibrium. In extreme cases, things spiral out of control — like the growth of Robert Wadlow.
Here’s the important part:
Feedback loops are not only at the core of human biology, but also at the center of human behavior. Like the biological processes mentioned above, psychological feedback loops often run unnoticed in the background of our daily lives. They can influence everything from how fast we drive to how frequently we take our medications to how often we check social media. In fact, I would say that feedback loops are the invisible forces that shape human behavior.
We can divide feedback loops into two different types:
- Balancing Feedback Loops: we will use these to moderate bad habits.
- Reinforcing Feedback Loops: we will use these to build good habits.
Generally speaking, balancing feedback loops are associated with maintaining equilibrium or oscillating around a desired level.
Meanwhile, reinforcing feedback loops are associated with continuous increases or decreases.
Balancing feedback loops are for governing bad habits and building good ones.
Here are a few examples:
- Want to spend less time staring at a screen? Buy an outlet timer and set it to turn off one hour before your desired bedtime each night. When the power shuts down, this feedback loop is reminding you not to spend too much time staying up late and staring at your computer screen or television.
- Want to improve your posture? Assume an upright stance and place a piece of tape across your shoulder so that it tugs on your shirt if your shoulders sag. This simple balancing feedback loop will trigger a reminder to stand up straight each time you feel a tug.
- Want to make more sales? The paper clip strategy is a simple way to build a feedback loop that will measure your progress on daily sales calls. (In fact, it can work for any repeated task.)
Balancing feedback loops are fantastic at regulating bad habits because, similar to a thermostat, they can attack the problem from two sides. On one side, they can keep unproductive or unhealthy behaviors in check by making you aware of your mistakes (like displaying your speed or automatically shutting off your outlets). On the other side, they can remind you to perform good behaviors rather than slipping back into old patterns (like a piece of tape pulling on your slumping shoulder or a paper clip sitting in a bin on your desk).
A simple three step method for building feedback loops in your life:
Let’s breakdown each step of this framework.
Measurement is the foundation of every feedback loop. All feedback loops have one key characteristic: the output from one cycle becomes the input for the next cycle. In other words, all feedback loops measure something and that measurement becomes the starting point for the next cycle of behavior. Data improves awareness and awareness is the first step to behavior change.
Comparison is essential for making sense of your feedback loop. Measuring something is useless if it’s not relevant to you. Remember the “Your Speed Is…” sign from earlier? That reading of your current speed is only relevant when compared to the actual speed limit. It is the comparison between where measurement says you are and where you want to be that makes the next step clear. Effective feedback loops help you make comparisons that are personal and relevant.
Adjustment is the action that closes the feedback loop. Adjustments should be made as quickly as possible. The more rapid the change, the tighter the feedback loop. In the words of Seth Godin, “The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback.”
When feedback loops fail, it is often because of one of these three problems:
- Measurement isn’t automatic.
- Comparison is irrelevant.
- Feedback is slow.
Here’s a simple fact: most people, most of the time, don’t know where they stand on the issues that are important to them.
People want to lose weight, but don’t know how many calories they eat each day. People want to learn a new language, but they don’t know how many hours they practiced last month. People want to write a best-selling book, but don’t know how many words they wrote last week. People want to build a successful business, but don’t know how many sales calls their team made yesterday. People want to get stronger, but don’t know how much weight they lifted at the gym last week. Most people don’t measure things, and a feedback loop can’t happen without measurement.
My argument is that we should spend less time letting feedback loops shape our lives in invisible ways and more time designing the feedback loops we want and need.