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How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

plans

I’ve mentioned in other posts how important feedback loops are to self-motivation, but I haven’t described in detail what I mean by a feedback loop or why they would be so essential. It’s high time to take care of that.

Whenever we’re talking about self-motivation, our intention is to make progress toward a particular goal and/or in toward aquiring certain habits. For instance, I might have a goal of starting a business that provides me with a living wage, or want to change a habit of being late, or be trying to lose a certain number of pounds while changing my eating and exercise habits so that I keep that weight off. A feedback loop is a system that monitors progress toward a goal or progress in acquiring habits and provides information to improve that process. In it’s simplest form, a feedback loop is made up of information about how a process has been going in the recent past, some thought about what that information says about the process, and ideas from that thought for maintaining or improving the process in future.

Why is this important? Because it’s a very common thing to start working toward a goal and then lose momentum. A feedback loop catches us when we’re losing momentum and helps us redirect so that we build momentum back up. Or in the best cases, we find nothing wrong with what we’ve been doing so far but come up with an idea to make things even better. Maintaining a feedback loop means keeping control of our own progress. Not maintaining a feedback loop usually means failure, unless there’s some powerful and regularly-occurring thing in our lives to remind us how important our goals are and keep us on track with sheer energy. As an example of one of those unusual situations where no feedback loop was required: when I was in college I met a very pretty French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. Within a few weeks, I had learned enough French on my own to hold halting conversations in it, urged on by my desire to spend time with this girl. (By the way, I didn’t get anywhere with the girl, but I still use the French). Another example: a woman who “couldn’t” lose weight for years suddenly lost weight quickly when she needed to donate a kidney to her very ill son but couldn’t because of her obesity. But most things in our lives aren’t as compelling as pretty French girls or seriously ill children, so feedback loops come in handy a lot.

Feedback loops need to occur often enough that we stay on top of our process, usually at least once or twice a week. It’s often best to schedule regular days or times to do the feedback work, so as to avoid the danger of always  pushing back feedback “just until tomorrow.”

What forms do feedback loops take? There are a lot of options:

  • Writing in a journal
  • Meeting or talking on the phone with a friend (preferably one whom you’re helping  to work toward their own goal)
  • Participating in online forums or chat groups
  • Attending meetings (Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, writers’ groups, etc.)
  • Talking out loud to yourself (preferably not in situations where it will make you look like a crazy person)
  • Meeting with a professional (a coach, personal trainer, nutritionist, mentor, therapist, etc.)
  • Blogging

The best feedback loop options are ones where someone or something will be waiting there for you to provide an update. If you participate in an online discussion group without promising to check in on a regular basis and without having online friends who are regularly checking on your progress, it’s easy to just not post when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will. Always try to find ways to box yourself in to delivering on your feedback. The minute that process becomes optional, a huge danger opens up of it going completely out the window.

Each time you work on feedback, start by making observations about your recent progress (or lack of progress), then move on to reflecting on what could go better, and finally decide whether there’s anything specific you should be doing differently–and if so, exactly what that is. These ideas for improvement, which can seem wonderfully clear and unforgettable when they come out, can easily be lost in the shuffle of a busy life, so I highly recommend writing them down. It can be very helpful to temporarily post them somewhere that you’ll see them regularly to help you keep them in mind.

There are two particular traps I hope you’ll avoid when working with feedback loops. One is beating yourself up: the past is absolutely unchangeable; all we can do is learn from it and find ways to make better choices in the future, which is exactly what you’re doing if you’re using a feedback loop. There is very rarely any need to take yourself to task other than to recognize how you feel about your choices and actions recently.

The second trap is the infamous phrase “I’ll just have to do better.” “Doing better” is not a plan for improvement: it’s a vague wish that gets us nowhere. Yes, we often want to improve how we’re working toward our goals, but if what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t been good enough, that’s an indication that we need to do something not just better, but differently. Perhaps you had planned to get two chapters written in the past week for a book you’re working on, and you actually only got about a quarter of a chapter down. Resolving to “just do better” in the coming week ignores the fact that some very real problems seem to have occurred and will need solutions. Perhaps you haven’t set aside specific times to write and need to do so now. Perhaps you have set aside times to write, but you’ve let yourself be distracted by e-mail and the Internet at those times, in which case you need to focus on ways to prevent distractions. Perhaps you’ve avoided working on your book because you’re worried that it’s gotten off to a very bad start, in which case you need to decide what it is you really want to do next. In all cases, a problem with motivation is not a moral failing or an indication that you’re a weak-willed person: it’s always some kind of specific complication (or more likely, a cluster of complications). Address the complication, and motivation will improve.

That’s a quick view of a large and important subject. I hope you’ll take away not only an understanding of what feedback loops are, but also a willingness to use them in parts of life that are important to you, anywhere that you want to improve or make progress. You’ll need something to keep motivation going, and while it’s ideal if you have something along the lines of a pretty French girl to inspire you, in a pinch, a feedback loop will do.

12 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Kaizan  •  Sep 1, 2009 @4:42 am

    Very interesting. In essence, coaching and mentoring is fundamentally about feedback loops.

    But is the example of the French girl about feedback loops or more about leverage?
    It sounds like she gave you a powerful reason to learn French. The feedback was secondary.

  2. Luc  •  Sep 1, 2009 @8:41 am

    Kaizan thanks for commenting. And you’re right: the example with the French student is one of the kind of situation where a feedback loop isn’t very important, at least by comparison with less naturally motivating situations. And it certainly would be convenient to have more important goals motivated that way instead of having to make so much conscious effort!

  3. Veronica  •  Sep 1, 2009 @8:56 am

    Luc – Finally made the time to really go over this feedback loop post. Very interesting.

    I am a crisis-handler. Due to life experiences, when I am in crisis, I function at a very high level. It’s not an effective way of living because I’m not usually in crisis.

    My taking on of a new prject always results in the same thing. The initial start is excellent, lots of energy & clear thinking. But then, that fades over time. I took your post & went through it, using my weight-loss blog as the example, my ‘option’.

    Is it working for weight-loss? No. Why? I dunno… or maybe I do.

    The blog started as a way to express & remove negative feelings about my weight & body image. That was good, but not enough. Then I got caught up in not posting on the ‘bad days’, just as you discussed here. Then a shift to ‘I will just do it better’, exactly what you described. And just as you stated, that was not effective. Now I am using it to hold myself accountable, but it’s still not working.

    My Aha moment reading your post is I realized what my blog is lacking. Each day, taking the time to do the following:

    How did my actions bring me closer or further from my goal. What could have been better in the last few days since I posted. Finally, what specific actions can I incorporate to bring improvement to my results.

    That will be easier to do. I loved the part about ‘lost in the shuffle of busy life. I am lacking specific actions… Cool.

    Thanks for an excellent post!!

  4. Luc  •  Sep 1, 2009 @9:05 am

    Veronica, thanks for this comment: I’m strongly interested to hear people’s experiences of working on self-motivation in their own lives.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet and is interested in fitness and weight loss, Veronica’s blog (click on her name above, or in the blogroll on the right-hand side of the page) is honest, reflective, well-written, and full of good information.

  5. Fahad  •  Aug 12, 2010 @7:07 am

    Hi Luc:
    It’s been a week since I knew your blog and I like every bit of it. You have changed a load of rambling writing I’ve always doodled on sheets of paper aimlessly – well I still am searching with hope for better solutions and alternatives. The thing that I really want to be assured with; Is a diary a practical way for feedback loops? and if it is so, can you tell me how can it be divided?

    Thank you ever so much for the indispensable treasures you post!

    Fahad

  6. Luc  •  Aug 13, 2010 @8:31 pm

    Hi Fahad,

    Thanks for coming by, and for your comment. Yes, a journal or diary is a great way to keep a feedback loop going. I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking about dividing it, though. Could you say that another way for me?

    Luc

  7. Fahad  •  Aug 17, 2010 @4:27 pm

    Hi again,
    Thanks for getting back to me. I meant the way I can divide a journal page with the activities I have for that specific day accordingly. I find it a tall order to write what happened with me or the things I achieved as paragraphs or essays every other day or so and assuming that this is the way a diary should be used!!
    I want a practical way(timetable-for example) to get things checked on with done/ not done regularly. I tried to do it this way, but things always get off the track inaccurately and the picture I view is still unclear and vague!! :(
    If you can show me an accurate formula I can use the diary with just perfectly, I’ll be really grateful.
    thanks again

  8. Luc  •  Aug 17, 2010 @4:35 pm

    Thanks for clarifying, Fahad. I have to say that for feedback loops, journaling needs to be more than checking items off: it needs to involve thinking about what has happened, how we feel about it, and what we want to do differently or the same in future.

    About a list of daily items to check off, as a task management system this may not work well: as David Allen describes in Getting Things Done, putting task items in a calendar makes it very hard to react to changing situations and often leads to having to copy the same item over from one day to the next until the calendar’s user decides it’s hopeless. A much more effective approach is to maintain a to do list that can react to changing situations and save the calendar only for things that are scheduled on a particular day or that are useless unless they’re done on that day.

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