I have a relative I love very much who over the years became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and it caused him (and his family) all kinds of problems. No matter how harmful the drug addiction, no matter how much it hurt his health, finances, job and relationships, he couldn’t stop. Addiction is an incredibly powerful thing, and it’s also unbelievably difficult to overcome.
But drug addiction can also teach us a powerful lesson about creating (or breaking) habits: the power of feedback loops.
Let’s think about the drug user, when he first starts using the drug. First, he tries it, and immediately he gets an extremely pleasurable high. This is very strong positive feedback, so he very quickly wants to do the drug again. Every time he uses the drug, he gets a strong dose of pleasure. This is a positive feedback loop.
But every time he stops using the drug, he feels terrible. So not using the drug gives him a negative feedback loop.
Think about what kind of behavior this combination of positive and negative feedback loops encourages: it drives him to use the drug (because of the positive feedback), and to avoid not using the drug (where he gets negative feedback). It’s the combination of these two feedback loops that really drives us to do the behavior.
Now think about another habit: exercise. What’s the typical feedback loop for someone who doesn’t exercise much? When she does the exercise, she gets discomfort, sweatiness, tiredness, maybe even soreness. That’s negative feedback for doing the exercise.
Not doing the exercise is much more comfortable, because she’s on the Internet doing easy, mildly pleasurable tasks. That’s positive feedback for not doing the exercise.
The combination of these two feedback loops is why — at first — it’s so hard to form the exercise habit. People are up against much more than they realize, because no amount of willpower can overcome a setup of feedback loops that go against the behavior they’re trying to create. And it works like that for every single habit: eating junk food and shopping and playing games are easy habits to create and hard to break, while exercise and meditation and eating vegetables and learning languages are much harder. All because of the feedback loops.
So what are we to do?
Reverse the feedback loops to get the behavior we want.
We want positive feedback for the habit we’re creating: rewards, praise, physical pleasure, spending time with a friend, getting stars on a chart, continuing a streak, a feeling of accomplishment, enjoying the activity with a smile.
We want negative feedback for not doing the habit: embarrassment of people knowing you didn’t do it, losing a bet, enduring some embarrassing consequence, losing the streak you’ve created, experiencing some kind of difficulty or loss.
Grease the slope. Create public accountability. Set up rewards and consequences. The smarter you’ve set up your feedback loops, the better you’ll be at doing the habit.
We’ve already talked about some ways to give yourself negative feedback for not doing the habit — making a commitment to others. Once you make a commitment, you’re more likely to do the habit to avoid the negative consequence of having to admit failure, as long as you care about the opinions of the people you’ve made a commitment to. Later, we’ll add some other consequences to increase the negative feedback loop.
What about positive feedback? A commitment to others can also give you positive feedback for doing the habit, if you get to report your successes to them. And you can set up rewards, like giving yourself a treat or a massage or some relaxing tea, or whatever would be rewarding to you personally. In the next chapter, we’ll look at mindfulness as a way to set up positive feedback.
One way to set up positive feedback that I’ve found extremely rewarding is to make the change social. If you want to run, get a running partner. Go for a walk with a friend. Join a writing group or meditation group. Join a yoga class. Get a coach or a personal trainer or a Mandarin teacher. These kinds of social setups make it more rewarding to do the habit, because we start to enjoy the company of the people we’re doing the activity with.
Mission: Create positive feedback loops
Today, come up with a way to make your habit more social, if possible. Look at the suggestions above, put the social idea in your Habit Plan, and take action today to make the social setup start to happen. It might not happen immediately, because it can take awhile to find a partner or group or coach, but get the ball rolling. If there’s no way to make it social, think of small rewards you can give yourself immediately after doing the habit each day.
Don’t forget to continue to do your habit, in as small steps as possible, each day.