Feedback Loops

We’ve had good days where one thing happens after another. Good or bad, things are happening. By the end of the day, you might be exhausted, but likely pleased with a rewarding feeling of a full and productive day. Of course, leaving a lot more yet to be accomplished.

Conversely, there are the days where you can’t even get started. This isn’t the kind of day full of interruptions and roadblocks. It is simply the day you can’t get yourself to move. You feel out of the game, head in a fog, a general apathy.

I find if I don’t do something about this (like this blog post), the feeling could last all day. Both are positive feedback loops: apathy leads to more apathy, action leads to more action. So, what’s been said about turning the tide? How do we inject something into the apathy loop to make it negative and become a positive action loop?

Minor Victories
One tool is to use small steps, or minor victories, to stack up the positive momentum. Psychologically, these small wins can achieve similar feelings in us as bigger ones. Surely there are some things on your task list that you know can be wiped out without too much effort. Line them up, and get cracking. Now that the cobwebs have been cleaned out, tackle a larger task that you hadn’t been able to get yourself to move on earlier.

You might even structure each day like this depending on what works for you. I like bigger, tougher cognitive load in the morning when I’m fresh. But if you find a need to hack yourself into productivity each day, why not start with two easy wins and then move forward? Results build momentum.

The same technique can be applied to work, or habit building, and much more. In the book The Net and The Butterfly a section on Science of Small Wins says:

“Small wins fuel transformative changes by convincing people that bigger achievements are within their reach. And what that means for you is to start with small steps, steps so small they seem ludicrously easy. That helps you build success momentum
It seems our brains aren’t very good at distinguishing big successes from small successes. Your successes don’t need to be big things, like cleaning your entire home. Just wiping out the bathroom sink, he explained, can help create success momentum if—and this is key—you feel you succeeded.”

The Net and The Butterfly

Change Your Ruler
Are you measuring (judging) yourself based on productivity? Is this the right measurement? Busy isn’t always what you want to be, but we do want to get things done. We can try changing our frame of mind, and choose to measure results instead of questioning our productivity. Asking ourselves questions like: How can I be most effective today, right now, or with my current mood?

Efficiency can be thought of as doing things better, but being effective is doing the right things. There is a correct application for each.

Time Yourself
Similar to how I’ve mentioned a bias for action in the past, there are tools one can use to, in a sense, force yourself to GO. I sometimes use a Pomodoro timer, essentially a 25-minute window where you focus on just one thing and nothing else. No phone, no email, etc. Then, you have a 5-minute break. Take a walk, refill your water, whatever. Then, onto the next block.

I wager doing this several times a day will make you more productive than average.

Focus on Now
Yeah, yeah, be present. But the future is hard to predict, sometimes fun to ponder, but largely a distraction. So, make your view smaller: what can you do right now to move X forward? In Thorndike’s book The Outsiders, several executives are profiled for their ways of thinking and managing. I liked this:

“My only plan is to keep coming to work each day,” said Henry Singleton, “I like to steer the boat each day rather than plan ahead way into the future.”

The Outsiders

The outsiders seemed to spend less time on the future and more on the present. These are quite successful people within the confines of their work, so apply this where you want. I imagine the future is just too difficult to get right, and there is plenty to do now. Also, thinking and planning the future can have an anchoring effect, thereby making it more difficult to change plans (or surmise the correct plan when comparing to the original) in the future when the future happens to be one that was unforeseen.

Ok, so this is all about getting moving. Making action happen, and sustaining that action. One must ask: is action preferred? The answer to any good question is: it depends.

Sometimes the best course of action is inaction. We must be aware enough to know, and sharp enough to recognize when this is the case. Also from The Outsiders:

“There’s a joke in NBA commentary that people don’t like to trade with the San Antonio Spurs because that team has made so many good trades, people assume they’re on the wrong end of one with them. The Spurs, like the outsiders, are crocodilian. They wait, wait, wait, and then GO!

The crocodile does not pursue prey, it waits for it, and so did the outsiders. Warren Buffett describes his investing activity as “inactivity bordering on sloth.”

The Outsiders

I’m not much of a sports guy, so it reminded me of all the practical jokes Feynman would play on his colleagues at Los Alamos. Impressive amount of patience and tactics went into laying the groundwork for some of his jokes and safecracking exploits.

I would add, don’t be afraid to go clean a mirror or wash some dishes or take a walk around the block. I like to go on a run or some other physical blood-pumping activity. Then, I’ll come back to the thing ailing me. This time, I wrote this post and gathered these notes from my reading.

Now, onto the thing I couldn’t make myself do earlier. Or maybe I’ll clean the toilet.

By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.