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Temporary changes don’t lead to improvement

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Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Temporary changes don’t lead to improvement

Scott Miker

Most people never really evaluate or focus on the systems and habits in their lives.  They simply focus on the end result or changes that they deem as temporary.

But temporary doesn’t work.  Changing your diet, exercise routine, spending habits, work processes, goals etc. won’t have lasting change when we only set a short time frame to make these adjustments.

The reason that temporary is difficult is because the things we say we want to change involve very embedded systems.  Systems are powerful and don’t easily change unless you focus on specific techniques to change the system. 

One reason that systems don’t easily change is because of compensating feedback.  Systems expert Peter Senge says that compensating feedback occurs “when well-intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention.” 

Compensating feedback is the systems way to push back on change in order to preserve equilibrium.  In other words, there is a force that will work against your efforts to change. 

Looking at the drug problem in America we can see compensating feedback.  If law enforcements temporarily steps up law enforcement they may reduce the amount of drugs on the street.  But the demand is still there.  So then the demand causes prices to increase and the suppliers to bring more drugs into the area.  The result is that the overall “system” doesn’t really change very much. 

Temporarily attacking the drug crisis doesn’t have much of a long-term impact.  This is a major reason why these complex problems are so hard to improve.  There are so many factors and it is extremely difficult to overcome the embedded systems. 

We can also adapt this to our own lives.  If we temporarily try to spend less we will probably start to realize there are things we need or want that we are delaying.  Once the temporary spending freeze ends we go out and buy the things we avoided buying anyways. 

But the problem isn’t effort, motivation or intelligence.  It is simply that we are trying to use a temporary solution to a systematic problem. 

It is much better to shift our mindset to align with the systems.  We have to be able to understand systems and then find ways to manipulate them.  It could be to find leverage points in the system and put effort there.  It could be to start small and use repetition to change the system.  Or it could simply be that we have to find something that isn’t so temporary, even if we reduce the amount that we do.

So the example of using a temporary spending freeze could be changed to be a new budgeting system that you use to help determine where you spend your money.  Or it could be to change your daily large coffee to a medium coffee.  Then change it to a small coffee.  Then change it to a small coffee every other day.  Making these small changes usually takes a lot of time but it gets around the “temporary” nature of our attempts at improvement and focuses on system changes. 

We can also use compensating feedback to our advantage.  If we build powerful systems and habits in our lives, then those new systems will work to maintain equilibrium. 

One example comes from these articles.  I focus on writing a minimum of one article per week to post to my blog on the website.  I have developed a process where I always try to have 3 weeks worth of articles scheduled and ready to deploy.  This allows me to have some flexibility if I get sick or busy and don’t get a chance to write an article.  Regardless of what happens this week, I know that there will be at least 2 weeks worth of articles ready to go.  Then over the next couple weeks I can work to catch up if I get behind.

This system helps me to be flexible with when and how I write.  I tend to wait for inspiration or something that seems interesting before I write an article.  But it also uses compensating feedback.  If I miss an article one week I notice that the backlog of scheduled articles is lower than it should be. 

This tends to get me a little more focused on getting that article completed and scheduled out.  The less I have ready to go the more motivation I have to write.  And it usually translates into me looking at my schedule and designating a time to write.  Even if that time isn’t ideal, I know I’m behind on my articles and have to catch up.

I do the same thing with exercise.  I tend to work out harder on the weekends than on weekdays.  If I notice that a weekend passes and I wasn’t able to get a good workout in, I tend to find a way to exercise in the weekday evenings for a longer period of time. 

The great thing about compensating feedback is that is doesn’t require much effort.  As long as the focus is on building the right systems and habits and then maintaining the systems and habits, compensating feedback occurs naturally.  In fact the only reason I realized that it was occurring for me was when I was behind and starting writing this article. 

So instead of looking to temporary fixes for permanent problems, focus instead of putting in place the right systems and habits.  This will have enormous benefit and will you improve slowly over time.  And once you have embedded the system in your daily life, it will actually be easier to maintain the positive actions that it will be to stop them.