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The patterns of improvement

Improving Systems and Habits

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.  

The patterns of improvement

Scott Miker

When I start an improvement program for some aspect of my life I have noticed that my expectations of the results and the way the results actually come are often quite different.

Most of us set goals based on the outcome we hope to see.  Even if we set process goals instead of outcome goals to help us do the things necessary, we still have expectations of when we will see results. 

In my head I tend to have a nice even path forward.  I imagine slow and steady growth.  I use set the minimum techniques and focus on progress but time and time again I find that results don’t come in a nice, steady pace, even if I do the work in a nice, steady pace. 

Instead, results come at varying rates.  Sometimes I am surprised when they come quickly and other times it seems like they take forever to appear. 

It is important to know and accept this because if we don’t, we will likely let the results dictate the pace at which we work. 

If we put in a tough workout for a few days and eat lighter than normal and then see the scale increase, we will likely get discouraged.  This may result in giving up, it could result in increased effort, or it could lead to a more difficult time to keep pace.

Sometimes I have expectations around the results and progress I make.  Then when reality doesn’t align I struggle to keep going in the same positive direction as before. 

But we have to fight through this.  Most of the time, the results are just on a delay.  In systems thinking we are very familiar with the delay in a feedback loop.  The results will come if we keep taking the right actions. 

In order to avoid overreaction due to these delays, make sure we don’t put too much pressure on results.  We have to keep the focus on what we are doing, not on the outcome of what we are doing. 

The key isn’t instant success; the key is to build the right habits that can then grow to be more and more powerful.  Pushing through can give us enough momentum to push through the lack of results (delay) to finally start to see the results we have earned.

The one exception to this is when we hit a balancing feedback loop.  A balancing feedback loop can be a force that is pushing back on our effort to improve.  Instead of continuing to improve, this force gains more momentum the more we try to overcome it.

The best way to overcome a balancing feedback loop isn’t to overpower it.  It is actually to find the resisting force and ease it.  It can be tricky to identify but with a little systems thinking insight and practice you can start to identify the difference between delayed results and a balancing feedback loop. 

Let’s say we start a new fitness program to try and get a little healthier.  We decide to exercise using this program three times per week.  After a few hard weeks we step on the scale and see that we haven’t actually lost any weight. 

Is this a delay or a balancing feedback loop?

It actually could be either.  First, let’s think through what is happening.  We are changing our routine up to see improvement.  We expect that this effort will result in actual weight loss, but it isn’t working out that way.

Whether it is a delay or balancing feedback is determined by the whyWhy are we not seeing the results?

It could be that we are building muscle.  Building muscle tends to increase our weight.  But building more muscle changes our metabolism and how we burn fat.  So this could be a delay and once we get past a certain point we will start to see the results we are after. 

It could also be that we significantly increased our caloric intake to compensate for the spent energy.  If we aren’t addressing our nutrition and this new exercise program means we are hungry more often and reaching for snacks or fast food more than normal, it may counteract the exercise. 

At this point we have a couple options.  We can tackle this a few different ways.  We can be patient and keep working and monitoring the situation.  If we decide that we are doing the right things then keep going.  After a few months if we still don’t see the results we expect then look to make changes.  The benefits of doing this would be that we have a couple more months of solid habit building.  If after a few months we decide to add more or change up our routine we will probably be in a better position to do so than right now.

The other option is to try to address the countering force of the balancing feedback loop.  We add some changes to our diet.  This can help significantly if this is a balancing feedback loop but if it isn’t then it is just adding more steps to our process of trying to get healthier.  The benefits could be significant.  It could jump start the results or at a minimum be a new area to build some new positive habits. 

By being patient or addressing a potential balancing feedback loop we are continuing to make progress.  Regardless of the results, we keep moving forward, adjusting, and working hard.  We are solidifying positive habits and making them more automatic. 

What we don’t do is we don’t just quit.  Too many people get discouraged and assume their effort was wasted because they didn’t see the results they expected.  Instead of working through this obstacle by being patient or looking for more ways to improve, they feel that their hard work was not worth it so they stop. 

So many times when I hit these types of plateaus and get discouraged are right before a big breakthrough.  Right after that point where I want to quit because I say it isn’t working, is when suddenly I step on the scale and see a few pounds gone. 

This isn’t just an aspect of fitness and getting healthy.  It is there in almost any system.  It could be when we are investing and not seeing results but we know that the type of investment is right for us.  It could be starting a business.  It could be working towards a degree, trying to get promoted etc. 

Results don’t come at a slow, steady pace.  Usually they come in spurts with occasionally long dull parts in between that seem like we aren’t making any progress. 

Keep going through these dull parts in order to get through natural feedback delays.  If you find that nothing seems to get you through a plateau, then investigate to see if you are really up against a balancing feedback loop.  Whatever you do, just don’t quit every time this happens.  You may be quitting right before a big breakthrough.