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Balancing feedback loops can help or hurt you on your improvement journey

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.  

Balancing feedback loops can help or hurt you on your improvement journey

Scott Miker

In systems thinking we are always looking for certain structures or templates. These tend to manifest in many ways and in many different systems.

One of these structures is the balancing feedback loop. The balancing feedback is set up to maintain equilibrium.

In The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, the author says about balancing feedback loops, “If you are in a balancing system, you are in a system that is seeking stability. If the system’s goal is one you like, you will be happy. If it is not, you will find all your efforts to change matters frustrating.”

Think of the last time you got gas. The low gas indicator probably came on alerting you to the fact that you are low on fuel. You checked the gas level and confirmed that you need more gasoline. So you stopped at the nearest gas station to purchase more.

This is an example of a system structure that strives for equilibrium. We don’t want to run out of gas and this system helps us maintain enough fuel to drive our vehicle. When it gets low it helps get our attention so we can get more gas before it becomes a problem.

This balancing feedback loop has a very positive benefit. It helps us avoid running out of gas. But some balancing feedback loops stop us from gaining a benefit.

Anyone who has started a new exercise routine has probably noticed that their hunger level suddenly increases when they start the new workout. They take in more calories to compensate for the lost calories during the workout.

This is great if we are talking about prehistoric man roaming the forest. As he expends more energy and burns more calories his body naturally pushes him to take in more calories so he doesn’t expend too many calories and ultimately perish from lack of food.

But in today’s world this gets in the way of our goal. We typically start to exercise because we want to lose weight. We are doing it so that we can shed a few pounds because we have determined that we are a little too heavy and losing weight will help us maintain our health in the future.

When it comes to overcoming the limitations of a feedback loop, the key is not to try and overpower the system. This might work but often ends in frustration, as the balancing feedback loop seems to gain more strength as we try harder to overcome it.

Instead, we should look to find the balancing force and put our attention there. If we can limit the balancing force, we are more likely to move past the balancing feedback loop.

One way to do this, is to start slow. By starting slowly we can often get by without the balancing force being excited and starting to go to work. If we start by slowly exercising we might not see a significant change in our hunger.

We can do this over and over and our body will adjust to this new norm. Then we can add slightly more. If we do this in small steps we don’t hit the balancing feedback in the same way. Instead we ease past it.

Balancing feedback loops are everywhere. The better you understand how they work and how to move past them the more likely you will find these being in your life to help you, rather than hold you back.