In systems thinking there is a concept called the balancing feedback loop. This is a system structure that works to maintain the status quo. It wants to make sure things stay as they are and not change.
This is great for many systems. We want our thermostat and furnace to work together to keep the temperature in our home comfortable during the cold winter months. Our body needs to regulate itself if we are outside working on a hot day by sweating and taking specific steps to avoid overheating. We even use this structure when we are speeding and get a ticket, telling us to slow down.
These are fairly obvious balancing feedback loops but some are not. I noticed a balancing feedback loop in my daughters’ bedrooms. They tend to leave all their toys out when they are done playing. The balancing force is then my wife or I seeing the mess and then making them clean up their room.
If you are a smoker then you experiencing a balancing feedback loop whenever you try to quit smoking and feel the physical symptoms of withdrawal. The balancing force is the sickness you feel to drive you back to keep things as they have been instead of something new.
Most of the time balancing feedback loops go unnoticed. We don’t think about our thermostat if everything is working properly. But if we are constantly cold in our house we may want to look at why. Then we may realize a part of the system that is malfunctioning.
The other time we notice balancing feedback loops is when we want to change something (such as quitting smoking). We suddenly feel the balancing force working against us, many times in powerful ways.
David Peter Stroh says this perfectly in his book Systems Thinking for Social Change. He says, “we are more aware of balancing processes when a system is not accomplishing the goal we state for it.”
In other words, our first awareness of a balancing structure is when things aren’t going the way you want. If you want your house warmed to 68 degrees and it seems to fluctuate between 62 and 66, you notice a problem between your desired goal (68 degrees) and the actual level (62-66). Or we notice the balancing feedback loop when trying to quit smoking when we start to feel sick and get sucked back to smoking regardless of how much we want to change.
It is helpful to understand what is happening from a systems standpoint. We can choose to adjust the system so that it aligns with our goals. This might be as easy as calling an HVAC tech to look at our furnace and get it working. Or it could be as difficult as continuing to work to quit smoking and not cave to those cravings, knowing that if we keep going eventually they will subside and a new normal will develop.
Systems structures are very important if we want to change. Whenever we want to improve something we will start to notice these balancing feedback loops. They will interfere with our plans unless we align them with our goals.
The systems and habits approach to improvement focuses a great deal on overcoming these. Most habits are balancing feedback loops. So if we want to improve something in our life, such as our health, we will realize quickly that our current lifestyle habits are creating the state of our health. Changing how healthy we are means addressing those lifestyle habits that are acting as balancing feedback loops.
The approach then works by starting very small to build new and improved balancing feedback loops. We start small but maintain consistency, which translates to simple, new habits. Over time those get more automatic and we can add more to them. Eventually we completely redesign our lifestyle. This leads us towards our desired outcomes instead of simply maintaining the status quo.