Feedback Loops and Why They Work

Working full time at a job that has you sitting for hours at a time in meetings or at your desk, you’ve noticed some changes that you don’t like. Your clothes are feeling tighter, your belt size is expanding and you can’t run as fast as you used to without losing your breath. So you, the former college jock, decide to take action: Starting tomorrow, you’ll go to the gym every day and work out. You’ll eat a salad for lunch instead of the usual s submarine sandwich. You’ll climb up and down the five flights of stairs to your apartment instead of taking the elevator. You’ll leave the car at home and take more walks. For about a week, you stick to your plan, but a few hectic days at work throw you off course. Soon, you revert back to your old sedentary habits. What went wrong?

Your regimen is missing an important component that could help you stay on track: The right reinforcement at the right time, or what psychologists call a “positive feedback loop.” A positive feedback loop enables each of us to maintain control over critical aspects of our lives. Without the right feedback, it’s easy to lose sight of your goals.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this story: How would a feedback loop have made a difference? Suppose that instead of trying to go from a sedentary to an active lifestyle on your own, you decided to wear an activity tracker which monitors how many steps you’ve walked, distance travelled, calories burned and your active versus inactive minutes. Your tracker sends the information to the internet where you can access it from your computer or smartphone. Basic information, like steps walked and calories burned, is displayed in real time on the face of the tracker.  Instead of having to guess how you’re doing throughout the day, all you need to do is check the data collected by your tracker.

The constant interaction between you and your data is a great example of how feedback loops work.  Every time you check your data, you can immediately tell whether or not what you’re doing is enough to hit your goals. This gives you an opportunity to pivot throughout the day, so you can quickly change your behavior to make sure that you achieve your goals. For example, if it’s noon and you’re not even close to reaching your goal of 9,000 steps for the day, you can take a 20 minute walk which will boost your step count by 1,500-2,000 steps, depending on how fast you move.  It will also help relieve stress, make you feel more energetic and help you be more productive.

Having this information at your fingertips also gives you insight into your own behavior. Why do you succeed on some days but not others? Does it have anything to do with what you’re eating, or how well you slept the night before? Do you work best with a structured plan (at noon I will get up and walk around the block two times) or are you better off being spontaneous?  Most people do best when they have a basic idea in advance of how they’re going to accrue their steps and active minutes. Many find they need to program in breaks at specific points throughout the day to do something active, like running errands on foot instead of reaching for the car keys. As you learn more about yourself, you’ll be better able to design an activity plan that will best suit your lifestyle.

Your tracker also keeps track of your trends; even on days that you may fall short, you can look back on your tracking history and not be discouraged. The knowledge that you were able to reach your goals in the past helps put a bad day in perspective. Instead of feeling all is lost, you simply try to do better the next day.