Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spirals, feedback loops and energy vampires

Every action we take has an effect. Sometimes the effects are major, sometimes minor, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. But the effects are there. And the effects create an immediate feedback loop: The action is taken, and the effect feeds back.

Every action has an effect. When the effect is good, the feedback is good and we feel better. When the effect is bad, the feedback is bad and we feel worse.

This can create a spiraling situation if the effects are strong enough: we do something good, we feel better, and because of that energy of feeling good, we continue to do good things that give positive feedback. Or, we do something bad, feel worse as a result, and as a result of feeling bad, do something else bad.

On one hand, we might look at writing as something good. If we sit down to write, even if we don't make progress in our writing, we can feel good for having made the honest effort, and this positive feedback can help us accomplish goals (more writing, or other work), which help set up positive feedback loops and better habits.

We might take recreational/non-educational watching TV as something bad. If we watch TV, though we might enjoy it in the moment, it doesn't really help us move forward in our lives. For example, if I watch a basketball game, I may spend two or three hours in front of the TV without making any progress on any of the projects that I want to work on. At the end of that period I'm usually enervated--which makes it harder to engage in a productive activity and easier to engage in a non-productive one (for example, more TV watching). This negative feedback can become particularly acute if there is also emotional impact: if you feel bad for having spent three hours watching the Lakers play the Nuggets (or one hour watching American Idol, or whatever your poison is), then that negative affect can feed back into your planning and can lead into further negative behavior.

Obviously it makes the most sense to set up positive feedback loops, so as to climb on a rising spiral.

In order to do this, we need to watch out for excessive engagement with energy vampires--activities that suck away energy without giving back. This is especially true if we're feeling stuck or feeling low. At the moments of low energy, when it is hardest to engage with our work, energy vampires beckon. That Laker-Nugget game (or American Idol episode, or night out drinking, or computer game, or trashy novel, or...what are your energy vampires?) is going to be exciting, but it isn't going to help you feel better.

This is not even to say that one should be working all the time, but it has a lot to do with making better or worse choices. Lots of recreational activities will help one get on an upward spiral: going for a walk or run, playing a sport, relaxing in a hot tub, sleeping...even dealing with energy vampires in moderation can be good to keep us relaxed.

Writing, if we don't place expectations on the quality of what we write, or the product of what we write, can be a great tool to relax and engage in the positive feedback loop. Julia Cameron (about whom I will probably stop writing when I finish her book, but agree or disagree, thinking about what she wrote teaches me about writing) suggests writing as a therapeutic tool and a relaxation at the same time. My experience is certainly that when I write without worrying about how well I write, writing is useful in helping me improve my mood.

Writing can be an easy alternative to engaging with an energy vampire. At the least it might be worth a try.

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