The Unproductive Feedback Loop: Efficiency’s Worst Nightmare
Everyone wants to be productive.
We want to achieve our goals at work, have the bandwidth to pour into ourselves creatively, be able to invest in our relationships, and find balance within our lives.
But as anyone who has ever wanted or needed to write something will tell you, whether the task is an assignment for school or a poem for a friend, the seemingly simple act of writing is not always so straightforward.
Sometimes you sit down to work...and nothing happens.
We previously published a two-part series called: How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, where progress-crippling issues like writer’s block, imposter syndrome, and procrastination were discussed in detail.
Taken individually, these are all problems that most of us want to avoid at any cost. But, there is little you can do to avoid them altogether, besides master some of the tips we outlined in the Writing Roadblocks series. However, if you get stuck cycling between some or all of them, your efficiency will tank, and you could become stuck for a long period of time.
That’s why it’s important to understand the concepts of how the cycle functions, the elements within it, and how those elements perpetuate and intensify a writer’s struggles.
In this series, we’ll take a deep dive into the Unproductive Feedback Loop itself, along with its elements and remedies, as it relates to our writing and research goals.
In Part 1 of the Unproductive Feedback Loop series, we’re going to:
- Understand what feedback loops are and how they function
- Review the different elements within the cycle
- Dive into how all three of the major writing roadblocks can contribute to a deeper-rooted, longer-lasting feeling of being stuck
- Create some calls to action for ourselves when we realize we’re caught in the Loop
In Part 2 of the Unproductive Feedback Loop series, we will detail some specific solutions for:
- Breaking the loop and ending the cycle
- Getting unstuck
- Building a workflow that helps you better negotiate these issues, in to keep you from getting stuck making little progress for long periods of time
Feedback Loops: Definition and Examples
Feedback loops are generally defined as follows:
When an input (a thing that affects another thing, a stimulus)
leads to an output (the effect of the stimulus, an outcome),
and then that output becomes the new starting point in an ongoing cycle,
that's a feedback loop.
Feedback Loops are positive when the output is increased, and
negative when the output is decreased or moves toward balance.
Positive Feedback Loop Example: Puppy Edition
Input/Stimulus: Your new puppy is near the table at dinner time on its first
night home with your family and gets fed table scraps*.
Output/Outcome: The puppy connects dinner time to being their treat time.
Heightened Input: Over time, the puppy comes to beg at the dinner table every night to get goodies.
Heightened Output: Eventually, the puppy waits at the table during every human mealtime for an unhealthy-for-them snack.
In this example, once you first feed your pup from the dinner table (initial input), they will come back again at other mealtimes, and eventually any time you are eating, to beg for table scraps.
The learned behavior (initial output) creates a cycle where each resulting output (begging once, then occasionally, etc.) becomes the new input, which consistently increases over time.
With each positive reinforcement of the puppy being fed from the table, the input is enhanced, resulting in your pet begging at the table more and more often, until you are never able to eat anything without them giving you literal puppy dog eyes.
*Disclaimer: People food is bad for dogs, so please don’t do this!
Negative Feedback Loop Example: Careless Roommate Edition
Input/Stimulus: Your new roommate is painting in their space in the winter months, so they open a window for ventilation, even though it is very cold outside.
Output/Outcome: Cold air comes inside, lowering the temperature and triggering the thermostat to heat your house back up to the temperature you set.
Decreased Input: The heating system is working to counteract the open window, but then your new, careless roomie forgets to close it when they’re finished painting. They leave to go to dinner, and it’s getting darker and colder outside.
Decreased Output: The house continues to cool faster than it can be heated, since it is very cold outside and the heating system can’t keep up.
In this example, the open window (initial input) causes the temperature to lower in your house (initial output) because it is way colder outside than inside. As the window stays open, the heating system comes online to counteract the temperature change and keep you comfy, moving toward balance.
However, as it gets dark and the outside temperature drops rapidly, and your cold house is just getting colder (decreased input), due to the open window. The heating system can’t keep up or balance the temperature inside, so the inside temperature continues to drop (decreased output).
If your roommate had remembered to close the window before they left for dinner, the inside temperature would have regulated after a while. Either way, this would still be considered a negative feedback loop because:
- In the case of the open window, there were increasingly diminished results that compounded over time.
- In the case of the window being closed later, this would be an example of how a negative loop can move towards balance, rather than just infinitely decreasing.
Positive Feedback Loops Are Often Unpleasant
When it’s your puppy learning bad habits that ramp up over time, sometimes it can be hard to remember that the ‘positive’ aspect of a positive feedback loop is only in reference to the results compounding over time━not that it’s a good or fun process.
This is echoed in science, and a real-world problem example can be found in the effects of climate change in polar regions.
While climate change is anything but positive, sea ice melting is, itself, a positive feedback loop.
Bright white ice usually bounces the sun’s rays off of the ice, but with increased temperatures, the ice is heated and begins to melt. Melting sea ice leads to the darker blue of the ocean, and darker colors absorb more heat than lighter colors. This accelerates more melting as the amplified results keep compounding over time.
What is the Unproductive Feedback Loop?
The Unproductive Feedback Loop is a positive feedback loop because one initial struggle leads to more struggle down the line.
It’s more than just a student or writer’s worst nightmare; it’s a slippery yet intangible rut that is exceedingly difficult to identify, much less break out of.
As a set of issues, writing roadblocks are truly formidable.
The Loop begins when you face an initial writing roadblock. As you continue to try and push through the issue towards progress, it often morphs into a different type of block that you then spend your time and energy trying to mitigate in order to get back to work. And then the process keeps repeating itself, sometimes for days, weeks, or even months on end, as you become more and more stuck.
Writing Roadblocks within the Unproductive Feedback Loop
We mentioned our series on Writing Roadblocks previously, but for the sake of this discussion, we will give a brief overview of what they are and what being stuck looks like for each one.
Since the Loop is a destructive pattern, it is advantageous to examine the individual elements at play. That way, we can get better and faster at identifying them when they arise and stunt us in making headway toward a goal.
Writer's block arises when you have a task that you either want to or need to work on, but for some reason, you feel unable to make any writing progress.
Because writer's block is such an ambiguous feeling, one of the biggest issues we face is that we may struggle for a while before we’re able to understand that we are experiencing it. As more time passes, it becomes more and more frustrating that we have gotten so little done. This is when we become more likely to move into other writing roadblocks, getting more and more stuck.
The Hallmarks of Writer’s Block:
- Feeling apathetic or unmotivated to work
- Being ready to work and then suddenly blanking on the ideas you had or your previous line of thought
- Experiencing intense anxiety about working on or finishing something
- Being overwhelmed with where and how to begin a task
- Worrying that you’re not skilled enough
- Experiencing a temporary inability to plan and prioritize the necessary steps to execute the task at hand
- Being unable to refocus on the main topic after falling into a "rabbit hole" or going off on a tangent
- Dreading that you might fail in some aspect of the project
- Lacking inspiration, originality, and/or creativity
Imposter syndrome is that nagging feeling that, despite your accomplishments, you are probably not as capable as your peers think you are. Usually this feeling manifests itself as anxiety around being “found out”━that any day now, those you work with will realize you’re just a fraud.
When we deal with this issue, our productivity halts because we are questioning our skills and doubting our abilities. Often, we even begin to write off our degrees and other accomplishments as being lucky, still worrying that someday soon everyone will see just how clueless we are and fire us immediately.
Your writing voice and style are heavily impacted by your confidence in yourself and your abilities. This is why this roadblock is so hampering during writing and research projects, and it’s also why it’s so easy for imposter syndrome to morph into writer’s block and/or procrastination.
The Hallmarks of Imposter Syndrome:
Feeling like a fraud, despite your education or qualifications
- Experiencing anxiety that you are not as skilled as others are or that your work is of poor quality, even despite great feedback ━ “Maybe they’re just being nice.”
- Fearing failure because you’re not smart, creative, talented, or dedicated enough, or fearing you’re not at the level of your peers
- Worrying that someday soon everyone will realize that you’re a fake or that you are not as smart or capable as they initially thought
- Doubting yourself intensely and chronically, worrying you aren’t capable of making any real impact in that ways that matter to you, even if giving your all
Procrastination is putting off working on tasks that need to be done or worked on now in favor of doing them ‘later’. Whether conscious or not, there is a choice being made to procrastinate, though, like other writing roadblocks, procrastination is often a fully debilitating issue, where quality writing is simply not feasible.
Because episodes of procrastination can last indefinitely, it is an important concept to understand. It is different from laziness in that, if given the choice, you would actively work on your writing task. If you wouldn’t work on it whether you were able or not, then that would be laziness.
When you can’t actively write or find momentum because of this issue, it’s common for stress and anxiety to take over, especially as deadlines approach. This is ultimately why, and often when, procrastination evolves into the other writing roadblocks within the Loop cycle.
The Hallmarks of Procrastination:
Feeling dry with respect to inspiration, new ideas, and clarity
- Being mentally blocked, blank, or stuck
- Not prioritizing well, doing tasks regardless of which are pressing or not
- Feeling overwhelmed or weighed down by the project or its scope
- Worrying your work will be subpar and of poor quality, having intense anxiety about how it will be received
- Feeling lost with respect to where to start or where to go
The icing on the cake, right? And dealing with writer’s block often and imposter syndrome only sometimes is still extremely stressful and demotivating. After all, you can feel ready to write, and then, WHAM, you go completely blank, as writer’s block erases all of your good ideas.
Then, you might begin doubting yourself and your abilities or work ethic, as imposter syndrome smells the blood in the water and comes to claim its pound of flesh.
In thinking deeper about these issues, and having experienced them first-hand, I began to wonder why and how I could be plagued by all three of them at different times. After making notes for a while about when I was struggling with a particular roadblock, I began to notice that one often led to another.
And then some days/weeks, I would be dealing with all three of them. Oh, JOY. Eventually I connected the dots that together, left unmitigated, the three major writing roadblocks create the terrible cycle that is the Unproductive Feedback Loop.
The Unproductive Feedback Loop in Action
The Loop is hard to see at first because so often writing roadblocks feel like this nebulous cloud of “I can’t” floating around us. We know something is off, or we know we just sat at our desk for an hour and have nothing to show for it, but even after that we might keep on being miserable out of habit instead of switching gears towards intention.
That’s part of what’s so frustrating: you can’t fix the issues without being able to articulate them, but you can’t always articulate it well because you are trying so hard to fight through and be productive.
Here’s what this can look like in practice, based on my experiences:
I wake up early to devote some time to finishing my short story. I get comfy on the couch with my coffee in hand, passively thinking about the bits and pieces of ideas and scenarios I’ve been working on throughout the week.
I open my computer, lost in thought, take a sip of my coffee, and when I look at the screen, I just feel dread. “Why bother? No one is going to read your story━and if they did, they’d probably think it sounded too formal.” I spin on that thought for a few minutes until I recognize it━that’s imposter syndrome.
I take a deep breath and get back to the keyboard. Except now, all of my ideas are gone, as well as my creative spark and motivation. I try to work through to make some kind of progress on the current chapter but give up an hour later when I start to get overwhelmed about how much I haven’t accomplished.
Think about the three most common writing roadblocks we’ve reviewed: writer’s block, imposter syndrome, and procrastination. When was the last time you dealt with each of them? Is there one that is your nemesis regularly? Or is there one you’ve never dealt with?
I deal with all of them from time to time, unfortunately, but I would say writer’s block and imposter syndrome are the most terrible for me. And if I get into a loop between the two, eventually it will all morph into procrastination━that’s my pattern.
Identifying Your Pattern
What’s your roadblock pattern? Do you know?
If not, the only real way to figure this out is to run a little experiment on yourself.
That’s right, guinea pig, buckle up.
Take out your phone, and start a new note. If you’re not in the Loop or aren’t struggling with a block right now, that’s totally fine, but set up the note now to remove that barrier when you do recognize you’re stuck. After all, if you’re anything like me, when I’m stuck, that’s when I’m the most irritable and the most prone to distractions.
The next time you articulate that you’re struggling with a block, make a little note on that sheet you made. The date and the type of block are the only things you really have to include, but sometimes adding a time will help you gauge how long you spent spinning on one issue before it evolved into another, especially if you come back later to make another entry.
“9/22 lunchtime-ish imposter syndrome (hungry?); 2:30pm procrastination”
“9/24 morning writer’s block”
“9/25 10am writer’s block; noon imposter syndrome; 4pmish? procrastination”
Or, on the flip side, maybe you start getting really good at identifying and articulating roadblocks. That’s also noteworthy. Does one take you longer to identify than another? You won’t know unless you track it for yourself.
Understanding Your Pattern and the Loop
Whenever you’re trying to reprogram your brain away from bad habits or not being present, it always starts with intention. This is typically the universal step one to regaining a little bit of control over your brain.
If you know you’re struggling with something, commit to identifying it clearly the next time it is happening to you. Taking notes or keeping a log will help you see important correlations.
While you might be frustrated that you have to deal with blockers like procrastination or imposter syndrome, it won’t be helpful to view it this way--as an inconvenience or nuisance. Instead, be curious about it. Why do you feel like you’re overwhelmed or weighed down by the task?
Choosing to be curious instead of frustrated is usually the right choice, or at least the one with less judgement and negativity. Leaning into the curiosity often gives you some extra insight into what the root cause of a specific roadblock could be.
Maybe you’re worried or anxious over the outcome. That fact could make your brain shift at some point from procrastination mode into imposter syndrome mode, where you’re questioning how smart or capable you are.
You might not be able to catch the transition itself, but that doesn’t matter as much as whether or not you can articulate that the doubts in your mind are related to imposter syndrome. And then you should ignore them.
So, there you have it; the most unglamorous solutions to understand how the Unproductive Feedback Loop manifests itself in your life and workflow:
- Keep a log of your issues,
- Articulate the problems as soon as you feel something is off
- Try to be curious about why the roadblocks have come up for you
Knowing all of the writing roadblocks are related and can feed into one another probably isn’t the best news you’ve heard all week, but now that those connections have been articulated, you will be much more prepared to identify when you’re stuck on a block or within the Unproductive Feedback Loop itself.
Coming up next is Part 2 of the Unproductive Feedback Loop series. In that post, we will detail some specific remedies for breaking out of the loop, getting unstuck, and building a workflow that helps you better negotiate these issues so that you don’t get stuck making little progress for long periods of time ever again.