That unproductive feedback loop is the worst nightmare of efficiency.
Everyone wants to become productive.
We want to do that in order to accomplish our goals at work, to have the bandwidth to create something new for ourselves, to invest in our relationships, and to find balance in 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.
There are times when 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 together, there are all kinds of problems that many of us want to avoid at any cost. Because of this, you cannot avoid them altogether. You just have to learn how to avoid writing roadblocks. Some people will be stuck if they are cycling between one or all of those camps. As a result, your efficiency will drop. And you might be stuck for a very long time.
That’s why it is very important that you understand the concepts of the cycles, their constituent parts, and how those constituent parts continue and intensify the struggle that writers are engaged in.
In this series, we will dive into the Unproductive Feedback Loop, and what it consists of and what remedies it offers, in terms of how it relates to our writing and research goals.
In Part 1 of the Unproductive Feedback Loop series, we’re going to:
- Have a good understanding of feedback loops and how they work.
- This is a list of all the elements that are part of the cycle.
- Assume that all three of the major writing roadblocks are contributing to your feeling stuck, and that your feeling of being stuck is deeper and more lasting.
- Is it time to make some calls to action for ourselves, when we realize that we are trapped in a loop?
In Part 2 of the Unproductive Feedback Loop series, we will detail some specific solutions for:
- It is possible to break the cycle by ending the cycle.
- How to get unstuck.
- Building a workflow that will help you better navigate these issues, so you will not get stuck and keep making limited progress for long periods of time.
So here are some examples of feedback loops.
What is meant by feedback loops?
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.
Example of positive feedback loops: puppy edition.
Input/Stimulus: Your new puppy is near the table at dinner time on its first
Night stay with your family, and get some food from 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: if you feed food to your dogs, it is bad for them, so please don’t do that.
Example of negative feedback loops: 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 go to eat dinner, and it is 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 long as the window is open, your heating system comes online to counteract the change in temperature and to keep you comfy. That is the way toward balancing things.
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 remembered to close the window when they left for dinner, that would have helped the temperature inside the house to remain regulated after a while. In either case, it would still be considered a negative feedback loop.
- In the case of the window open, the results were constantly decreasing, with the result that grew over time.
- In the case where the window is closed later, that would be an example of how a negative loop can move towards balance, instead of just endlessly decreasing.
As for positive feedback loops, they 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 also true in the science field. As an example, we can see that the effects of climate change on the Polar Region are very real.
When it comes to climate change, nothing can be positive. But sea ice melting is itself a positive feedback loop.
As the sun moves across the ice, the bright white ice bounces off the sunlight, but as the temperature rises, the ice becomes heated, and begins to melt. Melting sea ice leads to a blue color that is darker, and darker colors absorb more heat than lighter colors. It has been shown that melting more ice accelerates, because the increased melting rate keeps increasing over time.
What is the meaning of the unproductive feedback loop?
Similarly, a negative feedback loop that is unproductive is a positive feedback loop because one initial struggle causes more struggle later.
It’s more than just the worst nightmares of students and writers. It is a slippery, invisible rut that is extremely difficult to identify, and much more difficult to break out of.
In this situation, it is important to write roadblocks.
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.
I have been writing roadblocks within the unproductive feedback loop.
As mentioned earlier, we discussed our series on writing roadblocks. But for the sake of this discussion, we will give you a short overview of each one. We will also describe what being stuck looks like.
Since the Loop is a destructive pattern, it is advantageous to examine the individual elements at play. It is important that we are smarter and quicker at recognizing bad habits when they arise, and we can make headway toward achieving a goal.
Writer’s Block is basically a block of a writer.
Writer’s block happens when you have a task that you either want to or need to do, but for some reason you are unable to write anything.
Writer’s block is such an ambiguous feeling. One of the most common problems that we face is that we may struggle for a long time before we are able to understand why we are experiencing it. As time goes by, it becomes more and more frustrating that we have been able to accomplish so little. Eventually, we will move on to another roadblock, and eventually we will get stuck.
The signs that you are experiencing writer’s block:
- Are you feeling apathetic or unmotivated to work?
- So, you might be ready to work, but suddenly you will be blank on what you are thinking or what you previously thought.
- Being extremely anxious about something that you are working on or finishing.
- Having an overwhelming feeling about where and how to start a task.
- Are you worried that you are not skilled enough?
- You may experience a temporary inability to plan and prioritize the necessary steps to perform the task at hand.
- It is impossible to regain the main topic after falling into a rabbit hole or going on a tangent.
- Do you fear that you may fail in some aspect of the work?
- Lacking in order to inspire, originality, and/or creativity.
It is a syndrome called Imposter Syndrome.
Is it possible that, despite all your accomplishments, you are not as capable as your peers think that 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 that issue, our productivity stops. We are questioning our abilities, and we doubt that we can accomplish anything. Sometimes we even begin to write off our degrees and other accomplishments as being lucky, and we remain worried that some day soon, some idiotic person will realize just how dumb we are, and that they will fire us immediately.
You can control your writing voice and style, because you are confident in yourself and in your abilities. That’s why this roadblock often gets in the way of our writing and research projects. It’s also why imposter syndrome is easily morphed into writer’s block and/or procrastination.
What are the hallmarks of imposter syndrome?
People might think that you are a fraud, despite your education and 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.”
- Fear of being unsuccessful because you’re not smart, creative, talented, or dedicated enough. Fear that you are not in a class where your peers are.
- Worrying that someday, someone might find out that you are a phony and that you are not as smart or capable as you originally thought.
- Do you ever doubt yourself and constantly worry that you are not capable of making a real impact on the matters that matter to you? Even if you give your all to that matter.
Procrastination is when you put off doing the things that you need to do or work on now in favor of doing them later. There is a conscious or unconscious choice to procrastinate. As with other roadblocks, procrastination can be a very debilitating issue, and achieving good quality writing is simply not feasible.
Procrastination episodes can last forever, so it is very important to understand that. Having choice is different from being lazy, in that if you have the choice, you will actually work on your writing task. If you were able to work on it, if you weren’t able to work on it, then that would be lazy.
When you cannot actively write, when you don’t have momentum, it can cause stress and anxiety to take over, especially when deadlines come around. That is the reason that procrastination happens, and that occurs often in the loop cycle of ignoring and ignoring writing roadblocks.
What are the hallmarks of procrastination?
I am not feeling particularly inspired, new ideas and clarity.
- Having a mental block, blank or stuck.
- Do not prioritize, do work that is not urgent.
- You might feel overwhelmed or you may feel down because the project or the scope of the project are daunting.
- I will worry that the work that you produce will be subpar and of poor quality, and I will be very anxious about how people will perceive your work.
- You might be feeling lost and not knowing where to start or where to go.
That was the icing that covered the cake. And dealing with writer’s block often and imposter syndrome only sometimes is still extremely stressful and demotivating. Then you might feel ready to write something, and then, wham, you suddenly go completely blank, and all those good ideas that you have are planning to write are erased.
In that case, you might begin questioning yourself and your abilities, or your work ethic, like imposter syndrome smells the blood in the water and comes to claim that one pound of flesh belongs to them.
After thinking deeply about those three issues, and having experienced each of them, I began to wonder why and how I could possibly have experienced all three of them at the same time. After taking some notes for a while about how I was experiencing certain roadblocks, I realized that one roadblock often led to another roadblock.
In some days or weeks, I might be dealing with all three of them. Oh, rejoice! In that way, I connected the dots that formed the chain. But I left the three major roadblocks, which created the terrible cycle, the unproductive feedback loop.
A feedback loop in action that is unproductive.
It is hard to see the loop at first because so often writing roadblocks feels like a nebulous cloud that says ‘I can’t’. We know that something is off, and we know that we just sat at our desk for an hour and did not produce anything. But it is possible that even after that, we may remain miserable out of habit, instead of switching gears and moving toward intention.
That is the part of what makes life frustrating: You cannot fix a problem if you are not able to explain it. But sometimes you are unable to explain it well because you are trying so hard to fight through and be productive.
So here is a real example of what that looks like in practice, based on what I have experienced:
I woke up early in order to finish writing my short story. I am sitting on the couch with my coffee in my hand, and I’m thinking about the various ideas and scenarios that I’ve been working on throughout the week.
I open my computer and lose myself in thought. I drink some coffee. And when I look at the screen, I just feel dread. Why bother, with all this? 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 then I return to my keyboard. What has happened is that all my ideas are gone, along with my creativity and my motivation. Sometimes I try to get some kind of progress on the current chapter, but sometimes I give up after an hour, because I start to feel overwhelmed about how much work I have not finished.
Think about the three most common writing roadblocks that we have discussed: writer’s block, imposter syndrome, and procrastination. When was the last time you dealt with all those people? Is there anyone who is your nemesis regularly? Is there someone you have never dealt with?
I experience all of them from time to time, but I would say that writer’s block and imposter syndrome have always been the most terrible. And if I get into a loop between the two, eventually it will all morph into procrastination━that’s my pattern.
By analyzing your patterns, you will be able to make a better decision.
What’s the roadblock pattern that you are using? Do you know anything?
If you are unsure, the only way to figure it out is to run a little experiment on yourself.
So, you guinea pig, buckle up.
Take out your phone, and start writing something new. When you realize that you have become blocked, if you are not in the loop and are not struggling right now, that’s fine. But if you set it up now, it will help to remove that obstacle when you realize that you are stuck. If you are anything like me, you will know that when I am stuck, I am the most irritable and I am the most susceptible to distractions.
Next time you talk about your difficulty with a block, add a note to that sheet that you made. The only things that you are really allowed to include are the date and the type of block. But sometimes adding a time will help you estimate how long you spun on each block before it changed into another, especially if later on you come back later and spin another one.
Examples of entries.
There is a hunger bug that seems to be present at noontime on 9/22, which could also be described as imposter syndrome.22:30pm “Procrastination”
9/24 morning I experienced writer’s block.
9/25 10am writer’s block, noon imposter syndrome, and 4pmishish? procrastination”
You might even become really good at identifying and articulating roadblocks. That’s also something noteworthy. Does one of them take longer to identify than the other? You will never know unless you trace it for yourself.
Knowing the loop that you made and the pattern that you have.
When you’re trying to reprogram your brain to not do good things or not be present, you should always start with the intention. That is the standard way of getting a little more control over your brain.
When you know that you are experiencing some sort of trouble, commit to identifying it clearly the next time it occurs to you. It is important to take notes or keep a log in order to see important correlations.
Even if you are frustrated about dealing with some blockers, such as procrastination or imposter syndrome, it will not help you to view them that way—as an inconvenience or a nuisance. Be curious about the matter. Why are you overwhelmed or overwhelmed by your work?
It is usually a good decision to try to find out what is interesting rather than being frustrated. Or, at least that is the one that is better suited for people who are less judgemental and less negative. When we are curious, it can give us some extra insight into what the root cause of a roadblock is.
Maybe you are worried or anxious about what will happen in the future. Some time later, you may experience a brain shift from being procrastinative to a brain that is obsessed with imposters. That is, you may wonder if you are smart or capable, or if you’re just stupid.
Probably you are not able to make the transition yourself, but what matters is whether you are able to articulate that the doubts in your mind are related to imposter syndrome. After that, you should ignore them.
That is it. The easiest solutions for you to understand how the unproductive feedback loop manifests in your life and workflow.
- Keep a log of all the things that you are dealing with.
- So if you feel that something is off, identify the problems as soon as you can feel it.
- Try to be curious about what is causing the roadblocks to come up for you.
It is likely that you know that all of the writing roadblocks are related and can feed into each other. But now that those connections are defined, you will be much more prepared to recognize when you are stuck on a block or within the unproductive feedback loop.
Next, we will go over part 2 of the series called ‘unproductive feedback loop’. In this post I will give you some specifics about how to break out of the loop and get unstuck. Then I will show you how to create a workflow that allows you to better negotiate those issues. In this way, you can avoid getting stuck and never making progress for long periods of time again.