Feedback is one of the most important things to measure when it comes to self improvement. It allows us to see whether or not the work we put in is actually doing something. We get feedback from all kinds of sources:
When that feedback acts as a guide for our further actions, it creates a loop. This loop can either help to maintain a good thing (like homeostasis) or help you improve at something (creating a good habit).
Your most powerful source of feedback is your ability to reflect upon yourself and how you are currently living. No other source matters more than the internal loop that is created through your own rigorous thinking. Here’s why.
Behavioral Feedback Loops
The idea of a feedback loop can be applied to a lot of different things including your thermostat and cruise control, for example. Our body uses feedback loops to keep us healthy.
The quantifying of our actions gives us measurable feedback about how we are currently acting. This removes any doubt about how we think we act, and shows how we actually act, giving us raw data with which to work.
Our actions are constantly producing effects. You could measure how often I hit the backspace key each day or how many times I tap my left foot on the floor. This data means nothing unless it is relevant to something important me. It will not be considered input for my further behavior.
If we have been presented with measurable information and that information is meaningful for us, the consequences of that behavior will become clear. If I find that I am selling 150 units of something each month and the goal was 200, then the consequence that I could either be fired or passed over for a promotion becomes a hard-hitting reality.
With a behavior measured, found relevant, and found important enough to change, an action is taken in order to improve upon our current conduct, closing the “loop,” which then creates another behavior to later be measured.
Each of these steps is extremely important, giving us the chance to gradually improve our performance in certain tasks or our ability to keep up with a good habit.
Quality of Feedback
One of the most troublesome, but important aspects of feedback is that to be useful it must be qualified and, or, quantified. Feedback from someone you trust to make good judgments is more valuable than anything else, especially if they have the data to back it up.
The reason quantifying is so important is because we are so prone to error when it comes to self-regulating.
Take, for instance, a study done in 1992 showing just how incorrect our estimations can be when we estimate the amount of calories we eat in a day.
We can be very, very wrong in our numbers which, when counted as feedback, either leaves us feeling hopeless to change anything (why believe I can change when I feel I’m already doing it right) or leaves us never changing our behavior.
We have to be diligent when it comes to where we get feedback:
- Trustworthy sources
- Quantified and measurable
- Accurate and timely
The old saying “You are the average of your five closest friends” rings a bell here. If your friends are great, trustworthy, and honest they will bring you to their level through providing correct feedback with which you can improve.
The Role of Reflection
We have at our disposal one of the best tools of feedback, our ability to think back upon our actions, look at what came about after doing them, and discern whether or not that kind of life is the one we want to be living.
We are walking feedback loops. We perform, see the results, reflect upon those results, giving ourselves feedback, and either attempt to change or keep it up.
But, as the above study showed us, our reflection can only go so far. We can’t exist in a vacuum; We need good role models, teachers, and coaches to help show us the way when we get lost. Likewise, while we can be pretty good at doing some addition in our heads, we shouldn’t trust ourselves with quantifying our actions. That is better left to our technological expertise.
Nevertheless, reflection still remains our best tool because of multiple reasons:
1) Weighing of Values
Some things are more important to us than others and it takes reflection to sift through those different values and determine if they may be conflicting with one another. This has a profound impact on how we perceive the feedback and what feedback we believe important.
2) Determining Relevance
Data is just data until someone makes it important by giving it relevance. Like I mentioned above, right now how many times I hit the backspace key in one day isn’t really important to me. When I first learned to type, however, it was a much different story. Seeing measurable progress in lessening my amount of errors would have been great feedback.
3) Goal Setting
If the feedback resonates with a goal of mine, it becomes invaluable to me. If I don’t know my goals or they are unclear, it is difficult to figure out how to use that feedback to my advantage.
4) Judging Virtues
Not everything we care to improve upon can be quantified. Building virtues are such cases. Am I a kind person? Am I patient? Am I brave? These are broad and tough questions to answer. There is no technology that can tell you your “Brave Points” and whether or not you’ve missed your monthly quota. Still, we can use reflection to see the kinds of activities that may affect these virtues and relatively gauge how far we’ve come.
Reflection is our compass. We look to it periodically to make sure we are still on track. It’s where we house our values, goals, desires, interests, etc. and attempt to weigh them against the feedback of our daily actions, changing the course if necessary and possibly changing our selves along the way.
Fitting Them Together
Without proper use of our reflective capabilities, steps 2 and 3 of the behavioral feedback loop are useless, making the whole loop fall apart. Even the best feedback will fall upon deaf ears and garner no extra attention.
So how do we properly utilize our personal reflection to make best use of the feedback loop?
- When possible, use outward methods to create the feedback. If you are trying to build a habit, you need outside intervention to break you from your current one. Willpower alone is not enough. Using great teachers, coaches, friends, and technology can give you cues to know when to change your behavior. Don’t try to quantify or “guesstimate” yourself. You will most likely be way off.
- Utilize reflection in the relevance and consequences portion of the feedback loop by weighing your current values against the outcomes of your current behavior and what effects you want to get out of your actions.
- Act in the best way you see fit according to the deep thinking you have tried to do.
For an example:
Let’s say you are meeting with your manager who has some feedback regarding your current sales numbers. While your overall sales are high, your cross sales (or selling multiple products to one customer) ratio is fairly low. You thought you were doing pretty well, but the numbers tell the truth.
You must now reflect on how relevant these stats are to your job and the consequences of not performing better. It could be that you are doing fine work but certain circumstances have worked against you this month causing your numbers to drop. It could be you care mostly about your gross amount of sales because that is where most of your commission comes from.
In any case, however you judge the situation, you must now act accordingly to the goal you think is important. If you want to change, you need to set up outside cues in order for you to remember your need to change your behavior.
Lifehacker has a great article on different methods to use to improve your feedback loops.
We are constantly bombarded by feedback on a daily basis. The quality of most of it is poor or unhelpful. It takes a good reflective capacity to determine which feedback to pay attention to and whether or not that behavior is necessary to change.
Speed limit signs that show how fast you are going are proven to work to slow drivers because it works on an automatic feedback loop where you know it is wrong to speed. Other consequences are not so clear.
You must sift through your goals and competing values when your behavior presents troublesome feedback and, using your ability to reflect, decide where you want to go from there.
This is an ongoing process, one that ceases only when you stop learning and stop being interested in becoming a better person.