habits to be made

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a positive feedback loop? What role does a positive feedback loop play in habit formation?

Positive feedback loops are at the core of habit formation. The concept is simple: when a behavior is rewarded, the subject’s motivation to perform the behavior increases as a bigger reward is expected.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of the positive feedback loop and the psychology behind it.

The Psychology of Habit Formation

Habits are built in four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward.

  • Cue: This is the trigger that leads you to take action. 
  • Craving: This is the reward you expect to receive after you take action.
  • Response: This is the action you take (the habit).
  • Reward: This is the actual reward you receive after you take action.

You can alter each of the four stages to break existing habits or to create new habits. You’ll be more likely to stick to the habit you’ve chosen to change if you plan ahead and:

  • Make the cue obvious (put a reminder on top of your shoes)
  • Anticipate your reward (remind yourself that you’re doing this to improve your self-image so that you can feel happier and more successful)
  • Ensure you make it easy to respond in the way you want to (lay your shoes out in the order you want to put them on so that it takes no extra effort)
  • Reinforce your habit with instant gratification (congratulate yourself for the effort you’re making in changing your habits and your self-image)

How Feedback Loops Alter Behavior

Your current habits are a result of your current self-image. When you have clear goals in mind, you can more easily check that the habits you’ve chosen to develop reinforce your efforts to achieve those goals, and strive to develop more successful habits. These success habits will help you to see yourself in a more positive light and encourage you to take actions that lead to the results that you want. This positive feedback loop will train your mind to approach your goal with an attitude of success.

For example, to achieve your long-term goal of running a marathon, you’ll need to develop a healthier lifestyle. You begin by introducing a light exercise routine into your life so that you can start to view yourself as a healthy person. The more you view yourself as a healthy person, the more likely you are to continue exercising and feel the benefits. The more benefits you feel from exercising, the more likely you are to see yourself as a healthy person. 

(Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins expands upon Maltz’s concept that feedback loops reinforce specific behaviors by arguing that neuro-associations—the way your brain links certain experiences with pain and others with pleasure—influence all of your decisions and behaviors. According to Robbins, your brain relies on these neuro-associations to direct your behavior toward feeling pleasure and away from feeling pain, and you have to reprogram these associations to create new patterns of behavior. So, for the example above, you need to program your mind to associate healthy behaviors with pleasurable feelings in order for this habit to stick. For example, you could take the scenic route when you go for a run, or plan to reward yourself every time you complete a run.)

Focus on One Thing at a Time

You’re more likely to achieve success if you focus on one thing at a time, and do it to the best of your ability without distractions. This will increase your sense of self-satisfaction and contribute to your successful feedback loop. So, focus on the moment—give your full attention to what you’re doing and don’t move on to another task until you’ve completed the first one

(Shortform note: Like Maltz, Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, believes that you’re more likely to achieve the success you want when you focus on one thing at a time. This is because success builds on success. He suggests that you prioritize the actions you need to complete to reach your goals—break down your goal into a series of logical steps that take you from where you are to where you want to be—and focus exclusively on completing each step in sequential order. With each step you complete, you’ll build your momentum and find it easier to complete each subsequent step.)

Positive Feedback Loop: The Psychology of Habit Formation

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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary :

  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
  • How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
  • Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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