We're told that the key to accelerated growth is fast feedback loops - quick signals that inform us whether our current efforts are producing the results we want.

As children, we rely on these fast feedback loops to rapidly develop skills from repeated failure. Every fall trying to stand up brings us closer to taking our first steps just as every cheer from our parents gets us to speaking our first words.

Fast feedback loops are tennis ball launchers that allow us to adjust our swing each time the ball lands on the other side of the court. Each failure prompts us to change approach and each success makes us remember what to repeat.

As impulsive people looking for instant gratification, we have a tendency to let immediate consequences guide our actions. Without these navigation systems in place, we can feel like ships lost at sea, unsure of which way is forward.

But looking for fast feedback encounters one big problem when it comes to making long-term change:

"Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits."- James Clear, Atomic Habits

When it comes to adopting new routines in our lives - everything from exercising regularly and eating better to spending less money or learning more - the results that we're looking for are rarely instantaneous. In cases where feedback is more like a signal from Mars than an echo off the wall, we can be led astray by sustained silences as we pursue efforts that only see benefits over the long-run.

At the start, we find ourselves at the flat portion of an exponential curve where results lag behind what we expect and feeling like our hard work isn't paying off can cause us to throw in the towel before we reach the critical mass required for things to point upwards.

Shifting our Sights Ahead

In order to avoid this, there are a few things we can do to remind ourselves to keep showing up in spite of doubts:

  • Look beyond the horizon: when it comes to procrastination, Piers Steel tells us that the problem lies in the fact that "we view the present in concrete terms and the future abstractly." The same can be said for our short-sighted self-improvement - viewing things in too short of a timeframe can cause us to feel disappointed when we don't see quick results. Instead of thinking of habits as get-rich-quick schemes, we should see them as long-term investments and picture ourselves two months or a year from now in the future where we committed to consistency.
  • Don't check everyday: Since results take shape over the long-run, metrics are meaningless ¬†until enough time has passed. Checking your weight, your bank account or investment every day can be defeating and cause you to draw the wrong conclusions. Instead of checking your progress everyday, give it a week or two and take note of the broader trend. You're playing the long-game anyways.
  • Give yourself fast feedback: in absence of a fast feedback loop, we can still positively reinforce our effects by reminding ourselves of small wins. Every successful repetition is, as James Clear tells us, a vote for the kind of person that we want to become and that alone is something to celebrate. Congratulate yourself because what is rewarded is repeated.

Think of Bamboo

One last thing that helps me whenever I feel like giving up on something I know will pay off in the long run is thinking of bamboo.

Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks.

I find comfort in thinking of myself as a little bamboo shoot growing its roots under the soil in waiting. It keeps me coming back knowing that things will turn upward if I just keep showing up.

If we are too focussed on results, it is easy to give up on things that require commitment but when we view things through the lens of lagging indicators, we can find comfort in knowing that we simply need to shift our perspective further ahead:

Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.

For more on this and other ideas relating to habit formation, you can check out James Clear and his book Atomic Habits.