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Virtuous and vicious cycles – and where to find them

Virtuous and vicious cycles - and where to find them

‘All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.’ This spooky Battlestar Galactica quote is sometimes appropriate to things I come across in my work, or coaching, or learning. Here’s what it often means for me: the way others behave – and the way I behave – can be predictable, and one action can lead to another. This is not a new idea. Psychologists worked this out long ago. Today, I want to think about what this could mean for anyone wishing for smarter learning or a braver everyday life. Can we find good or bad cycles around us? And once we spot them, can we do anything about them?

Gestalt, patterns, and your self-fulfilling prophecies

A bit of psychological background for those who are interested: there is a school of psychology whose main focus is looking at how people make sense of what is happening around them. We’re smart cookies, and each of us (even when things aren’t going well) manages to fit new events into what we already know. This is how Gestalt is formed – this can be translated as pattern, or shape. The Gestalt psychologists would have us believe that a lot of our thinking is done in Gestalten – we’re likely to think, say, do B and C after we think, meet, see or do A.
You can agree or disagree with this – but I don’t think you can deny that patterns and cycles can have some impact on the way you live, work or learn. Consider these few examples:

  • Cigarette after coffee
  • Walking to / from work ‘on autopilot’, without knowing what happens around us along the way
  • Remembering a certain song after another song is played – or feeling a particular emotion when we hear a song
  • Reacting to aggression, criticism, or stress in a particular way – often difficult to rationally explain
  • “Self-fulfilling prophecies” – events which unfold the way you predicted, even though other outcomes were logically possible

I’m going to focus on two kinds of patterns like these today.

Virtuous and vicious cycles

These can be a bit bigger, and last a bit longer then what you usually think of as a sequence of events. Sometimes, it’s hard to spot a cycle like this, because the causes and effects last many months or even years.
By ‘a virtuous cycle’, I mean a system of actions, habits and techniques which – when used – leads to more and more positive outcomes. Logically, a ‘vicious cycle’ will be a similar system, but leading to worse and worse results. These can happen in the way you work, learn or go about your life. I’m just going to leave two examples here – letting you find more for yourself (see below for how this can be done).

  1. A virtuous cycle: Alice changes her job. Her new role means she no longer needs a company car, and she now spends all her workdays in the office (as opposed to being on the road previously). She takes a look at the commute options, and decides to re-vive her bike which had been collecting dust in her parents’ attic. She now cycles to work – which saves her some money, and doubles as a workout. There are more savings once she cancels her gym membership. To prevent weight loss, she invests some of the new-found cash in an organic vegetable delivery. This works because she’s no longer able to use a car for shopping. In the long run, Alice becomes a healthier, happier and richer person.
  2. A vicious cycle: Bob tends to procrastinate whenever his essays are due. This means he needs to turn them in at the last minute. This, in turn, increases the amount of all-nighters in a term. Bob’s essays are still OK, but his professors comment on their repetitive nature, and he now needs to rewrite one or two essays every term. More all-nighters. His focus during the day suffers, and everyday tasks take longer to complete. Bob finds his time trickling away more and more, and gets annoyed at not being able to complete anything in time.

Spotting the cycles, and what to do next

If you’re keen to start spotting the vicious cycles in your life, well done! You may find that your study or work can improve if you find another way of doing things and try to keep it fresh. But it is just as important to look for the rhythms and patterns that make the world around you a nicer, more awesome place – the virtuous cycles. If you find them and try to ‘copy’ them somewhere else, you may find that some problems get solved easier!
Here’s a few things to think about when spotting these patterns. Think of yourself as a detective, trying to find your own habits, ‘usual suspects’ and ways of doing things. It may help to write these things down, or sketch them out – even as a literal cycle. Finally – ask a good friend to take a look at you found. You may be deceiving yourself more than you think, and some honest feedback will help you set these things right.

  • Am I likely to react to Situation X in the same way every time? If so, why?
  • Do I usually have a similar comment or thought in mind when Situation X happens? Whose voice am I using?
  • Places: do I have places which always make me feel Y? If so, why? How useful are these places?
  • People: am I likely to respond in a particular way to Person Z? How helpful is this? Can I do something about it?
  • Things: do I usually do the same thing in the presence of Thing A? Is that a good thing? How best to use it?
  • Time: am I more likely to respond to things differently at Time B? Can I use this knowledge to change something?

I hope you found this quick discussion useful. If you’re keen to get in touch, I’m always happy to read emails with your comments!


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