Vicious and virtuous cycles

🌱September 24, 2021.
seedling 🌱
1 minute read ⏱

Vicious and virtuous cycles are self-reinforcing. When left uninterrupted, they will continue to accelerate. They are Compound growth systems that stick because the result of compounding triggers more compounding.

Vicious cycles

A vicious cycle is one that gets worse and worse the more times it repeats. The reduced results from one time through the cycle lead to its continuation. The next time through the cycle starts from an even worse initial state. Over time, the cycle continues to perpetuate itself in a downward spiral that gets harder and harder to break. As an example, let’s look at a hypothetical person trying to be more productive, but they haven’t nailed the fundamental habits yet.

One day they are trying to finish developing a feature, but there’s a bug. It’s been a long day, so their concentration, energy, and judgment have waned. The fix for this bug seems close. Wanting to get it done and end the day on a high note, they heat up a microwave dinner and push on. Finally they fix the bug! But now it’s 2AM and they still need to get ready for bed and wind down.

The next morning they snooze for 1-2 hours, still tired from the late night. While they are aware they need more rest, the periodic snoozes interrupt it and it results in low quality rest. They get a late start to the day, already feeling behind. When they sit down to start work, they see that the code written the night before is a mess. After spending an hour or two refactoring and cleaning it up, they start the new work for the day. Throughout the day, they are a bit more irritable and distracted. The poor rest makes it harder to concentrate for long stretches. By the end of the work day, they haven’t made much progress. They look back and realize they spent much of the day distracted. Not wanting to accept such low output, they push on. After finally wrapping up something noteworthy, they get up to get ready for bed. It’s 2:30am, and their lower back is starting to bother them from being hunched over a keyboard all day. The cycle continues 🔁.

Virtuous cycles

A virtuous cycle is one that gets better and better the more times it repeats. Unlike a vicious cycle, each time through a virtuous cycle leads to an improved initial state for the next time. The next time through the cycle improves things even further for the following time. The momentum keeps increasing, perpetuating the cycle. Let’s look at a similar example to the one for vicious cycles. This time, our hypothetical person trying to be productive has nailed The fundamental habits.

One day they are trying to finish developing a feature, but there’s a bug. Realizing they don’t have the time and energy to fix it today, they write up a brief about the bug and add it to the bug log so they can deal with it tomorrow. Unplugging from work, they go for a run and let their mind quiet. After the run they shower then cook a healthy meal. They eat dinner with their loved ones, fully present and engaged. As the evening winds down, so do they. After a 15 minute meditation their mind is quiet. They get to bed at the same time they do every night. With their mind and body tired from the day’s work they get to sleep quickly.

The next morning, they wake up naturally a few minutes before the alarm. Their body is well rested, and it awakened during a period of light sleep. They easily rise and transition into the start of their day, going for a brisk morning walk and enjoying the crisp morning air. After a light breakfast and a morning meditation, they are ready to start the day with a calm, quiet mind and gentle focus on the task at hand. They open up their bug report from the previous day. With a strong focus and refreshed energy, they quickly fix the bug within 30 minutes before moving on to the rest of their work for the day. With energy and focus, they cruise through their work with minimal distraction. As they approach the end of the day, they wrap up what they were doing and respond to emails. Finished and ready to transition out of work, they go lift some weights. The physical exertion draws their full attention, quieting the mind as it focuses on the body. They come home and clean up before spending a night out with their partner, work completely off their mind. They get home and wind down with a meditation before bed at the usual time. The cycle continues 🔁.