What “Virtuous Cycles” and “Zero Days” Have to Do With Building Better Habits

Virtuous cycles are the opposite of vicious cycles—and they’re the foundation of building good habits.

Find out how you can harness the power of positive loops.

A Virtuous Cycle: Build Better Habits for Positive Development

Have you ever been caught in a negative feedback loop?

You know how it works. You should be working/studying, but you decide to watch just one episode of that TV show on Netflix everyone’s been talking about.

Eight hours later, you’ve powered through an entire season of Kevin Spacey chewing scenery and you’re no closer to completing your project. I guess it’s time for bed?

One bad act leads to another. And another. And another.

It’s a vicious cycle.

How to Turn Vicious Cycles Into Virtuous Cycles

Author and Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs has a solution. You can combat the self-inflicted harm of vicious cycles by turning the mechanism on its ear. You can create virtuous cycles:

To me, there can be a vicious cycle or a virtuous cycle. So, the vicious cycle is: you sit on your butt, and you get depressed because you’re not exercising, and then you get more depressed, because when you don’t exercise it affects your mood. So if you just take that first step, and force yourself to do something, then it becomes a virtuous cycle: you feel better, so you’re more motivated to do something more, and then you feel better, and it just becomes a positive feedback loop.

Hat-tip: Lifehacker via Art of Manliness

Jacobs hits on something fundamental. I’ve talked before about closing your internal feedback loop, but the problem there is disconnect. It’s losing touch with what you’re actually feeling and thinking.

Vicious and virtuous cycles assume you’re in touch with your own feedback. The problem is how you start your feedback loops.

Virtuous cycles are about building on past success. It’s no secret that building on your existing strengths is a more powerful strategy than compensating for your perceived weaknesses. Virtuous cycles work from the same principle—just in miniature.

Once certain feedback becomes strong, it will spur you to further action of the same type. Like a boulder rolling down a hill, starting a good habit only needs a nudge in the right direction—momentum can do the rest of the work.

Zero Days and the Power of Momentum

You know what that House of Cards fueled day of binging I alluded to above is called? Or the endless sucking vortex of checking Facebook statuses all day? They’re called “Zero Days.”

A Zero Day is when you don’t do a single thing that gets you closer to achieving your goals.

Zero Days are killer. They kickstart negative feedback loops. Slacking one day leads to a vicious cycle where you beat yourself up for not getting anything done. That leads to loss of motivation and further slacking.

Avoiding Zero Days can help you build those positive habits that you desperately want to add to your life. As the blog Be Limitless illustrates:

Its 11.58pm and feel like you didn’t do anything? Do that one pushup. Write that sentence. Read one page.

You may say its not much but hey, its not a zero. 1 is much much better than a zero. Zero is your enemy. Fight it, ruthlessly.

Hat-tip: Lifehacker via Be Limitless via reddit

This advice works because of the almost magical power of taking action. Taking action has its own momentum. One pushup becomes ten. One sentence becomes a paragraph. One page becomes twenty.

That’s why taking action is the secret to beating analysis paralysis. When you’re stuck in action purgatory, wondering if you should be doing this thing or that, it becomes very easy to fire up the Netflix and gorge on content.

Having a bias towards action gets us over the hump of starting. Starting is 80% of the battle.

Creativity Is a Habit

What is creativity?

Writing in Creativity Research Journal, psychologist Robert Sternberg argues that creativity is a habit, not a quasi-mystical moment of inspiration. There are three key factors that turn creative thinking into a habit according to Sternberg:

  • opportunities to engage in creative thinking
  • encouragement to go after such opportunities
  • rewards for doing so.

Creativity, therefore, has the characteristics of a virtuous cycle. Starting the cycle of creativity creates rewards that spur you on to further bouts of creativity. Over time, creativity becomes the default mode of working, the thing you do every day, instead of that persnickety bolt of lightning you wait for from your muse.

“Creative people are creative … not as a result of any particular inborn trait, but, rather, through an attitude toward life,” says Sternberg. “They habitually respond to problems in fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond mindlessly and automatically.”

Hat-tip: 99u via Fast Company

And lest you think this advice only applies to artists and writers, let me assure you that every sector of the economy needs creativity to thrive.

Whether that’s corporate workers rethinking supply chain management, freelancers dreaming up new ways to reach their ideal clients, or entrepreneurs solving pain points their potential customers didn’t even know they had, creativity is at the core of the work that we do now.

Having personal agility requires that you exercise this muscle in order to take advantage of the opportunities the future will bring, instead of becoming a victim of it.

Thinking creatively about your work also has the added possibility of getting you out of a rut, especially if you hate your job right now. How can you break out of the negative cycle of hating what you do every day? How could your job be easier or more enjoyable?

4 Takeaways for Positive Development of Your Habits

1. Change your habit to daily. Little known lifehack: It’s harder to make a 3-days-a-week habit than an every day habit. Sounds counterintuitive, right? But that’s the reason most well-intentioned resolutions to start exercising fail. Thirty minutes every day is more likely to stick in your subconscious than one hour every Monday/Thursday/Saturday or whatever it is. Remember, Zero Days kill momentum. Make your good habits daily ones.

2. Start the day positively. Brush your teeth, get dressed, go to work, and then finish one good valuable thing on your to-do list. No, I’m not talking about wading through your email inbox or responding to voicemail. Get one of your Rule of 3 tasks done and watch the virtuous cycle take over. It doesn’t matter if you’re a morning person or a night owl; how you start the day is more important than when you start it.

3. Quash negative feedback loops before you lose control. Practice the skill of recognizing when you’re in a vicious cycle. Act to reverse the cycle before it spins out of control. Turn off the TV, get off Facebook, and knock one thing off your to-do list. The psychological reward could redirect you right into a virtuous cycle instead.

4. Find or create an encouragement circle. As Robert Sternberg wisely points out, one overlooked aspect of habit formation and creativity in particular is finding a group of like-minded folks who encourage and support you. Especially for the small business owner who’s likely a bootstrapping solopreneur (ding ding ding), working life can get lonely. Finding other people who know what it’s like and have been there with you in the trenches is important to support the virtuous cycle.


Let me know what you think:

How do you stop yourself from falling into a vicious cycle?

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