Whether it’s the friend who keeps falling for the wrong person, the employer who can’t seem to make things better at work, or the individual who won’t stick to a healthy routine, we all know someone caught in a negative cycle. The concept of the vicious cycle is nothing new. In yogic philosophy, the repeating patterns that manifest in our lives are called samskaras.
Samskaras can be positive or negative. They are reinforced by repetition until they become second nature. Some yogis use the imagery of a butter knife running along a pat of butter as a way to explain samskaras. The knife leaves tiny ridges on the butter, and as you continue to run the knife along the same pattern, the grooves become deeper. When we develop positive patterns, they become easier to maintain over time. When our samskaras are negative, we enter into what is referred to in systems thinking as “doom looping.” Doom looping is as ominous as it sounds–problems compound and initial solutions don’t seem to have a positive effect.
It really isn’t easy at all to get out of a doom loop.
It’s easy to get caught in a vicious cycle. Imagine, for instance, a person trying to lose weight. This person may vow to exercise daily and eat better food. The morning begins full of commitment to the goal of living a healthier lifestyle, but then the person encounters a big pile of doughnuts in the break room at the office. This individual, feeling the mid-afternoon energy-slump that is perpetuated by their unhealthy body and schedule, eats a doughnut or two. He or she gets through the work day on a sugar high, but after arriving home, there’s dinner to cook, the sugar buzz has worn off, and ultimately the person becomes too tired to exercise.
Despite all those good intentions, the individual reinforced a negative pattern that will be harder to break tomorrow. Tomorrow when they get up, they will feel the cumulative effects of poor habits plus their recent failure to stick to a goal. Thus, they have initiated the doom loop.
But breaking the vicious cycle is the only way to stop negativity from coming back.
Employee turnover, poor health, and unhappiness are a handful of the many symptoms of being caught in a doom loop. In some cases, struggle may feel so natural that it is the only condition that people know. The cycle of poverty is a classic example of this. Even though people in this situation understand that there are better possibilities, they lack access to them because of a series of compounding factors. This sort of cycle must be broken at a systemic level, and is not likely to be resolved through the power of a single individual.
In other cases, businesses or entities may become reactive to problems instead of performing a proper causal analysis. They respond to an immediate need without fully understanding the problem. A company may notice that employee turnover is high, which leads them to increase their benefits package. This may draw new workers, but they fail to address the root of their issue, which is the tyrannical manager that makes every day a challenge for employees.
A school with a poor performance record may develop a turnaround plan that involves firing most of the teachers. Such drastic measures fail to yield results that districts desire in most cases. In this instance the environment has been further destabilized by the reactionary policy.
Whether you are personally affected by doom looping, or you are watching it play out for someone else, there are steps that can break the cycle. The results may not be instantaneous, but they will be sustainable.
Sometimes we are so close to the problem that it can be difficult to see where we’re going wrong. The actions that lead us to this place feel normal to us, after all. Negative cycles can rob us of our power. You may be able to recognize the problem on your own, but there’s no shame in reaching out for help if you feel that you can’t resolve the issue alone.
Here’s a powerful way to stop circling the drain.
One of the main reasons that people fall into doom cycles is that they don’t take time to perform a causal analysis on their situation. If you attempt to tackle a problem without fully addressing its roots, you are putting a bandage on a broken arm. Our fast-paced world values quick results. Self-reflection, the key to breaking the vicious cycle, has become secondary to ideas that provide instant gratification.
To get to the root of the problem, you can use the “5 Whys” method.
At its most basic level, this method involves naming the problem, and then asking yourself why the problem is occurring five times.
- Employee turnover is high. Why?
- Workers are unhappy. Why?
- Their work-life balance is poor. Why?
- Their manager expects them to take work home with them. Why?
- As a company, our goals for this quarter are too ambitious for our staff. Why?
As you can see, this reflective line of questioning can yield some insights into what has led to such a high turnover rate for the company. After this causal analysis, leaders may decide that they need to re-evaluate their quarterly goals so that they do not put inordinate pressure on the manager. By rethinking their strategy, they may be able to keep the manager from asking employees to take work home with them, which may make them feel better about their jobs.
A second way to break out of the doom loop involves using the following line of inquiry:
1. Name a symptom of the problem. What is something that seems to be getting worse for you as time goes on?
I struggle to pay my bills every month.
2. Choose three immediate and independent causes. What are three things that lead to the symptom you described above.
My job doesn’t pay me very much. I buy things on impulse. I feel social pressure to keep up with everyone else.
3. State the consequences of the causes. How are your behaviors impacting your life?
I’m stressed all the time. My cupboards are always empty. People think I have more money than I do.
5. Demonstrate how the consequences perpetuate the causes. How do the consequences of your actions enable the symptom to continue?
Since people think I have more money than I do, they expect me to lead a certain lifestyle that involves spending lots of money. This keeps me from saving and causes me to dip into my rent and grocery money.
Break your chains!
Samskaras are a natural part of our existence. When vicious cycles arise from negative patterns, it is up to us to break them. Causal analysis should always begin with self-study. Whether you choose to use one of the methods listed above, employ the assistance of a life-coach or therapist, keep a journal, or engage in mindfulness exercises, persistence will allow you to identify the core of the doom loop.
Don’t allow yourself to be a prisoner to unhealthy mindsets and habits. You are the driver of the change that you want to see in your life.
Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io
|||^||Yoga Journal: Stuck in a Rut|
|||^||NPR: One family’s story shows how the cycle of poverty is hard to break|
|||^||Educational Leadership: Research Says… / Drastic School Turnaround Strategies Are Risky|
|||^||iSixSigma: 5 Whys|
|||^||iSixSigma: Determine the root cause: 5 Whys|
|||^||Systems Thinker: Identifying and Breaking Vicious Cycles|