Even if you’ve never heard of a “virtuous cycle” before, chances are you’ve already lived through several in your life. You’ve probably lived through their counterparts many times, too.
What Are Vicious Cycles and Virtuous Cycles?
In economics, there’s a theory known as the Vicious Cycle which refers to a negative event that triggers additional negative events which reinforce each other. Inflation is one example since it leads to increased interest rates which undercut economic growth so that unemployment grows and a recession occurs.
On the other hand, there’s also the Virtuous Cycle, in which a positive event leads to a series of other positive events that amplify the benefits of each other. A positive feedback loop, if you will. Increased consumer confidence, for instance, leads to more production which promotes job growth and that, in turn, improves new home construction.
Those are enormous simplifications of complex economic events, of course, but you get the point. In fact, you’ve probably experienced something similar in your life.
A Real-Life Vicious Cycle Example
Vicious cycles are easy to fall into. They start with something small going wrong which triggers other negative things. Here’s an example.
- Let’s say money worries kept you up one night, so the next morning you oversleep.
- To avoid being late to work and losing income, you drive over the speed limit, which gets you pulled over. The police officer issues you a citation, making you even later to work.
- Now, in addition to getting your pay docked, you also have the added expense of the speeding ticket. Oh, and it’s your third one this year, so your insurance rate will go up, too.
- By the time you get to work, you’re late for the staff meeting the boss scheduled.
- You’re so preoccupied during the meeting with how this tardiness will affect your next performance review that you miss the chance to volunteer for the boss’s pet project.
- The woman you do not get along with gets named team leader for the project, and now you’ll be reporting to her.
- By the time work ends, you get home exhausted and upset with yourself, so you grab a spoon and pint of ice cream which you proceed to eat for dinner while watching reality TV on the sofa.
Like Alexander in the children’s book, you’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day thanks to the vicious cycle.
A Real-Life Virtuous Cycle Example
On the other hand, you’ve probably had days when everything has gone so wonderfully, you wouldn’t have been surprised if a bluebird landed on your shoulder and started chirping.
- Maybe it began with waking up well-rested yet before your alarm went off, so you unexpectedly have extra time in your morning.
- Since you don’t have to rush, you decide to tidy the kitchen and do the dishes before leaving for work.
- By the time you get to the office, you’re feeling accomplished and proud, so you volunteer first for a project the boss brings up at the morning staff meeting.
- Impressed with your initiative, the boss puts you in charge — and mentions there’s a nice bonus waiting at the project’s end.
- When you get home from work, your good mood continues since you aren’t returning to a stack of dirty dishes and a messy kitchen.
- Since you don’t have to spend time tidying before you make dinner, you’ve got the time and energy to make a healthy homecooked meal that you greatly enjoy.
- By bedtime, you’re beaming — it was a fantastic day. You fall asleep quickly with plenty of time to get your eight hours long before your alarm goes off again.
You might think of it as luck when, in fact, it was a series of positive events reinforcing each other.
Your Reactions Are the Key
Every single one of us has things go wrong unexpectedly. Cars break down, or appliances do. Kids get sick, or we do. Traffic makes us run late. Other people are running late and make us wait for them.
But the key to keeping one bad thing from launching a vicious cycle that sucks you in for days or even months is having a virtuous cycle planned to counteract those bad things.
How do you do that? By recognizing that one of the best ways to respond to things that are out of your control is by turning your attention to things you can control.
How to Start a Virtuous Cycle
When you’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle and want to get out of it, launching huge undertakings can be so tempting.
Deep down, you recognize that you’re ready to end the negative cycle, and the thought of being finally free of it naturally gives you a surge of energy you may not have felt for a while.
Retrain Your Brain First
Making sweeping changes to end a vicious cycle leaves you vulnerable to getting derailed. Sure, you may make great progress for a day or even a week. but you haven’t learned the habit of reacting differently to setbacks.
And that means when something goes wrong — and things going wrong is just part of life — you’re likely to wind back in the vicious cycle again.
To stop that from happening, you need to retrain your brain first.
Not: “This is What Always Happens to Me.”
If you’ve tried breaking vicious cycles in the past only to get derailed, you’ve probably found yourself saying “this is what always happens to me.” But what you’re really saying is that things happen to you, without actually taking on any responsibility for how you react to things going wrong.
And it’s that avoidance of responsibility for your response to things that lets a vicious cycle continue. So, what should you do instead? Plan your response!
Instead: “Yep, That Happened. So?”
Maybe you never oversleep. Maybe your car is in perfect working condition, so you never have unexpected breakdowns. Maybe you’ve got a knack for fixing stuff around the house when it breaks, so a burst pipe or overflowing toilet doesn’t throw you off track.
We all have SOMETHING that shakes up our day, something that doesn’t go according to plan and which has the potential to throw us for a loop if we let it.
What separates people who get sucked into vicious cycles from those who don’t is how they react when things don’t go according to plan.
The people who don’t get easily knocked off-kilter react with an attitude of “Yep, that happened. And so?” And then they keep going on with the productive things that are part of their virtuous cycles.
Three Parts to a Virtuous Cycle
How do you do retrain your brain so you can begin a virtuous cycle? By planning taking small steps toward a specific goal, no matter what.
Let me break that down for emphasis:
- Take small steps
- Toward a specific goal
- No matter what.
Since this blog focuses on getting one’s home under control, let’s use that as the goal you have in mind when trying to break a vicious cycle. But this process — taking small steps toward a specific goal, no matter what — can be applied to any goal you’ve been struggling to achieve, once you learn how to do it.
Take Small Steps
Let’s say want to get your house clean and be rid of the clutter that’s piled up in your home over the past months — or even years — while you’ve been living a vicious cycle.
Here’s how to set yourself up for failure:
- Launch into things enthusiastically, going full-steam even though your body isn’t used to such effort.
- Wake up tired and sore the next day.
- Feel as if going on with your big project is overwhelming, considering how awful you feel, but if you don’t continue then it’s proof that you can’t stick with anything.
- Encounter a negative event and allow it to derail you from your project while telling yourself, “this is what always happens to me.”
Here’s how not to fail:
- Make one change to your routine that doesn’t take an enormous amount of effort but which will leave you with a sense of accomplishment.
- Do that new thing for several days, letting your body get used to the effort while your mind starts thinking of the change as a normal part of your day.
- When something negative happens, it’s no big deal because the step you’re taking is small and easily performed, giving you a sense of accomplishment that carries you through negative events.
Toward a Specific Goal
Having “a clean house” is not a specific goal. Your home, after all, consists of various rooms, each of which needs to be cleaned before you have a clean home.
Nor is “having a clutter-free home” a specific goal, either. The rooms in your home contain different surfaces and storage spots, each of which needs to be decluttered before you have a clutter-free home.
Both of those are great things to accomplish, but they are the result of achieving several specific goals.
In other words, to eventually get a clean house or one that’s clutter-free, you start by focusing on one surface in one room and get that under control before moving on to the next.
No Matter What
The other reason to take small steps is so that you’ll have the energy to do those steps no matter what.
Not if you feel like it.
Not if you have time for it.
No matter what.
There are two reasons for pushing yourself to perform those small steps toward your specific goal each and every day, no matter what.
First, you will feel good for having done them.
- Since they’re small steps, you won’t feel exhausted, achy, or overwhelmed.
- You’ll simply feel proud of yourself for having done the thing you said you’d do, and for having made progress toward your specific goal.
Second, if you don’t make yourself do them, nothing will change.
- Giving in to “not feeling like it,” or failing to make time to do what you’ve planned just perpetuates the vicious cycle.
- If you don’t make a habit of doing something, you cannot break the habit of doing nothing.
Putting it Into Practice
The fact that you’ve read this far is a sign that you’re ready to do something to break a vicious cycle that’s been getting you down.
Here are some free printable cleaning checklists that can walk you through it. To use them while starting a virtuous cycle:
- Start with the Daily Cleaning Routine.
- Do one section of the Daily Cleaning Routine each day no matter what until you’ve completed the entire checklist.
- Decide which room you want to focus on next, and work through that room’s checklist plus the Daily Cleaning Routine (which will only take a few minutes after you’re in the habit).
- Repeat, until you’ve followed every checklist in every room.
If you’d prefer more structure with a day-by-day action plan, get your copy of my book 30 Days to a Clean and Organized House and we’ll tackle it together.
Note: This post was first published on June 5, 2017. It has been revised and updated for republication.