Building Better Feedback

The main purpose of feedback is to provide corrective action to behavior required to achieve a desired goal.  Feedback is a key step in learning how to learn.

Effective feedback involves a sort of triangulation:

1)   a specific goal,

2)   some kind of metric that measures our distance from achieving the goal, and

3)   A process for improving the practices intended to achieve the goal.

In order for feedback to be effective we need to be able to describe both the goal and the behavior in terms as specific as possible.

The most descriptive terms are generally measurements of some kind, such as to run a 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds.  Maybe that’s what makes such avid fans and participants of sports: they are generally so measureable.

Other goals are harder to describe.  For instance, perhaps you’ve recently read a book.  Was your goal merely to read it, or to understand it?  If the latter, then how do you know you’ve understood the book?  Do you have a process for making this determination for yourself?

Suppose you’re using Mortimer Adler’s criteria for understanding a book.  Then you’ll need to be able to at least answer these four questions:

1)   What is the book about as a whole?

2)   What is being said in detail, and how?

3)   Is the book true, in whole or part?

4)   How is it significant?

How far you are from answering those questions gives you some idea of how far you are from achieving your goal of understanding the book.

Sometimes measurements can seem counterproductive.  I have an app for my computer to measure my meditation progress. It works well and measures a strong correlate, “coherence,” but it’s rather distracting.  I feel like a pitcher who’s focused on the fans instead of the next pitch.  So while I don’t use it every day I do believe that “regular” use of the app can be indicative of the effectiveness of my meditation practice.

The Measure of a Man

How do we take our own measure?  Can we build a model of our own well-being?  Is it possible to determine whether our practice makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise?

Time is our most precious and limited resource, so any such measure ought to include how we spend it.  Time on task is the inertia of a habit.  If you’ve been doing something for an hour every day, every year for the last ten years, then that habit has a tremendous amount of inertia and is going to be hard to move, one way or the other.

But time by itself doesn’t tell us what we’ve accomplished during our time on task.  To address this issue I’ve been working on something I call a cycle.  A cycle represents a completed task, or a completed step in a sequence of steps required to accomplish a goal.

A cycle will vary from domain to domain, and perhaps even within a domain.  So for example, Ganpati Kriya calls for eleven minutes of chanting, so one cycle of Ganpati Kriya is eleven minutes.  But Sat Kriya calls for 30 minutes of chanting, which I only do for five.  Five minutes of Sat Kriya translates into about 0.17 cycles.  My goal for a blog post is to write 250 words.  So if instead I write 300 words, those translate into 1.2 cycles.

While this method isn’t perfect, the two measures of time on task and number of cycles completed give me a better idea of how my practice is going than time by itself.

I want to know what kind of impact my practice is having on my physical and emotional health.  So I periodically measure my vital signs, and positivity ratio.

To measure our financial health I periodically calculate a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement.

These measurements are an attempt to gather feedback from my practice, to make my practice more deliberate, and to insure my practice is taking me in the direction intended.

The Game of Life

When I was a kid I enjoyed playing the game “Life.”  Looking back from beyond midlife, the game doesn’t seem to teach much about what matters to me now.

How do we play this game we all find ourselves in?  Most games have some sort of set up.  You get a piece, an avatar, which represents you on the board.  You may start the game with a certain amount of money, or maybe you roll the dice for certain talents or abilities.

Real life is like that.  We get dealt a hand we have no control over: our family, certain genetic talents and predispositions, where we grow up, etc.  Apparently much of our personality and character come from these genetic set points.

These set points, combined with the people who enter our life, like parents, teachers, and friends to a large extent determine the domains we choose to play in: athletics, music, science, religion, etc.

Fortunately for us science is learning that many of these set points are plastic.  We can change them through practice.  The game begins; we roll the dice, and begin our journey around the board.

Chance brings challenges of various sorts into our lives.  How we respond to them is determined at first by these set points: our character, our personality, our parents, etc.  But at the same time there is feedback, we learn from these interactions, and we can choose to respond differently as we age.  We can choose to practice, and learn to practice deliberately.

It’s up to us to keep score.  We determine the points on the scoreboard.  We can measure the things that matter to us, or let others measure us by their own standard.  But we are all measured.  Will we find ourselves wanting?  Will we spend the resources we started the game with in a way that leaves a legacy to our children, to our friends and family, to our community, or to the very earth itself?

It’s up to us to envision, to plan, and to play the game.  Play well, all of you.  We’re all depending on us.

Life in Review, a Reflection on New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is an obvious time for reflection, to review the results of our practice, to celebrate our accomplishments, and to consider ways to improve.

What do we reflect on; the collected memories of the past year with their accumulated emotion?  Remembered victories and failures?  How we look in the mirror?  How high we’ve climbed the ladder?

This has been the hardest part of my practice: to look myself in the mirror in such a way that brings growth and a sense of accomplishment; to bring my life under a process of review, without blame or shame, accepting who I am yet determined to get better.

I’ve learned to create a vision for my life, to set goals that will accomplish that vision, to make a plan to accomplish those goals, to create a history of those goals, of how I spend my time, and whether a goal was accomplished with the time spent.

But even so, I’ve yet to take all that data and let it tell me who I am, and who I am becoming.  Sure, numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do tell a story.  Our friends can’t tell the whole story of who we are either, but we want to listen to what they have to say.  And I want to learn to listen to what those numbers have to say.

Deliberate practice requires feedback; without it our practice isn’t deliberate.  Feedback involves measuring in some way how near or far we are from the mark, from executing what we’ve set out to accomplish.

In this coming year I want to take the data I’ve collected, and turn it into summary statistics that can reveal to me the accumulated results, the “wealth” if you will, of my practice.

How do you reflect on your life?  What rituals do you celebrate on New Year’s Day?

My Struggle with Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice forces me to hold a mirror to my practice. It requires some form of feedback, whether from a teacher or by way of measureable results.

I find I don’t like being measured. And I don’t have a teacher; at least not one I meet with regularly that observes my practice.

It’s easy to get comfortable with practice; to go through the motions without paying attention to them. At that point it’s probably safe to say we’re not getting better at whatever it is we are practicing. Our practice is not without benefit, but is without improvement.

I’m at that point with what I call my “maintenance practices,” practices where my goal is just to do them.

How do you measure meditation? How do you measure the Five Tibetans? You either do them, or you don’t, right?

I read a fascinating post by Noa Kageyama, PhD on deliberate practice; maybe the best I’ve read. Let me see if I can apply some of his lessons to my own practice.

Suppose I’m doing the Five Tibetans tomorrow morning, and that I’ve done them every morning for the past five years. I’ve got the radio going, thinking about what I need to do the rest of the day, while my body goes through the motions of the exercises. Let’s call this practicing mindlessly.

Now suppose I’m doing those same exercises without any kind of background distractions, like music, an audio book, or television. I focus my awareness on my breath, my body, on counting the repetitions. I’m aware of my posture, balance, and form as I perform each repetition of the exercise. Finally I record the experience of my performance in a practice notebook. Let’s call this practicing mindfully.

See the difference? Even a maintenance practice can lead to improvement if we learn to practice mindfully.