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Homeostasis and Why We Backslide

At some time or another, we’ve all sought to make big changes. And almost of all of us have, after making grand plans, discovered that changing some aspect of our lives or organizations, whether adding in a new skill or simply changing an old process, resulted in great backsliding.

Why the disconnect?

As George Leonard discusses in his classic book Mastery, based on his experiences in the patient lifelong practice of Aikido, it’s not necessary to beat ourselves up or derive a complicated psychological explanation.

The problem is due to a very simple mental model that explains how systems are regulated through feedback loopsHomeostasis.

Backsliding is a universal experience. Every one of us resists significant change, no matter whether it’s for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed—and it’s a very good thing they do. Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up or down by 10 percent, you’d be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body.

This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis. It characterizes all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organization to an entire culture—and it applies to psychological states and behavior as well as to physical functioning.

The simplest example of homeostasis can be found in your home heating system. The thermostat on the wall senses the room temperature; when the temperature on a winter’s day drops below the level you’ve set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal that turns the heater on. The heater completes the loop by sending heat to the room in which the thermostat is located. When the room temperature reaches the level you’ve set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal back to the heater, turning it off, thus maintaining homeostasis. Keeping a room at the right temperature takes only one feedback loop. Keeping even the simplest single-celled organism alive and well takes thousands. And maintaining a human being in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interweaving electrochemical signals pulsing in the brain, rushing along nerve fibers, coursing through the bloodstream. One example: each of us has about 150,000 tiny thermostats in the form of nerve endings close to the surface of the skin that are sensitive to the loss of heat from our bodies, and another sixteen thousand or so a little deeper in the skin that alert us to the entry of heat from without.

An even more sensitive thermostat resides in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, close to branches of the main artery that brings blood from the heart to the head. This thermostat can pick up even the tiniest change of temperature in the blood. When you start getting cold, these thermostats signal the sweat glands, pores, and small blood vessels near the surface of the body to close down. Glandular activity and muscle tension cause you to shiver in order to produce more heat, and your senses send a very clear message to your brain, leading you to keep moving, to put on more clothes, to cuddle closer to someone, to seek shelter, or to build a fire.

Homestasis seems to be the rule when it comes to systems, yet we often forget about it, or think we’re not subject to a simple law of nature. But we needn’t totally despair. Homeostasis is often quite positive, and it keeps systems alive and well. Our bodies wouldn’t work without it, nor would our social systems.

Homeostasis in social groups brings additional feedback loops into play. Families stay stable by means of instruction, exhortation, punishment, privileges, gifts, favors, signs of approval and affection, and even by means of extremely subtle body language and facial expressions. Social groups larger than the family add various types of feedback systems. A national culture, for example, is held together by the legislative process, law enforcement, education, the popular arts, sports and games, economic rewards that favor certain types of activity, and by a complex web of mores, prestige markers, celebrity role modeling, and style that relies largely on the media as a national nervous system. Although we might think that our culture is mad for the new, the predominant function of all this—as with the feedback loops in your body—is the survival of things as they are.

The problem is that homeostasis, like natural selection and like life itself, is undirected and does not have a “value system” — it doesn’t keep what’s good and reject what’s bad. It’s just like inertia: It’s a simple algorithim that keeps things in motion as they were.

Let’s say, for instance, that for the last twenty years—ever since high school, in fact—you’ve been almost entirely sedentary. Now most of your friends are working out, and you figure that if you can’t beat the fitness revolution, you’ll join it. Buying the tights and running shoes is fun, and so are the first few steps as you start jogging on the high school track near your house. Then, about a third of the way around the first lap, something terrible happens. Maybe you’re suddenly sick to your stomach. Maybe you’re dizzy. Maybe there’s a strange, panicky feeling in your chest. Maybe you’re going to die. No, you’re going to die.

What’s more, the particular sensations you’re feeling probably aren’t significant in themselves. What you’re really getting is a homeostatic alarm signal—bells clanging, lights flashing. Warning! Warning!  Significant changes in respiration, heart rate, metabolism. Whatever you’re doing, stop doing it immediately. Homeostasis, remember, doesn’t distinguish between what you would call change for the better and change for the worse. It resists all change. After twenty years without exercise, your body regards a sedentary style of life as “normal”; the beginning of a change for the better is interpreted as a threat. So you walk slowly back to your car, figuring you’ll look around for some other revolution to join.

Leonard does provide a few possible solutions, or at least an approach to the homeostasis problem. The good thing is that homeostasis isn’t all-powerful, it’s simply a force that we must work with. He offers five ways to approach the issue:

1. Be aware of the way homeostasis works. This might be the most important guideline of all. Expect resistance and backlash. Realize that when the alarm bells start ringing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sick or crazy or lazy or that you’ve made a bad decision in embarking on the journey of mastery. In fact, you might take these signals as an indication that your life is definitely changing—just what you’ve wanted. Of course, it might be that you have started something that’s not right for you; only you can decide. But in any case, don’t panic and give up at the first sign of trouble. You might also expect resistance from friends and family and co-workers. (Homeostasis, as we’ve seen, applies to social systems as well as individuals.) Say you used to struggle out of bed at 7:30 and barely drag yourself to work at 9:00. Now that you’re on a path of mastery, you’re up at 6:00 for a three-mile run, and in the office, charged with energy, at 8:30. You might figure that your co-workers would be overjoyed, but don’t be too sure. And when you get home, still raring to go, do you think that your family will welcome the change? Maybe. Bear in mind that an entire system has to change when any part of it changes. So don’t be surprised if some of the people you love start covertly or overtly undermining your self-improvement. It’s not that they wish you harm, it’s just homeostasis at work.

2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. So what should you do when you run into resistance, when the red lights flash and the alarm bells ring? Well, you don’t back off, and you don’t bull your way through. Negotiation is the ticket to successful long-term change in everything from increasing your running speed to transforming your organization. The long-distance runner working for a faster time on a measured course negotiates with homeostasis by using pain not as an adversary but as the best possible guide to performance. The change oriented manager keeps his or her eyes and ears open for signs of dissatisfaction or dislocation, then plays the edge of discontent, the inevitable escort of transformation. The fine art of playing the edge in this case involves a willingness to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. It also demands a determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness. Simply turning off your awareness to the warnings deprives you of guidance and risks damaging the system. Simply pushing your way through despite the warning signals increases the possibility of backsliding. You can never be sure exactly where the resistance will pop up. A feeling of anxiety? Psychosomatic complaints? A tendency toward self-sabotage? Squabbles with family, friends, or fellow workers? None of the above? Stay alert. Be prepared for serious negotiations.

3. Develop a support system. You can do it alone, but it helps a great deal to have other people with whom you can share the joys and perils of the change you’re making. The best support system would involve people who have gone through or are going through a similar process, people who can tell their own stories of change and listen to yours, people who will brace you up when you start to backslide and encourage you when you don’t. The path of mastery, fortunately, almost always fosters social groupings. In his seminal book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga comments upon the tendency of sports and games to bring people together. The play community, he points out, is likely to continue even after the game is over, inspired by “the feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms.” The same can be said about many other pursuits, whether or not they are formally known as sports—arts and crafts, hunting, fishing, yoga, Zen, the professions, “the office.” And what if your quest for mastery is a lonely one? What if you can find no fellow voyagers on that particular path? At the least, you can let the people close to you know what you’re doing, and ask for their support.

4. Follow a regular practice. People embarking on any type of change can gain stability and comfort through practicing some worthwhile activity on a more or less regular basis, not so much for the sake of achieving an external goal as simply for its own sake. A traveler on the path of mastery is again fortunate, for practice in this sense (as I’ve said more than once) is the foundation of the path itself. The circumstances are particularly happy in case you’ve already established a regular practice in something else before facing the challenge and change of beginning a new one. It’s easier to start applying the principles of mastery to your profession or your primary relationship if you’ve already established a regular morning exercise program. Practice is a habit, and any regular practice provides a sort of underlying homeostasis, a stable base during the instability of change.

5. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. We tend to forget that learning is much more than book learning. To learn is to change. Education, whether it involves books, body, or behavior, is a process that changes the learner. It doesn’t have to end at college graduation or at age forty or sixty or eighty, and the best learning of all involves learning how to learn— that is, to change. The lifelong learner is essentially one who has learned to deal with homeostasis, simply because he or she is doing it all the time. The Dabbler, Obsessive, and Hacker are all learners in their own fashion, but lifelong learning is the special province of those who travel the path of mastery, the path that never ends.

Still Interested? Check out the classic (short) book in its entirety: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.