September 04, 2021
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Positive Reinforcement Flywheels driving Community Habits

For those of you who don’t know — I am neurodiverse.  I see a specialist twice a month who focuses on helping me understand this and assist me in working towards better habits.  I take medications that help me navigate the chemical imbalance of my brain as well. 

It took me nearly 15 years after diagnosis to not see this as a weakness — but as something that just is. Understanding how my brain works and its strengths and weaknesses, and how it’s motivated (for better or worse) has significantly improved the quality of my life — both physically and mentally.  

But what the heck does this have to do with community building, and how does it impact me as someone who works in the community space online? 


Every six weeks: a care team consisting of a neuropsychologist, a psychiatrist and myself, work on establishing a goal. For neurodiverse folks, routines can be wonderful and the worst thing ever.  They can make you feel accomplished and give a sense of structure — but changing the routine or habit can be paralyzing.  Missing a step or changing what those steps are can send me into paralysis. My goal for this block of six weeks? Build a better routine + learn how to embrace change. 

Communities often rely on these same routines and rituals — and because of their decentralized nature, they take a bit of effort, consistency and explicit over-communication to make these routines a habit. 

Reflecting on my own personal journey with routines, I found myself reviewing the process used to build flywheels and habits in the community world as well. 

It all starts with doing your research.

Finding out what works for you or your community (and what doesn’t) means keeping a log.  In my personal journey, I keep a physical bullet journal of habits.  

From the seemingly mundane (brush teeth, wash face, take meds, drink water) to the more complex (workout, meal plan, build a writing habit, catch up with a friend, finishing projects) — they are ranked on a page.  Every time they’re completed, I draw a smiley face on how they make me feel.  

  • Brush teeth - :) 
  • Take meds - :) 
  • Drink water - :) 
  • Work out - :) 
  • Catch up with a friend - :)
  • Meal plan - :( 
  • Clean my office - :( 
  • Finish project - :)

While this may seem a bit silly to some, it gives me a clear picture of not only celebrating the wins, but also understanding what tasks are “energizing” and what tasks are, well, draining.

What are things that I *need to do* that require a little hyping up? What are things that I do that some days feel hard (working out and taking meds) until afterwards, where I feel great for accomplishing them? 

The same things can apply to your community: communities tend to have things that are easy for folks to get motivated to do (attend an event with a great speaker, meet up at a coffee shop, go on a group run) but then there are also habits and things that can be a bit harder to build up and pull people in. Study groups, cohort courses, changing platforms, changing engagement habits can all be harder to achieve.

Using an understanding of how our brains work, we can work to build new habits not only in our personal lives but also in our community’s lives. 


I had a doctor explain it to me like this: my brain sort of forgets the memo to make dopamine at the same levels as everyone else (whoops). I start my day off at a deficit. Through a combination of medication, routines, and getting a little win early in the day — I can kick start my brain into making dopamine and breaking out of the funk.  Positive reinforcement + a sense of accomplishment does wonders. 

The way I think about community building is actually fairly similar. I tend to lean into positive reinforcement and that sense of accomplishment in order to drive community habits. No one, especially my dopamine-deprived brain, likes to feel like they’re doing a bad job.


Building in feedback loops for positive reinforcement


Now it’s choosing what you want to build those positive reinforcement loops over.  

Personally, I’m trying to build a positive reinforcement habit to build a better writing habit.  I have a lot of ideas in my brain, a Google folder filled with drafts sitting at 80% but nothing… well, complete. Getting that last 20% complete is comparable to pulling teeth for me.  The same goes with the last 20% of detail work on projects, or even heck, cleaning my house.  It’s lost the shiny and new feeling + I’m more energized to move on to the next event.

I will lean into my known strengths — things that I know I’m good at in order to keep myself motivated. These may differ from person to person, or community or community — we can discover them through listening and understanding what makes us and those around us tick.

For me? This means putting some competitive edge to it (even if it’s a competition to myself) and giving myself a SMART goal I want to achieve and some healthy constraints. (The athlete in me loves structure) 

(James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits does a good job of breaking down how tricks can drive our habit development.)

  • Goal: 
    • Build a consistent writing habit, and clear out my drafts folder in my Google Drive — executing on all of my ideas.  
  • How is this measured?: 
    • I will publish at least one article a week, every week through the end of the year. 
  • Constraints: 
    • The article can be an article for my day job at Orbit, an article for Rosieland, or an article for my personal site.
    • I can work on an article in advance, but before starting any new articles — I must review my drafts folders or the upcoming articles I have planned for Orbit or Rosieland and complete those articles first. 
    • Articles must be shared publicly, and in a public forum in order to count. 
    • Articles must be at least 500 words in length.
    • I cannot do three personal articles in a row — I must hold commitments first.
    • Once an article is complete and ready to publish — I cannot sit on it for the next week, I must ship it. 
    • Publishing two articles a week does not spare me a week — I still must ship an article the following week.
  • Start date: 
    • Today! Let’s go!
  • How I am holding space to make this a success:
    • I have booked off time on the weekends where I enjoy writing + letting my mind think through ideas.
    • I made a checklist in my bullet journals of all my current drafts. 
    • I have blocked time on my calendar to write every day. 
  • How I am positively reinforcing this habit: 
    • Publishing publicly opens myself up to comments + engagement. 
    • I will start tying a treat (like going to a coffee shop) with published articles — when I publish an article, I can take myself for a walk to get a ‘fancy’ coffee I normally don’t get at home. 
    • I’ve set up my streaks app to help me keep this streak! 
    • At the end of six weeks - I am bribing myself with keycaps for a keyboard. 

This process can look similar for community habits as well — however, keep in mind that building a community habit often involves more individuals — how can you hold space, positive reinforcement (and communal rewards) for community members. 

Previously, here’s how I’ve used this to build new community habits when I was working with Unsplash


  • Goal:
    • Increase more individual Unsplash contributors sharing their stories + Unsplash Wins within the community, highlighting the impact that Unsplash had on them. 
  • How is this measured?:
    • More #UnsplashWin shared on social, in slack or on the blog. 
    • Increase the number of stories or social content published around community members wins. 
    • Increase the number of wins publicly shared without reaching out first or asking for them. 
  • Constraints: 
    • Have to find *new* wins — the wins cannot be the same members previously highlighted.
    • No win is too small.  Uploading a new type of photo, participating in a photo challenge or trying a new technique are all forms of wins.
  • Dates completed:
    • I worked on this with Unsplash through March - June 2021 to build a strategy to increase this 
  • How did we hold space for success:
    • Highlighted and celebrated the wins - no matter how big or small.
    • Every Friday - announced in slack to create a thread of everyone’s wins that week. From that slack thread, social content was created and shared on social media. 
    • Featured new contributors or contributors that did not have a massive following where possible — how could we give power to the underdogs!
    • Made time to outreach and speak with different community members — what members were about to hit a milestone, what members had been hired or discovered from Unsplash? How could we tell that story?
  • How did we positively reinforce that behavior?
    • One of the biggest community questions I was asked at Unsplash, was “how can I be featured on social” — through creating a venue where photographers could be featured on social media through their stories, we positively reinforced the behavior 
      • This also built a massive flywheel — once featured on social, people were far more likely to share their posts + tell their friends to share their wins in slack each Friday 
    • Highlighting the quotes that came in from Unsplash and why folks loved the platform either through welcoming new members, telling stories behind the billions of views, how folks were discovered from the platform, and sharing wins of all sizes

This flywheel was a ton of fun to think through and create — and not only allowed us to tell more stories of what was happening at Unsplash, but built a community habit of folks sharing their wins and how the platform had positively impacted them.  

I’m a big believer that positive reinforcement and simply telling someone you believe in them and their potential can go a long way.


Especially now, when opening up the internet can feel like you’re bracing yourself for whatever the news is throwing at us today — simply providing a positive space and positive reinforcement can have us not only as individuals, but community builders build better habits. 

How are you building flywheels of positive reinforcement in your own community? 

What habits are you yourself working on?

Are there any tricks that you use to build better habits?

I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to! 

Leave a comment or slide in my DMS! 


—Erin Staples
  • "Building in feedback loops for positive reinforcement."

    I like this bit. It's kind of stuck with me as a concept.

    I guess something like - when we build communities how can we draft up mini flywheels that encourage positive reinforcement. The idea being to experiment with the flywheels to see which ones grow and can be built upon.

    rosiesherry · 18 days ago
    • <3 I'm glad — I do think that in the world of productivity apps or habit trackers — its easy to be a bit preachy/shamey in some of them.

      Which — I struggle believing a healthy motivator is in preaching or shaming, but rather if we use positive motivators, and help meet people in ways that they feel heard — rather is a more positive way of doing things.

      erinmikail · 18 days ago