Tracking Habits and Behaviour

Wed, 15 Apr 2015

Over the years, I’ve read a few blog posts and books that recommend monitoring your behaviour as a way of promoting mindfulness and good habit formation, but I’ve never actually tried it.  Yes, it is some effort, but I think the main reason I hadn’t was my fear of seeing just how bad I was at sticking to anything.

Then, at the end of last year and the start of this year, two of my friends told me they had each been carrying out this kind of exercise, picking a handful of activities that they wanted to incorporate into their lives, and keeping track of how often they did them.  I decided to try it out, partly in solidarity with them and partly to just see if I could.

I’ve now been doing this for almost 3 months, and I’m glad I’ve done it, so thought I’d write a post on what I’ve learned from the process, in case it helps or inspires someone else.

You can do this as a public or private exercise.  I know some people who need to be held externally accountable, but for me, I was fearful of being one of those people who tells their entire facebook feed every time I go for a run, so chose to monitor it privately.

Next, you have to choose appropriate activities to monitor.  I chose 8 things that I want to do, that I don’t dislike doing, but that I don’t end up doing as often as I’d like.  Walking to work.  Going to the gym.  Flossing my teeth.  Not eating chocolate. Working on a blog post.  That sort of thing.

I found it important to have a realistic view of what I was aiming for.  I purposefully chose items that were digital - I had either done them or not.  I didn’t want to be in a situation of cheating - for example, doing something badly just to tick it off (working on a blog post is an exception).  But, I wasn’t going to get hung up about a couple of choc-chips in a cookie.  I also I didn’t need to achieve every item every day - just more than I would have otherwise done.  But for setting your goals, there isn’t a right or wrong answer - the main thing is that you’re happy with the goals you set, and you’re happy if you achieve them.

In terms of how I monitor it, I used a google spreadsheet, with the dates going down and the 8 items in columns.  This makes it really easy to update, and gives me a great view of my progress (which I found very helpful).

One of the main things I’ve gained from this exercise is an ability to be cope with the many times I don’t do something.  I’m able to keep them in proportion  - I can be honest about it, and can’t / don’t need to lie to myself about it, make false excuses, or feel guilty about it.  As a result, I’ve been able to look rationally at the times that I do and don’t achieve the goals, and understand any influencing factors.  For example, I’ve learned that if I come home late, if I don’t floss my teeth straight away, it probably isn’t going to happen.

And I have definitely done more of the good things than I would have otherwise done.  This is pleasing, obviously because the items are worthwhile in themselves, but also because it has also helped me develop self-efficacy - a general sense that I can do things I put my mind to - which is valuable throughout life.