Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 11

Habit Tracking with the Habit Traffic Light

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com.

Last week, I talked about how one of the behaviors that isn't possible to automate into unconscious habit is keeping track of stuff. Some examples of popular self help behaviors behaviors that like this are counting calories or food journaling. You can't do it unconsciously, so you can't make it a habit. None of my everyday systems require you to keep track of anything besides the day of the week or what planet you're on.

The question I'm going to pose today is: even though none of the everyday systems behaviors requires you to keep track of anything as part of the behavior, is it worth, maybe, keeping track of the behaviors themselves?

In other words, let's say your doing the no s diet. The no s diet doesn't require you to count anything. But every day, you either stick with it, or you don't (or it's an S day). You succeed, or you fail (or you're exempt because it's an S day). Is it worth counting these successes, failures, and exemptions? That's what I mean by tracking the behavior.

Keeping track is an expense. So when you do it, you'd like to really make sure the benefit is greater than the expense. Generally speaking, I think people underestimate the expense of keeping track, because it always starts out kind of fun. A new self improvement project. Exciting. You're learning something about yourself. But you learn what you're gonna learn really fast, and it gets very boring and stays just as time consuming.

So I like to try to overestimate the expense of keeping track, just to balance out this natural human tendency. I'm going to ask, not just what is the benefit of keeping track, but how can I make the expense as small as possible and still get that benefit?

So what precisely am I proposing you keep track of? I call it the habit traffic light. Each of the systems I've talked about has some simple rules for how to behave. Every day, you either abide by the rules, or you don't, or if the systems has S days like the nosdiet and shovelglove, there's a third possibility, you could be exempt. You could take a calendar, and make a green mark on every day you succeed, a red mark on every day you fail, and a yellow mark on exempt days. Green/Yellow/Red -- like a traffic light. It's not a whole lot of effort keep track of this, there's just one data point per day, and at the end of the month you'd have a very striking picture -- literally, a picture -- of how well you adhered to your behavior. Some people don't like the word "failure." I actually do... but I don't have time to convince you of it's merits today. For now, just substitute your preferred euphemism. Call it a "slip up" or something.

I guess I should say we have a forum in the everyday systems bulletin board just for people posting daily checkins like this. A paper calender would do just fine, but posting to the bulletin board, gives you a slightly more powerful sense of accountability, support from other people doing the same thing, and if you're at all altruistic, it's a generous thing to do because other people who come to the site can see examples of what it looks like to struggle with one of these habits. The con, right now, is it's not a visually compelling as an actual calendar, but I'm working on that. I hope to have a habit calendar section of the website available soon that would combine the benefits of the bulletin board with the paper calendar..

So the cost is pretty minimal. Only one simple data point per habit per day. But it's still a cost. It's more than nothing. So let's consider what you get for it.

I think the benefit is primarily motivational. For one thing, it gives you the illusion of accountability. And that illusion, can be powerful. By recording failures, you can't as easily pretend they didn't happen, it's harder to just conveniently forget that you screwed up three days running, and that raises the stakes. More positively, once you have a few green success days under your belt, you don't want to break your winning streak. You feel like you've accumulated something that would be a shame to throw away.

A second benefit is diagnostic. Let's say you've done the nos diet three months, and you haven't lost any weight. You look at the calendar and see a lot of red. Well, it's no mystery why you didn't lose weight. You simply didn't do what you were supposed to do. If, on the other had, it's solid green (with a bit of s day yellow) then you can go digging for more profound and subtle explanations.

A third benefit is that if you feel the need to keep track of something, and I think a lot of people do, at least keeping track of days on habit keeps you focused on behavior, not results. It indulges your "must keep track of something" urge without distracting you from what is directly under your control. Otherwise you might focus on something like the number on the scale, which, while it is ultimately determined by behavior, won't move in lock step with it, and that can make you feel powerless and discouraged when you've been good, but the scale doesn't immediately reflect your good behavior. Which seems to me the rule rather than the exception. Behavior takes time to translate into results. And when you focus on results, you lose sight of this, and get discouraged.

A fourth benefit is that, compared to other scoring systems, the habit traffic light encourages you to consistently strive for a sustainable minimum of compliance, rather than heroically overreaching. The best thing you can get with the habit traffic light is "success." There's no double success or triple success. And this is important. The goal is regularity. A daily "good enough." You don't want some more complex point system that encourages you to balance terrible days with extra good ones. Because then all you're doing with your extra virtue is buying the right for extra vice, and vice versa, to make a stupid pun. You will get yourself into massive debt that way, wracking up huge vices that you kid yourself into thinking your going to pay off one day by being extra good. It's like the medieval practice of selling indulgences. It was a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now.

The habit traffic light deprives you of a very seductive excuse -- that you can cheat because you can make up for it later. The knowledge that there is no make up test, that you have only one chance to do each day right, will make you that much more serious about passing the first and only time around.

It looks like I'm out of time for today. I have a bit more to say about habit tracking, but I'll have to save it for next week. Specifically, I'll address the issue of how long should you continue tracking your habit. Does it make sense to stop after a certain point, or to start tracking it in a slightly different way. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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