In Part 1 of my series on “Becoming a Behaviour Change Expert”, I looked at how to set better goals when attempting to make a positive lifestyle change. It was a pretty long post, but it covered a range of important issues that need to be considered when setting out on a behaviour change journey.
In Part 2, we look at how to monitor your progress towards those goals and provide yourself useful feedback that motivates and encourages you to continue.
As a quick reminder, in Part 1 (Goal setting) I talked about outcome goals and behaviour goals. Outcome goals describe what will happen if you successfully make the behaviour change you want. For example, if I exercise more, I will get fitter, as evidence by lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Behaviour goals are the smaller steps/ sub-goals that you need to complete in order to achieve your outcome goal. For example, to get fitter I will need to go for a 30 minute walk, 3 times per week.
Monitoring is the method by which you record progress towards either your outcome or behaviour goals.
In its simplest form, monitoring involves recording if a behaviour has been completed.
For example, if you had set out to walk three times a week for 30 minutes at a time, over 6 weeks, your simplest monitoring method would be simply recording how many times you walked each week.
In this example, the person started out not quite achieving their outcome goal, but did so in the last 3 weeks.
Monitoring can get increasingly sophisticated if you move beyond simple pen and paper tools and start using digital tools.
For example, the inclusion of GPS and motion sensors in smartwatches, smart wrist-bands and smartphones means that you can have them automatically monitor your physical activity and sleep levels. In a similar way, there are apps on your phone that can be used to monitor things like food intake, mood, even smartphone use.
Just keep in mind that although some monitoring apps are very powerful in what they can do, sometimes a simple pen/paper approach is all you need. It is common to see people get so wrapped up in which app they will use to monitor their behaviour, that they neglect focusing on the behaviour change itself. It is a kind of avoidance (“I’ll get started on my exercise program, as soon as I work out which app I am going to use to measure it”).
The other thing to consider is that when making changes to your own behaviour, while you are the primary monitoring person, this does not mean you cannot engage others to help you in the process.
You might get a family member or partner to keep track of a particular behaviour, if you think you might not be the best person to monitor it. For example, a parent who is trying to change how they interact with their child might call on the other parent to help them monitor their progress.
You might also consider getting a health professional to assist you with the monitoring, especially if you are attempting to change things that are difficult to assess on your own (e.g. cholesterol level, blood sugar, or blood pressure.
Where possible, use a relatively simple system to monitor your behaviour, as anything too complex or time consuming will not be sustainable. For outcomes that are discrete behaviours (e.g. going for a run, eating a particular food), a simple record of number of times that the behaviour was performed is usually sufficient. If the outcome is more subjective (e.g. mood, energy level), consider building a custom scale for yourself. You can see how to do this in my post on self-experimentation.
So monitoring is just part of the picture and is about collecting data.
The other part is feedback. This is about using that data in a way that helps you see your progress and motivate you to continue.
When self-monitoring using simple methods such as pen and paper, it may simply involve graphing or charting your progress. Take the previous example of the person who set out to walk 3 times a week for 6 weeks. They might turn the simple frequency record into a chart like this:
Now this does not present any additional information than what is in the table, but it does show it in a way that is perhaps a little more motivational, because visually it shows progress and the meeting of the weekly goal in the last 3 weeks more effectively.
This is where the many apps and computer programs that people use for monitoring behaviour come into their own. They provide powerful tools for visualisation of data collected.
Take the Samsung Health app for example, which can be used to track nutrition, activity and sleep. And this is just one of thousands of health monitoring apps.
Advanced monitoring apps can provide a lot more feedback, and in real-time compared to what you could do with a pen/paper.
Take running/walking for example. Your phone or smartwatch is now capable of showing you data on frequency, distance, time, speed, calories burnt, path taken, altitude, and more. In some apps you can set specific goals and monitor not only your performance, but how far you are away from your set goals.
The importance of feedback can’t be understated.
• Feedback helps you determine if you are achieving your goals
• Feedback helps keep you motivated and shows your progress
• Feedback can help you identify where you might be going wrong with a particular behaviour change
• Feedback is the basis upon which you can assign yourself rewards for your efforts (we will talk rewards in a future post)
The other type of feedback that can be very useful is how you are tracking compared to other people. This is why so many health and fitness apps have social functions built in. These functions allow you to compare your progress with friends or colleagues.
Social feedback can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes it is motivating to see how you are tracking compared to other people, but at other times it can be a bit demoralising, if you aren’t tracking as well.
Take home message(s)
Regardless of how you keep track of your progress towards your goals, doing so is an important part of making changes in your life.
Goals that we don’t monitor can easily lose our attention. Also, we miss the opportunity to receive encouragement on our way towards achieving those goals; an important part of staying motivated.
In this digital mobile age, there are many apps available that can help you in monitoring your progress towards specific goals. You can find them for exercise, diet, smoking, productivity and all manner of other behaviour changes.
So remember, the next time you make a big change in your life, monitor your progress.
In the next instalment of the Become A Behaviour Change Expert, I look at how to use social support when making big changes in your life.