We know that willpower is a finite resource. And if you’ve tried unsuccessfully to make changes in the past (who hasn’t?), you know that every subsequent time you try is harder than the previous.
So what if there were a way to change bad habits without willpower, and with almost no effort at all?
In The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss tells the story of Phil Libin, a 258-pound man who lost close to 30 pounds to achieve his ideal weight of 230, without any exercise or conscious change in his diet. Phil did nothing.
Well, almost nothing.
Phil took only one tiny action. He figured out how much he wanted to lose in how much time (28 pounds in two years), and plotted the two points on a graph in Excel. Then he drew a line connecting them. That line represented the path his weight would need to follow to smoothly, imperceptibly drop from 258 to 230. He also drew two more lines around the path, creating a small “buffer zone” in which his daily weight could acceptably reside.
Each day, Phil plotted his current weight on the chart. As long as he was in the safe zone, he was on track.
Just by being aware of his progress — again, he was very careful not to change his diet or exercise habits — Phil lost the weight. Not by magic, but because the simple act of paying attention caused him to make myriad small, positive choices he didn’t even know he was making.
Is it really that easy?
Maybe. But whether you can change without putting forth any effort really isn’t that important, since most of us want to put forth a little effort to make positive changes.
What matters is recognizing the immense power of tracking. Not just as a tool to aid your efforts to change, but as the very force that causes the change.
How tracking can help you change anything
I recently started reading another book about change, called The Compound Effect, by SUCCESS Magazine publisher Darren Hardy.
Darren’s biggest key to changing? You guessed it: tracking.
His advice, as the first step to improving your entire life, is to track one bad habit for one week (or ideally, three weeks). Just one habit.
Each day, start a new page, and on it make a tickmark every time you indulge your habit. Or if it’s something like spending money or overeating, make a note every single time you buy or eat anything at all, recording what it was and how much it cost, or how many calories were in it.
You can get more sophisticated, of course, but the key is to make the act of tracking simple enough that you actually do it. Jotting down a mark every time you bite your fingernails is easy; putting it into a spreadsheet might be just enough effort that you’ll put it off a few times and eventually forget about it.
The difference between this and Phil’s story from above is that Phil purposely did nothing but track his weight. We, on the other hand, can (and should) try to make improvements while we track.
Why tracking works so well
I’ve been trying this out for the past few days, and I’ve been floored by how well it has worked.
I’ve bitten my nails for 20 years (!). It’s a small thing, but I’ve become utterly powerless to change it.
Several times, with different approaches, I’ve tried to stop. I had some success early on, but in recent years, every effort to quit has lasted a few hours at the most, and sometimes only minutes.
Having been down the try-to-quit-and-fail road so many times, it seems like I put up less of a fight with each new attempt.
But with tracking, it’s been totally different. I’m not about to say, after only a few days, that I’m cured. But something else is going on this time than in any other attempt I’ve made in the past five years. Here’s what I’ve noticed.
1. Tracking makes it okay to not be perfect.
I’ve always found cold-turkey approaches to work better than gradual ones. Unless I draw a hard line (no coffee, no nail-biting, etc.), I’ll slowly slip back into my old ways after some initial success. The flip side, of course, is that if you give in during a cold-turkey attempt, it feels like you’ve completely failed, and it’s hard to get back on the horse.
The beauty of tracking is that it allows you some leeway, but prevents you from slipping for long. Because you’ve kept records, maybe even plotted a chart of how many ounces of coffee you drink each day, it’s very visible when you start to slide back into your old habits.
2. It’s a lot easier to commit to tracking your habit than it is to changing it.
It’s tough to promise yourself that you’ll exercise every day for three weeks. Most people recognize their shortcomings in willpower department, so they won’t commit.
But it’s easy to promise yourself that you’ll track how many minutes you spend exercising for three weeks — that’s just writing down a number. Once you’ve developed that simple habit, the act of tracking forces you to focus on what needs improvement, and that focus lasts far longer than if you just commit, fail, and forget about it in disgust.
3. It’s humiliating to see the cost of the status quo, and lots of fun to see improvement.
This is fairly obvious, perhaps, but important. When you track your progress, you can look back over the course of several weeks and see how your tiny decisions to indulge add up. A beer or two a night doesn’t seem like all that much, but count how many extra calories it amounts to in a month or a year, and how many calories equate to a pound of fat. Or figure out the monthly cost of your Starbucks soy-latte habit, in terms of dollars and calories, and you’ll have another reason to improve.
On the other hand, nothing feels better than seeing progress. Tracking lets you see where you are now in the context of where you started, and that alone can be enough reinforcement to stick with it.
As always: do something
When I first read Phil’s story in 4-Hour Body, I didn’t do anything about it. I thought it was cool, but since the story was about weight loss I didn’t pay much attention. It took seeing it again in the Compound Effect for me to put it into action, and now I’m super pumped about the potential.
If you’re intrigued, do something. It’s so easy to decide to track one habit for one week. But it’s also very easy not to do it, as Jim Rohn would say. Don’t just read, do. Like, right now, maybe?
PS — I wrote a guest post on the Art of Manliness that was published a few days ago, called Beginner’s Guide to Long Distance Running. AoM is a great blog and I’m extremely proud to have appeared on it, so I hope you’ll check out my post.