The Simplest, Most Important Key to Changing Anything

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?

Happy celebrating winning success woman sunset

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.



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  1. I love this post so much and not solely because it deals with the importance of data… But, partly…

  2. Thanks for posting this! I have been a member of WW for more than 18 months now, and time after time it is the weeks when I track that I see results–regardless of how well I did or did not eat/exercise. One of my longterm goals is to eat the way by body asks me to, and I can’t imagine how I would possibly know this without tracking and translating those habits. I needed this pep talk!

  3. I recently adopted something like this:
    to make behavior changes in myself. I laid out a spread sheet with various small (take my vitamins) and large (get to work before 8 AM…trust me, that’s a big challenge for me!) behaviors that I want to engage in. There’s a lot of various ways to get marbles, and behaviors are weighted. For example, taking my vitamins gets me one marble, while getting to work before 8 AM earns me 5. I have 160 marbles, and I HAVE TO transfer them/earn them within 7 days. If I don’t, I lose my marbles (ha!) and start over again. If I do fill it within 7 days, I give myself a treat like a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, a spendy micro-brew. Once I’ve done this 8 times, I reward myself with a fabulous prize (currently a pair of vegan Doc Martins is what I have my eyes on).
    I’ve tried everything and so far, this is really working for me.

  4. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hey Matt,
    Dude! Nail biting is one of my bad habits as well (or as people at work call it, recycling myself). Are you doing anything else besides noting it in a journal? Self flogging? Wearing the rubber band on the wrist and then flicking it every time you go for a nail snack?
    I didn’t even know about the half price sale. I’m on it tonight! Thanks again for another awesome post.

  5. Fab topic. Measurement is my vocation, and I am a very avid believer in this phenomenon that just the act of tracking can cause change without conscious effort. It happens in organisations and businesses all the time. Where attention goes, energy flows. And there’s plenty of research that has found that measures (metrics, counting, whatever) grab attention more effectively than almost anything else in the context of improving performance or changing behaviour. I love this phenomenon.

  6. I have been using an iPhone app called way of life. It is pretty basic tracking system but you get a reminder each day which is great if your desired change is to do something (rather than to abstain from doing something)

  7. Great article – I find that tracking my workouts keeps me accountable – just simply by writing them in my notebook and checking in on Facebook. Weird because its just me thatnotices…but for some reason, it works for me.

  8. Congrats on being the guest blogger on AoM! Have to begin tracking my bad habits. Thanks 4 tip. Keep on running!

  9. I’ve had a nail biting habit for as long as I remember. I might try tracking to stop it because I’ve tried everything you’ve mentioned.

  10. I love this approach–I’m such a tracker by nature but I often get overwhelmed with my method of tracking. This is so simple!

  11. My bad habit is tracking everything. I’ll track that. Oh, no. There I go again. Belated Happy New Year.

  12. Citlalli V says:

    Nice one. I’ve just started using Joe’s Goals (dot com) to track my runs, classes, vitamin taking and other necessary things. ๐Ÿ˜€

  13. Can you explain how you are tracking your nail biting? I’d like to give it a try!

    • Hi Mary Pat,

      So far, I’ve just kept it very simple: at the start of the day, write the date on a new page in a small notebook that I can carry around. Each time I bite or pick at a nail (even just a little), I make a tally mark. At the end of the day, I look at the total, and also write a note about how things are improving (or not, if that’s the case). I’ve also been taking a picture of my hands each day so I can see the improvements, but I haven’t done anything with those yet. Still, doing that causes me to at least take the time to look at my hands each day, another thing that causes me to stay aware of the issue.

  14. Well If am going to start tracking anything it will be downsizing my intake of Diet Cherry Pepsi. I have drank it for years even during 120 mile weeks (along with water and other sports drinks). It would be great to cut that out all together. Thanks for the insight Matt.

    All the best,

  15. I had never understood the calorie counting thing, until I tried it, we started a few weeks ago with an app and its working, keeping track gives you awareness of certain details you might have (wanted to) ignored before. Tracking is a great tool.

  16. Nice detailed post!

    I am a big tracker my self, I track everything in my life, it’s the best way to discipline!

  17. It’s so true!
    Just by intuition I felt, I had to track a few bad habits, false beliefs, bad moods for two weeks.
    It helped a lot – and changed so much ๐Ÿ˜‰

  18. I think if you are running high enough mileage do you really need to focus that much on how many calories you are taking in? As long as you are consuming the right foods, eating fast food and sodas, in moderation, and getting enough rest and fluid, focusing too much on daily caloric intake is a stress you simply don’t need.

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