How to Improve Your Results Without Trying to Change Your Actions
Pursuing larger goals like learning the piano, lifting heavier weights, or writing a manuscript demands motivation, commitment, and consistency.
At the same time, it requires removing plenty of tiny habits that get in our way of achieving these goals. Like constantly touching our phones, not drinking enough water, and snacking from the fridge.
These micro habits appear harmless in the present moment. But when you put together a lot of the micro, you get the macro.
Such habits are also surprisingly hard to break. We could try quitting them Cold Turkey, but we all know how that ends. It doesn’t take long for us to revert to old ways; sometimes we end up worse off than we were earlier.
What is the alternative, then? It’s to make it so easy to break them that you get the results without a conscious effort.
The simplest and easiest way to eliminate (or at least reduce) bad habits is to track them. That’s all.
The Magic of Just Tracking Your Bad Habits
“Count something. Regardless of what one ultimately does in medicine—or outside of medicine, for that matter—one should be a scientist in this world… It doesn’t really matter what you count. You don’t need a research grant. The only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you.” — Atul Gawande
Phil Libin, the co-founder of Evernote, had tried everything to lose weight. Dieting, exercise, you name it. He’d witness positive results initially, but once he let the habit go, he would put on weight faster than he lost it.
Then, he lost 12.7 kgs in six months without making the slightest change to his behavior. Here’s how.
First, he decided that 104.3 kg was his ideal weight. (He weighed 117 kgs at that time.) Then he drew a blue line on an Excel sheet, representing a decrease from his current to ideal weight over two years. Every day’s target weight was just 0.1 percent lower than the previous day’s weight.
Next, he added two lines, one below and one above the blue line: his minimum allowable weight, and his maximum allowable weight. He had no plan to hit his exact weight each day. All he would do was ensure his weight stayed between the two lines.
Finally, he weighed himself every morning before breakfast. That’s it. He added this data to a spreadsheet which he maintained in Evernote.
“I suspect it affected thousands of minute decisions I made over the time period, even though I couldn’t tell you which.”
Could mere situational awareness help me keep my tiny bad habits in check, too? The answer was yes!
When I just tracked how often I got distracted during deep-work tasks, the number of times I checked my phone and went to the bathroom reduced.
When I just tracked how much water I drank, the quantity went up from 2.5 liters to 4 daily.
When I just tracked how many calories I consumed, they increased from 1,000 per day during the lockdown to over 2,500 each day.
I did nothing conscious to change my behavior. But like Libin, plenty of my minute decisions changed and led to long-term impacts, though I don’t know which ones.
Mere awareness helped me beat the fanciest of checklists.
This isn’t make-believe stuff that sounds good on paper but fails in real life, like plenty of noise out there. There’s actual science behind it.
The Science Behind Why Tracking Makes You Better
In a research paper, Dr. Cristian Damsa and his colleagues noted that when they were observed, psychiatric patients were a third less likely to need sedation, while doctors and nurses washed their hands more.
In other words, we change our behavior when we think we’re being observed, even if the observer is ourselves.
Here’s how you can apply situational awareness to get rid of tiny, messy habits.
- Pick 1-2 tiny habits you want to reduce. This is important. Picking more than two habits could turn tracking into an exhausting task in itself. That will reduce the efficacy of the activity.
- Make an entry each time you indulge in the habit. You can use a diary or a spreadsheet. Don’t change anything in your life or judge yourself. (In the beginning, I would make fewer entries because I thought poorly of myself each time I added to the count. But this meant I was only fooling myself to feel better. That’s not the goal. The goal is to become better in the long term, which can only happen when we’re honest with ourselves.)
- At the end of the day, tally the count. At the end of the week, look for trends.
Regardless of how tough the habit was to break earlier, it will decline steadily. The best part? You didn’t consciously change anything in your life! Thus, it becomes easier to avoid the habit altogether instead of reverting to it later.
Our lives are shaped by what we do, and also by what we don’t do. When you reduce what you shouldn’t do, you create more space to do what you should.
It doesn’t take military discipline to stop indulging in bad habits. All it takes is situational awareness, which comes by tracking how many times you engage in them. That’s all.
Track, and you will succeed.
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