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6 Reasons to Track Your Progress, and 3 To Forget About It

6 Reasons to Track Your Progress, and 3 To Forget About It

    Lately, it seems like I’ve heard a lot of suggestions to write everything down: if I want to get my finances in order, I should track every penny I spend. If I want to eat better, I should track every calorie I consume. I’m all for keeping track of progress, but I keep thinking that tracking everything is bound to get overwhelming very quickly.

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    6 Reasons to Track Your Progress

    1. Milestones Are Crucial: Milestones tell you if your efforts are working. They’re also the benchmarks that you can use to convince an employer to give you a raise, a teacher to give you a better grade or a bank to give you a better interest rate. It’s very hard to show progress without regularly recorded data, but with it you can easily support an argument that you deserve better because you’ve been doing better.
    2. Creating a Baseline: If you really want to be able to show progress, though, you’ll need a baseline. You’ll need to track your data before you even start working on improvements. Having a baseline, though, offers a way to measure how much progress you’ve made, as well as compare the effectiveness of different strategies. If you want to measure just how much success you have in something like changing your diet, starting with a baseline can help you decide what eating strategies have really worked for you.
    3. The Psychological Factor: If you’re trying to change a habit, you have to make sure that you’re aware of it. If you want to change your spending, you need to be aware of where you currently are spending your money. If you’re in the habit of buying a cup of coffee every morning, you may not really be aware of it anymore. Looking at a list of places you’ve spent money at the end of the week can really bring the total cost to your attention.
    4. Staying on Track: If you’re working on a long-term project, it can be difficult to stay focused. Lots of the problems or habits you might consider tracking count as long-term projects, by the way. But writing down something daily that you’ve done that contributed (whether positively or negatively) to a project is an easy way to make sure that you make at least a little progress over time. Tracking your efforts is a good way to stay on track, as well as to demonstrate to stakeholders that you aren’t ignoring their project.
    5. Proving Your Point: Having a detailed record of just what you’ve been up to can come in handy, as I think every freelancer and plenty of salaried workers can swear to. What if your boss or client asks you to justify the cost of your work? Being able to pull out a set of notes describing your efforts can be the proof needed to dispute any arguments about your paycheck or invoice.
    6. Finding a Problem: If you have a reoccurring symptom, like stomach pains, your doctor might ask you to keep track of how often you experience the problem, along with some information about what you do differently on the days that you experience the pain. The same method can help pinpoint the causes of problems with systems far beyond your gastrointestinal tract. Maybe you need to find a bug in your software or where all of your cash goes. Either way, a little bit of tracking could nail down your problem.

    3 Reasons to Forget About Tracking Progress

    1. The Sheer Amount of Work: Keeping a precise record of anything you do over the course of a day can eat into the time you have available to actually do work. A minute here and a minute there doesn’t seem like a lot on the surface, but it can add up. It gets much worse if you try to track multiple variables at once: if you’re trying to keep a record of what you do over the course of the day, as well as every cent you spend, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
    2. Automated Procedures: For a lot of the variables you might be thinking about tracking, there’s already an automated tracking mechanism in place. Think about your finances. Aside from cash, someone already tracks every cent you spend. If you limit the amount of cash you spend, why bother keeping track yourself? You can just log on to your bank’s website at the end of the day or the week and review their tracking.
    3. Processing the Paperwork: Generally, if you’re tracking your progress, you’re doing so with paper and pencil. Even if you’re relying on an Excel spreadsheet or some other technique, it seems like you’re going to have to process all that data somehow if you want to track a variable for anything beyond the actual act of tracking it. Say you’re keeping a close eye on your calorie intake: you’ll have to make a note of what you eat at lunch — maybe on your phone, maybe on a napkin. When you get back to your computer, you’ll need to enter your menu in whatever larger system you’re using.

    What do you think?

    Has careful tracking helped you achieve a goal? Did it help you get your spending/eating/time-wasting under control? Or was keeping a precise record impractical for you?

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    Personally, I think it’s worth my while to make note of milestones, but tracking some information day after day isn’t going to do me so much good. For something along the lines of changing a habit — like spending money you don’t want to — tracking data for a week may be enough to change your habits. Once you’ve gotten yourself set into a new habit, continuing to track your progress probably won’t help you that much.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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