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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 July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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