The Tracking Solution

Do you seek betterment? If so you've probably mingled with the personal development space. It's a vast space, and it means different things to different people. It includes practices as different as mindfulness and Crossfit. Tapping and Tony Robbins. Floating and ice baths.

No two seekers are alike in their approaches.

But, all believers in personal development agree that we can better ourselves. And in bettering ourselves we better our lives. We may even believe that in bettering our own lives we'll improve the world.

But the core of personal development is that we have some measure of control. We're not mere pawns to outside forces. Yes, we may recognize that outside forces play a huge role. But unlike those who focus only on the social realm, we turn our focus on ourselves. We control what we can and leave the rest to the gods.

This is true whether your approach is internal focused, as with those who use the float tank. It's also true for more external, results-driven types.

When the Desire for Development Goes Bad

Whatever our approach, it's easy to fall into personal development traps. We set goals and then judge ourselves when we don't reach them. We get hyper-motivated by a seminar, book, or speaker. We later berate ourselves when motivation fades.

Some respond well to self-motivation. Others grow weary of it. Like a nagging spouse, the internal voice that once got us moving turns into white noise.

We know our daily actions are vital to the long game of life. But unless you're LeBron James, you won't have a row of bouncing cheerleaders to help you get pumped up daily. Most of us (heck even LeBron) need to rely on ourselves.

That's not to say community doesn't matter. It's everything. But when it comes to incremental personal change, the whole game is where to place our attention.

Want to change some part of your life? Change where you place your attention.

Most of us work a lot. Our environment pushes us towards it. But more people are identifying that they want more from their lives. They want to leave a legacy beyond a gold watch upon retirement.

What about the needs of our bodies, relationships, and souls? It's too easy to neglect them in our world of distraction. You settle into your home after a day of work with nothing to do until bed time. Most of us have 4 to 6 free hours in the evening. It's like a second day within a day. For those keen to make a real impact, this time can be the difference.

We could meditate, do yoga, float, write, or cultivate real relationships.

But instead we open up Instagram and scarf down some poorly thought out meal. Next thing we know we're distracted by stuff that doesn't matter. By the time we crawl into bed, we're still staring at that phone like it's about to reveal a deep truth.

Not wanting the future promised from a life of such distraction, we decide to do something about it. We get pumped up and promise ourselves we'll take action. Then when we fail the cycle begins again. Self-judgement.

We become like a whipped dog. We cower around, knowing we're about to get in trouble. But we're both the angry dog owner and the dog. Judge and judged.

Aside from feeling terrible, this is counterproductive. We can't shame ourselves into doing something better for ourselves. But assuming things will get done on their own doesn't work, either. To live a good life we need to take action.

This is the essential cycle of personal development and why most throw up their hands in despair. We believe we won't change or improve. Or so we imagine. And while it's vital to accept ourselves, we still want change. It is possible to both accept oneself and still want to change.

If you're tired of the motivation trap, maybe an analytical approach will work.

What if you treated your own life like financial wizards treat money? What if, instead of emotion and shame you began tracking and tabulating?

"What you keep track of grows."

Have you ever heard this expression?

To improve personal finance, the first step is always budgeting. Seeing our financial choices for the first time is shocking. Most people can't believe how much they spend on things like coffee and eating out.

Seeing the numbers makes us aware. Drinking coffee or cooking meals at home improves the financial bottom line.

But why does it work?

It works on a psychological level, because it makes a game of finance. We soon find ourselves going out with friends on $20 instead of $100. We eat at home, workout, and then join the crowd for the later part of the night. We nurse a couple of drinks and focus our energy on socializing instead of consumption.

It's energizing and soon the victories of budgeting add up.

We get positive reinforcement when we add to your account. And we learn to limit the subtractions, because, in the end they have the same result as the additions. Most wealthy people will admit this discipline is the first step to a healthy financial life.

Transferring This Practice to Other Habits

Tracking is an accepted practice in personal finance. But few people do it for other parts of life. Who do you know that tracks diet, exercise, meditation, sleep, or relationship maintenance? Most of us don't know anyone like that.

It's strange and sad that a practice recognized for its efficacy is only practiced when it comes to money. It's fitting, though, considering our society and how much emphasis we put on money. Yet, all the evidence tells us that money has limited power to improve our quality of life.

Studies show that above $80,000 per year, income doesn't make any real difference to the real bottom line, quality of life.

Most people will track money but will never track practices they know will benefit them. But you don't have to be like everyone else.

Of course, tracking won't work for everyone. For some, the tracking solution is too formal. It might remove the 'magic' from life. Maybe. Or perhaps the belief in 'magic' is an excuse for not holding oneself accountable.

The tracking solution isn't restrictive. It's a powerful way to provide yourself with data. And if you're the kind of person who likes data, you'll soon make a game of your results.

Games are by definition fun. So, don't be surprised if you get addicted to the game of tracking. The difference with this game is that you set the parameters. You decide what's important and what winning means. Money might be one measuring stick in this game. But you can choose other measuring sticks that you know will improve your life.

Wondering why you're out of shape? If you track your food intake daily, you can stop wondering. You'll see the raw data and have your answer. Win the game by calculating what you eat and staying within the winning boundary.

How Tracking Removes Damaging Internal Narratives

Becoming data and game focused allows us to step outside the narrative cycle. We have little grasp of how all-encompassing stories are to our mental state. We tell ourselves stories non-stop. Not all these stories are beneficial.

Things like therapy and floating interrupt and alter negative narratives. This is vital, especially if a self-limiting narrative has become dominant. But the process of rewriting our story takes time.

The mere fact of knowing we're living a story is empowering. It can enable us to make changes. Becoming data-centric can help reduce our mental dependence on narrative. In fact, by making a game of our daily habits, it alters the narrative.

By winning the daily game, we empower ourselves with new stories.

It's not that you didn't workout because you're a 'lazy piece of garbage.' Instead, as recorded in your tracking log, you simply didn't workout. But you will the next day because you want to win your little game.

It's not that you're a bad parent. Instead, you simply didn't spend time with your kids today. But you will tomorrow because you want to win the game.

By changing the statistics, you change the narrative. At the end of the year you notice things in your tracking system. You only spent time with your kids 30% of the days in January. But that number went up to 70% by June. Why? Because you want to win the game. It might seem petty, but it works for many.

What to Track

Some may think the tracking solution is restrictive. But there's freedom within it. You choose what and how you track .

Let's look at an example.

If you're a busy or distracted you'll identify certain areas needing improvement. You might be neglecting close relationships, your spouse for example.

To avoid future divorce, you'll want to stop neglecting your spouse. And you'll want to do that right now. Perhaps you both would benefit by spending one hour of uninterrupted time together. So imagine you make that your goal.

Every morning, you'll open up your tracking sheet and record if you spent time with them or not. Soon, you'll find yourself wanting to win this game. You'll put down your phone early in the evening to be with your spouse.

How would your relationship change if you altered that one behavior? It's relationship maintenance. Imagine continuing for a decade. How does a decade of maintenance stack up against a decade of neglect?

There is no limit to what you can track. Any aspect of life you deem worthy of repeating is something you can track.

"But life happens, you know?"

Your hour of uninterrupted spouse time is great. But life does get in the way. What if you have to attend a work function and your spouse is sleeping by the time you get home?

Well, you have to tick off 'no' on your 'spending time with spouse' tracking sheet. It doesn't matter the reason. The data is clear. But there's no judgement. It's just a no. For whatever reason, it's a no.

If, at the end of a month there are too many 'no' and not enough 'yes' then you have choices to make. What must you change in your life to live inline with your true priorities? Did you have to go to that work function? Could you have brought along your spouse?

Having data lets you ask and answer such questions.

More common than life getting in the way, though, is that bad habits creep back in. You have a stressful day at work and spend the evening distracted. Next thing you know you've brought your phone to bed with you. This gives your spouse a license to do the same.

Without tracking, this would be the beginning of a bad habit re-forming. But since you now track what matters, you'll notice it right away. As you open your tracking sheet the next morning, you'll have to admit that you didn't spend time together.

Since you want to win at the game, you'll be more aware of your decisions the next night.

Focus on Leading Indicators

There are few limitations about how to track. But there is one vital guideline. Focus on leading rather than lagging indicators. It's okay to track lagging indicators. But to change your life, track leading indicators.

What's the difference? Leading indicators are actions. Lagging indicators are results.

So, imagine you want to lose 20 pounds. You can track your weight. But if you only track weight you'll be less likely to succeed. Why? Because the result always lags behind the action.

It can take weeks, months, or even years to lose all the weight we want. But if you measure action, you'll know you're on the right path long before the result.

So, track the actions that lead to weight loss, not just the weight loss itself.

"But, how will I know the categories to track?"

When you shift your focus to data you become aware of whether you have accurate knowledge or not. Let's continue with our weight loss example.

There's huge variance in techniques, but experts universally agree on a couple things. To lose weight, people have to do the following:

  • Consume fewer calories than they burn

  • Exercise

  • Sleep enough

  • Be well hydrated

If your goal is to lose 20 pounds you'll have to break down your activities into these categories. So, you've just created 4 categories to track, 5 including the main category 'pounds lost.'

What if, after 3 months, you've hit these goals and still aren't losing weight? Then you could assume you're missing information. In your specific situation the above 4 categories might not be enough. Maybe too many of your calories come from sugar. Or you might need a specific supplement.

At that point, you will want to find more detailed information.

But guess what? To reach most goals, most people find that what you expect to work does work. It's the rare person who won't lose weight if they hit all four of those targets.

That's how the tracking solution works. What are you going to start tracking?