Monitor What Matters — Measurement as a Path to Behavior Change

I’m enjoying Psychological Self-Help by the late Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd. This site grew out of his work as director of the Counseling & Testing Center at Southern Illinois University, where he taught courses in applying psychology to daily life.

Psychological Self-Help — which you can read online and download for free — is the result.

One of Clayton’s aims was to help students carry out “self-help projects” — experiments in personal change. “The task is to find out what self-help methods work for you” Clayton wrote; “that is research!” Chapter 2 of Psychological Self-Help gives detailed instructions for doing this.

Why monitoring matters

Self-help projects start with monitoring your current thoughts, moods, and behaviors.

Monitoring matters because our subjective impressions about behaviors that matter — such as how often we exercise and how much we sleep — are often inaccurate. Monitoring cuts through illusion and reveals truth.

The trick is to monitor in a way that’s informative and simple. There are two major options.

Counting

Maybe you read this classic Lifehacker post about Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for young stand-up comics.

Seinfeld told Brad Isaac that “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.”

Seinfeld also revealed a way to develop that daily writing habit:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

The essence of this technique is counting a specific behavior. Calendars are one tool for doing this. You can also make tick marks on an index card that you carry in a pocket or purse. Or, use a behavior-tracking app.

Rating

Some things that matter — including emotions — are hard to count or measure objectively. No problem. In any moment, you can simply rate your emotional state on a scale from 1 (not sad, afraid, mad, or glad) to 10 (very sad, afraid, mad, or glad).

The power of awareness

“Every problem — and every desired behavior or feeling — can be measured by counting or rating,” Clayton wrote. “By measuring the problem every few hours or maybe every day or two, you can tell how serious the problem is and if you are changing.”

If you’re writing a book that aims at behavior change, then suggest counting and rating.

Your readers might discover — as Jerry Seinfeld did — that monitoring by itself can change behavior. This is the point where awareness and action merge to create a surprise benefit.

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