Nov 092011
 

What gets measured, gets improved.

I’m a huge proponent of goals in certain areas of life, but you don’t always need to set specific, stress-you-out-when-you-stumble-a-bit goals to improve your daily habits.

Our minds play tricks on us. When it comes to changing bad habits into better ones, humans are usually convinced that they are doing better than they really are — it is “ostrich syndrome” — most of us stick our heads in the sand, preferring not to face the accurate reality of our daily actions. We always thing we are doing better than we are on the bad habits front.

Change is difficult and changing daily habits is exceptionally so. No matter if you want to eat more portions of healthy fruits and vegetables or reduce the number of alcoholic drinks you have in a week, the best first step is to face your current situation and understand your true baseline reality.

People often make a fatal mistake when they try to change their habits: they over-do it. They set a very difficult goal and take the drastic plunge. Many people go from never going to a gym to a goal of working out five days each week. Others decide to stop eating sweets every night to limiting themselves to one desert every two weeks. Of course many stumble, they become disappointed with their lack of will power, and they fall off the program for months on end.

When it comes to starting a new daily habit, consider not setting specific goals. I suggest keeping a tally count, with a time and date stamp, each time you “do it” or “eat it” and then review your tally weekly.

There are readily available tools that work great for this. On the iPhone, I love a little program called Tallymander (update — this program seems temporarily unavailable for some reason on AppStore — I sent the developer an email (OM)) which allows you to set up any number of tallies, then click it to record when something happens. Not only does the program keep a count but it also makes it simple to email yourself a report in a spreadsheet-ready file that includes the exact date and time you clicked on any tally. Brilliant! Tallymander is a great addition to an optimist’s technology arsenal. Of course, a tiny Moleskine booklet, making marks on your calendar, or sending yourself an email are all other efficient ways to keep your accurate log — the trick is that you must have your logging method with you at all times — in my case, my smartphone is omnipresent.

After four weeks of logging, you will notice the extraordinary magic of pale ink and optimistic, conscious thought. By simply keeping an accurate log, most people notice that they in fact start improving week-over-week without making the drastic and often unsustainable goals. The log itself becomes a motivator. The person simply gravitates to beating last week’s number by a little bit. This progress is the normal, natural gravity of the conscious mind, a sustainable way to modify one’s bad habits for the better, without all the guilt, stress, and frequent failure of “setting super hard goals and then missing them.”  The disappointment associated with letting oneself down in the hard core goals method is what often torpedoes long-term habit change success.

If you have an iPhone, download Tallymander from the Apple AppStore and start with just one item. If you eat french fries or chips, my suggestion would be track the portions that you eat — we could all afford less of both — I’m 100% sure that four weeks from today, you will eat less of this stuff and your arteries will rejoice, without the pain associated with hard-core goals.

After you focus on your first item for two or three months, your improvement becomes a good habit. Then it is time to change your tally to the next item.  If you can substitute four good habits for bad habits each year, it really adds up to serious change for the better, over ten year’s time. Most importantly, by using this tally method, your optimism grows with each success.

Logs and tallies simply work better for habit-change than hard-core goals. I personally used this method for reducing “Complaints” last year — I even enlisted my family to help point out whenever I complained a bit and faithfully recorded each event in Tallymander — in four short weeks, I was averaging less than one per day!

Nothing will make you more optimistic about life than personally getting rid of complaints. Please re-read the previous sentence twice. Imagine how different our country and the world would be if we could convince everyone in America to complain just once per day!

I.M. Optimism Man

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