Tracking progress and being accountable to my goals is difficult. Work and family responsibilities constantly compete for time. Without building in a method to track progress and hold myself accountable, it’s unlikely I will be able to build the life I want.
Track what is important.
Track areas of your life that are most important to you. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed.” I find it useful to ask what is most important to achieve my goals, sustain my health, and become the person I want to be. Thinking about these questions and writing down my answers help me determine what to track.
Tracking is important because most people have terrible memories. Neuroscience and psychological research have repeatedly proven that human memory is unreliable and susceptible to distortion. According to an article from the US National Library of Medicine, “The Neuroscience of Memory: Implications for the Courtroom,” people are unable to retrieve, just one hour later, 50% of the information they consume.
Take this quick test: Do you remember how many nights you slept for at least 7 hours last week or how many emails you sent yesterday? Most likely not—unless you are intentionally tracking these activities and recording the results.
Tracking displays your progress over time. This can create a positive feedback loop, building your confidence that you are producing momentum toward achieving your goals. I noticed this recently when using the Waking Up meditation app. For the first 50 days, the app opened by showing me how many days of meditation I had completed. As the number grew, I felt good about my progress. However, after I had completed fifty days, the app stopped displaying this metric and instead opened with a “Daily Meditation” screen. This small change had a negative psychological impact because I didn’t immediately see how many days I had completed the meditation exercise.
Tracking requires metrics. A metric is simply a method to measure something and to determine the result. It’s important to focus on significant metrics. For example, there are many metrics you could track regarding your car, such as tire pressure, miles traveled since your last oil change, or when you need to check and replace your air filter. These metrics might be very important to make sure your car is achieving optimal performance. But if you’re driving the car, the most important metric to track is how much gas is in the car’s tank. You need to watch the fuel gauge to know how far you can drive without running out of gas.
When building the life you want, I recommend focusing on a few key metrics that map to your goals. For example, when it comes to exercise, some people use a step tracker such as Fitbit or an iPhone app to record how many steps they take each day. Some of those people have set specific steps-per-day goals, so this is a valuable metric for them. My personal goal is to get one hour of exercise each day, so instead of tracking my steps I track how many hours of exercise I get per week. If I were tracking my exercise by measuring the number of steps I take, I know I would be susceptible to skipping a workout when I had a busy day that required a lot of walking.
Make it easy.
The most effective tracking requires little or no effort. There are many devices (e.g., Fitbit) that track information automatically and tracking apps (e.g., Streaks) that require very little time to use on your phone. Some people prefer to use a simple Excel spreadsheet or their calendar to note what tasks or activities they have completed. The tracking method doesn’t matter. You just need to find an approach that works best for you.
If you are like me and don’t like to wear a watch or use a bunch of different tracking devices, you can track a few simple metrics and make them part of your daily routine.
My daily metrics
- Sleep: 7 hours/night
- Exercise: 1 hour/day
- Meditation: 10 minutes/day
- Reading: 30 minutes/day
- Writing: 1 hour/day
If you prefer using a tool there are multiple popular tracking tools options. Here are just a few:
- Streaks (general tracking app)
- Exist (general tracking app)
- Cronometer (general tracking app)
- Health app (iOS tracking app)
- Fitbit (wearables and tracking app)
- Garmin (wearables and tracking app)
- Oura (wearable ring that tracks sleeps and activity)
Be accountable — own the outcome.
Take responsibility for your actions and own the outcomes. Tracking provides data and transparency but does not necessarily keep you accountable. It won’t matter how meticulously you track your metrics if you neither reward yourself for success nor penalize yourself for shortcomings.
In my experience, it’s easier to be accountable to other people than to myself. I don’t want to let the other person down, especially if they are relying on me, or I’m fearful of the consequences, or both. Without building in some type of accountability, it’s easy to get busy with work or family obligations and neglect activities that are important but not urgent — even if you’re using a tracking app that shows when you do or do not reach your goals.
Here are four strategies for building accountability into your tracking system. In my experience, these approaches work best if done on a weekly basis. Experiment and find the approach or combination that works best for you.
- Work with an accountability partner. Work with a friend to help each other keep your commitments. This is my preferred approach. I check-in with a friend once a week to report on the prior week, and we each share our goals for the coming week. Knowing that I will be reporting what I have accomplished provides an additional nudge to get things done.
- Create a weekly reward. Build in a weekly reward for achieving your goals for the week. This could be carving out time for your favorite activity, eating a favorite food, or anything that motivates you and gives you pleasure.
- Create a weekly consequence. Enforce a penalty, such as an extra workout or undesirable chore around the house, when you don’t meet your weekly goal.
- Share results and compete with friends. Many of the tracking apps I listed allow you to share data about certain activities. You can create a friendly competition or just allow others to monitor your progress toward your goals.
Track areas of your life that are most important to you. Build habits to incorporate your metrics into your daily routine. Don’t rely on your memory. Focus on a few key metrics that map to your goals. Use technology or methods that are easiest for you to track your progress. And build accountability into your process.