Things to track where the tracking has a beneficial feedback effect?


I noticed that there are a bunch of things where the mere act of tracking them has a desirable effect onto the thing that you measure. Examples include:

  • number of exercise repetitions (e.g. pushups) you can do before exhausted (measuring is training)
  • how far you can stretch in some direction (measuring is stretching)
  • how many pages you can read in 5 minutes (not training, but you’ll read at least this many minutes today)
  • how thirsty you are (via random popup questions, if you currently are thirsty that’s generally enough of a cue to fix that)

I find that I have trouble setting up new habits like exercise routines (ugh not today, I’m too busy/exhausted/…) but the mental shift involved in reformulating the thing as a measurement is enough to get it past the mental “censor”, as

  • you’re not (primarily) exercising / doing work, you’re just (primarily) measuring
  • it’s really not taking long (if you’re exhausted after 1 pushup that’s ok, just stop)
  • once you’ve overcome the initial inertia it’s easy to continue some more (maybe read to the end of the chapter?)

So I’m curious whether any of you are tracking other things that have similar beneficial effects.

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You will find a number of references on this forum to the effect you are describing. Search “Hawthorne effect” for example.

Building on your list I would add socializing and starting a new book also come to mind.

I think that’s actually a different (but also useful) effect. (Hadn’t found this one when previously searching the forum, thanks!) The Hawthorne effect seems to work by “story telling” / wanting to make the numbers look prettier (and resulting in actual improvements as a side effect), whereas the effect I’m trying to describe arises (and still works in the “right” direction) even if you were trying to actively make the numbers look bad.

As an example, let’s say that you want to (sub-/semi-consciously) prove to yourself that not eating 5 donuts every day makes your performance go down, so when you do the no-donut experiment you slack while doing pushups. But in order to do the measurement, you’re still doing some pushups, which is more than zero exercise, and thus better than the baseline – independent of the numbers you get out at the end.

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Source? None of the definitions of the Hawthorne effect I’ve come across require that the subject has an opinion on what the numbers should be.

Let’s say you start tracking your mood to get an idea how much time you spend being happy/sad etc, with no intention to change anything just yet. But by making yourself more aware of your mood throughout the day, you stabilize your mood somewhat (which is why it’s part of the treatment for certain mood disorders).

Another beneficial example is food logging: Even if you never add up the calories (and throw away the data at the end of every day), you’re likely to cut back on mindless snacking and overeating as soon as you start paying attention to your eating habits.

Counting pushups isn’t necessarily beneficial: You might get too focused on reaching a number, rather than doing the exercise correctly. Same with tracking the number of pages read, which can be at the cost of comprehension (or enjoyment). So you need to be careful what you track :smile:

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I’ve always maintained that the action of mood tracking / journalling has a beneficial effect in itself. It’s a mindfulness technique and helps you organise your thoughts.

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I have found that keeping a logbook of productive hours absolutely helps me to be more productive. I don’t keep it up at work of course just for measuring time spent on my self driven projects. I tend to track Pomodoros for that, basically.

Benjamin Harkins did a meta-analysis of about 138 different studies and found that people that tracked progress achieved their goals at a higher level than those that don’t. In fact, he found that the more frequently they tracked their progress, the greater affect. I personally feel that there is a point where there can be too much “progress tracking”. I would imagine that measuring your weight too often can be one of those things. I actually blogged about this topic recently:
How Important is Progress Tracking For Achieving Goals

I found the one thing in particular that I have a huge benefit of tracking is the amount of water I drink. I use a HidrateSpark water bottle, and I definitely drink significantly more when I’m using it to track my water intake regularly.