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Instant Feedback: An Example

Strategies and goals

Back when I first started this site, I mentioned that a key inspiration for my beginning to study willpower was my sister, Su, who had demonstrated how effectively we can introduce changes of habit into our lives. Su is the fitness editor at Health magazine, and one of her recent posts on the Health Web site (“The Easy Way to Up Your Daily Steps (and Why That Matters)”) provides some insight on how instant feedback can help drive change painlessly.

10,000 steps
Her particular topic is the amount of walking we do on a daily basis. You may have heard the recommendation to walk 10,000 steps a day for fitness and weight loss. Apparently the 10,000 steps idea started in Japan as an encouraging guideline without any particular research behind it, but later studies (like the one described in this paper by Drs. Catrine Tudor-Locke and  David R. Bassett, Jr.) confirm that it’s an excellent goal for most people.

So 10,000 steps is good. How many steps do we actually take in a day? Su cites research that finds in America, our average is only half the recommended level (“Pedometer-Measured Physical Activity and Health Behaviors in U.S. Adults,” David R. Bassett, Jr.). This lands the average American solidly in the “not particularly active” zone except for those people who do regular, more energetic exercise that doesn’t involve stepping.

Automatic improvement
Other studies Su mentions seem to show that simply wearing a pedometer tends to result in an increased number of daily steps. This is exactly what Su tried–and it worked. “Eleven months later, the bloom is still not off the rose,” she says, “and I now routinely average 10,000 steps per day (including my workouts) without thinking too much about it. That’s pretty amazing to me, given that when I started out I was averaging around 5,200 or so.”

The tip alone is useful, but there’s also a meaningful lesson we can derive from it: awareness tends to automatically drive improvement. That is, when we have instant feedback on what we’re doing, we tend to do better at it. Competition can help a person do better, in part because they can measure how well they’re doing by comparison to others; using feedback loops provides a reliable, consistent boost to motivation (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation”); and immediate feedback is a key component of “flow,” a state of optimal productivity and enjoyment  (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“).

So if you want to inspire yourself to do better at a particular task, find a way to add immediate feedback: wear a pedometer, watch yourself in the mirror, time yourself, keep a log of how many words you write per day, use meters and monitors, and in whatever other way you can, try to get instant feedback … because while we human beings may not always be the most industrious creatures on the planet, we do love a challenge.

Photo by Eneas

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