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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part II: What Matters and Keeping Score

Strategies and goals

In the first article in this series, I talked about the difference between not being focused or driven on the one hand and being distracted on the other. The difference is important because the two problems have different kinds of solutions.

I also began to talk about the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves to begin work on fixing our focus or enthusiasm. These questions tap into elements that research strongly suggests are important for self-motivation. The first element, talked about in that first article, was belief that we can actually accomplish our goal. Without that belief, we undermine our own efforts.

What is it worth?
The second question to ask is whether the goal feels worthwhile to us. What value is it?

Take, for example, my focus on fitness. Years ago I was 60 pounds heavier and much less strong and flexible than I am today–not to mention less energetic and happy. It took some real work to change my eating habits and to make exercise central in my life. Once I got close to my goal fitness level, though, motivation became much harder. Why? Because I had already reached the level where I was at peak health, and losing more weight would only really contribute to how much definition I had–that is, it was no longer a matter of health, but now only a matter of wanting to look great. I was still motivated, but my motivation wasn’t nearly as strong.

If your goal doesn’t seem worthwhile to you, then the two possibilities are that it really is worthwhile and you just don’t feel in touch with that, or it really isn’t worthwhile and you should find another goal. If you believe in your goal but don’t feel in touch with its value, spend time writing or talking about your reasons for attempting it and about what you want to achieve.

Measurability: Are we moving yet?
The third question we will want to ask ourselves is whether or not we can measure our progress. While being able to see progress isn’t an absolute necessity, most of us will get discouraged or at least very uneasy if we’re putting in a lot of work and not getting an indication of whether or not it makes a difference. That’s one reason it’s so frustrating for writers, for example, to wait for editors and agents to respond to submissions. Once you’ve done everything you can to write a good piece and get it out the door, you want to know how successful you were, to judge where you are in your process and what you’re doing effectively or ineffectively.

Some kinds of goals are difficult to measure. Even getting fit is hard to track, since weight alone isn’t an ideal measure of getting fit. With these kinds of goals, though, it is at least possible to note what you’re doing each day–that is, to track progress, which while it doesn’t give you results, at least shows how well you’re doing in keeping to the new habits you’re trying to form.

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Why Weighing In Is a Poor Way to Measure Progress

Strategies and goals

Weighing in when trying to get fit is a dangerous business. You might lose two pounds one week and gain back three the next when you’ve pretty much been eating and exercising the same way. You might lose fat but still gain weight. Your weight can even fluctuate during the day: I’ve seen reliable differences of five pounds between morning and night a few times, and never associated with extreme behaviors.

It’s not the scale’s fault: our bodies hold more or less water for a variety of reasons, including sodium intake and how recently we’ve exercised. When we build muscle, we gain weight: it weighs more than fat. Weights can vary due to the clothes we wear, how recently we’ve eaten and what we’ve eaten, and other variables.

Yet weighing in is one of the few ways a person can get any evidence as to how they’re doing in their attempts to get fit. Not weighing in is a problem because otherwise, apart from using calipers (which aren’t the worst idea in the world–but that’s a different topic), the only clear measure of success or failure is measurements that might take a month or more to clearly change, even if your efforts are going well. As human beings, we don’t work well with getting feedback over the course of months: we do better with feedback within a day, or preferably within minutes. Long-term feedback isn’t very motivating.

So what to do about the scale, with its short-term feedback laced with multiple misleading problems? Here are a few scale-related strategies:

  • Use weigh-in results as data, not as goals. If you have your heart set on seeing a particular number, you can easily be disappointed just because you’re carrying more water around, for instance. The real differences that matter are in how you feel and how your body changes. Focus on exercising and eating to feel good instead of specifically to see numbers change on the scale. You can’t directly control your weight: you can only influence it. Goals work when they’re something that you can actually make happen reliably yourself.
  • Weigh twice a day, but look at results over the course of a week. Weigh in at two different times in the course of a day and take an average of the numbers as an average daily weight. This way, one screwy weigh-in won’t throw you off. Weigh in at about the same times each day for maximum consistency. I like to weigh myself twice each time I weigh in. If they agree, I take the number. If not, I weigh in again to see which weight it confirms.
  • Make sure you have a reliable scale. The old scales with the spinning dials tend to be highly inaccurate; get a brand of scale that you can rely on. You can find info on these by looking at reviews on sites like Amazon.com before buying, or you could buy a scale recommended by a doctor, nutritionist, trainer, etc.
  • Relax. Whatever is going to show up on the scale has already been determined before you ever step on, so nothing’s really at stake when you get on the scale. The number you get will not be a definite and reliable answer as to how you’re doing with weight loss, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what will happen in the future. If you eat healthily and conservatively and get a lot of exercise, you will lose weight over time, whether the scale seems to be immediately supporting that or not.

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The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise

States of mind

In a post (“Stepping Outdoors Boosts Mood, Self-Esteem“) on her blog at Psychology Today, Kelly McGonigal talks about a new study (“What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis” by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty) that seems to indicate that even a tiny amount of activity in a pleasant outdoor environment can make a noticeable difference in mood and self-confidence. This is the five-minutes-walking-by-the-woods exercise, not an-hour-jogging-uphill-in-the-freezing-rain exercise.

All of this reinforces the important idea that exercise is not just for losing weight: see my article Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation.

It’s also a good reminder of an important fact of motivation: short-term payoffs tend to be more motivating than long-term payoffs. In my post Good Exercise Motivation and Bad Exercise Motivation, I talk about a study in which participants who focused on the immediate mood benefits of exercise were a good bit more successful in sticking with it and losing weight than participants who had weight loss in mind as a goal.

And that in turn brings up an interesting insight from looking at the process of flow, in which a person is powerfully motivated by and involved in an activity in the short term. One of the prerequisites of flow is that you have some kind of feedback as you’re going along. If you can’t tell how well you’re doing, whether you’re getting closer to your goal, etc., it’s much harder to stay motivated, because you keep hesitating and questioning yourself. Feeling confident that you can be effective at making progress, according to yet more studies, is essential to self-motivation. And little wonder: who wants to work really hard at a goal when there’s no guarantee they’ll accomplish anything? Weight loss is such a relatively slow process, it’s very hard to get any definite sense of how well we’re doing it except over the course of weeks, and it’s therefore a pretty lousy motivator, no matter how much we want the end result.

This has been a bit of a rambling post, but there is one single, essential lesson here for us to take away and think about: enjoying what we’re accomplishing in the moment is extremely powerful for helping motivate us in terms of both mood and long-term accomplishments.

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How Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

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How to Stop in Mid-Fail

States of mind

When we make bad decisions, where’s the real point of no return?

Let’s say Meg decides she really want to go to Sweden, and she plans an incredible 3-week vacation there: great hotels, tours, plane tickets, the whole shebang. As she’s making these reservations, she thinks to herself “I probably can’t afford this–but I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden, and who knows when I’ll have the chance next?” Everything’s set. Once the reservations are made, is it too late for her to change her mind?

Two weeks before the trip she looks briefly at her finances and begins to worry about what will happen to her credit card debt if she goes. Is she really going to be able to pay all that money off? It turns out she doesn’t have it in savings, as she was kind of hoping she would. Now is it too late?

The day before she leaves, the anxiety is too much for her, and she sits down and runs the numbers. It turns out that the trip isn’t just a little out of her reach: it’s going to cause havoc to her whole budget–she might even run out of money while on the trip! And she hadn’t realized the hotel was going to cost that much, and should she really have booked the more expensive flight so that she didn’t have to leave at 5:30 in the morning? Is it too late now?

It may feel too late. When you’re driving away from the fast food restaurant or about to drop that angry letter in the mailbox or standing at the counter while the sales clerk rings up your purchases, it may feel as though you’re committed to the bad choice you’ve made, even if you now realize it’s a bad choice. For some of us (and this is completely typical of the old eating habits I’ve been painstakingly overcoming for years), you may be halfway through eating something, realize you’re not enjoying it at all, and still finish it because oh well, you already bought it and started eating it, and you don’t want it to go to waste, right? Because making you unhappy and contributing to your ill health is much less going to waste than throwing it away … uh, right?

Yet it’s never actually too late until it’s literally impossible to take whatever it is back. Even if it would take a lot of effort to backtrack, or if you lose money by changing your plans, or if you have to do something that seems random and embarrasses you, it’s better to reverse a bad choice at the last minute than to never reverse it at all. The day before Meg’s trip, she can say to herself “This is ridiculous: I can’t afford this, and I won’t even be able to enjoy the trip because I’ll be worrying about money the whole time.” Then she can call the airline and see if she can get a refund or credit for the flight, call the hotels and tours and cancel her reservations, and so on. If she’s past the deadline for getting much money back from the trip–for instance, if she got non-refundable plane tickets and the airline won’t give her credit toward future travel–then maybe it is too late, but if she just has to take a hit of a few hundred dollars instead of spending thousands she doesn’t have, then canceling (or scaling back to much cheaper arrangements) is still the right decision for her.

On the surface, this kind of reversal looks stupid: you go to a lot of trouble to arrange something, then you go to a lot of trouble to cancel it, and lose money in the bargain. The important thing to realize is that the value Meg was trying to get at the beginning was an illusion: the trip was not really something she wanted on those terms. If she took it, she would be less happy and less empowered than if she didn’t. Once she realized this, the value of the trip as she understood it changed. It’s as though you made arrangements to buy a nice car and then found out the car was a lemon. Would you still buy the car (and for the same amount) just because it seemed like it was worth more before you knew better?

There are two benefits to reversing a bad decision even after the bad decision has already cost you something. The first is that the bad decision hurts you less if you don’t follow all the way through with it. The second is that you give yourself a memorable and meaningful lesson. The canceled trip will, we hope, really stick in Meg’s memory, so that the next time she tries to buy something that she can’t afford, she can reflect on it and say “Remember when I almost bankrupted myself on that trip to Sweden I wanted? This is like that. Why don’t I steer clear this time?”

Is it ever too late to get a little smarter?

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Tools for Feeling Better, Part II

Handling negative emotions

 

In a recent article, I began listing some of the most useful ways I know to get back on track when feeling bad, including idea repair, mindfulness, meditation, understanding schemas, and emotional antidotes. Today’s article forges ahead with 4 more tools for feeling happier and improving mood.

Flow: “Flow” is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi’s term for a state in which a person is concentrating intently, performing at their highest level of ability, and completely swept up in what they’re doing. It’s a very enjoyable and productive mode of being, and successfully bulldozes bad moods. My article “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” describes flow, and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow” provides techniques for achieving it.

Exercise: Exercise often gets a bad rap as being tedious, unpleasant, and a disappointing necessity for people trying to lose weight or obsessed with fitness. The truth is that exercise is not only a way to improve fitness but also a powerful means of improving mood: read “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation” to find out more.

Just starting: A person in a bad mood with a task in front of them that could improve things often won’t do that task because when they imagine doing it, they don’t imagine feeling happier. A large part of the reason for this is something called “mood congruity,” a tendency our brains have to assume that we will always feel more or less as we do now. When we’re happy it’s hard to imagine really feeling bad, and vice-versa. Just getting started on something that could improve mood by making progress on a goal, getting into a social situation, moving around, creating a change of scene, etc. can push us over into a place where feeling better begins to seem not so distant. If you’ve ever started doing something you didn’t think you would enjoy and began to have a lot of fun, you’ve experienced the power of just starting (despite not feeling inclined to at first).

Writing or Talking it Out: Writing out thoughts, concerns, possible solutions, and possible results can go a long way toward clearing the mind and providing reasons to feel better. An intensive process of logging the details of each choice you make, Decision Logging, can provide a lot of insight into what’s going on in a person’s mind as well as immediate opportunities for rethinking things. Writing down progress, self-evaluation, and plans for the future creates a feedback loop. Free writing or keeping a journal can provide an outlet for pent-up emotions while creating clarity. Or instead of writing about what’s going on with you or how you feel, you could connect with a sympathetic and supportive friend, family member, romantic partner, or therapist and talk things through.

For more tools, see the other articles in this series: Part I and Part III.

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Seeking Regular Contributors for The Willpower Engine

About the site

Lately I’ve been thinking how much fun it would be to enrich this site with material from one or two like-minded people who have useful information to share. If you’re interested in expanding your audience and especially in connecting with people who share your passion for improving their lives and mental resources, or if you know someone like that, please get in touch through the contact form to the right or through e-mail.

I’m mainly interested in potential contributors who have a specific focus that has to do with willpower, motivation, self-organization, or related self-improvement. That focus could any of a number of things, such as fitness, organization, writing, happiness, communication, relationships, decluttering, family dynamics, psychology, neurology, and so on. I’d love to have someone who would do a regular feature interviewing people (regular people or high-profile people) on subjects related to willpower.

To be a good fit, a contributor should be writing based on good scientific research, established practice, personal experience, interviews, or some other solid source of information; philosophical reflections (other than from professional philosophers) or off-the-cuff opinion pieces aren’t a good fit for the site.

There’s no pay (sorry!), but you can console yourself that I don’t make a cent from this site either. At the moment The Willpower Engine gets more than 800 views a week, so I can promise that you’d get good exposure to a new audience. Cross-posting to The Willpower Engine and your own site is fine. Posting would need to be on a regular schedule, but it could be anything from every other week to twice a week, depending on your preferences. Your bio and other information (bibliography, Web site links, etc.) would be on a new Contributors page.

By the way, I’m also open to writing posts for other sites in a similar arrangement or as a guest.

Any takers? Any suggestions for people who might be interested? Or are there just subjects you would love to see covered regularly? Get in touch, or add a comment. Thanks for your help!

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Where Are All the Other Beginners?

States of mind

When I first started exercising seriously and consistently, in 2005, I chose to run: it was free, convenient, and uncomplicated. I had recently moved to Jacksonville, Florida, a place where you can run practically every day of the year if you avoid the afternoon deluges in summer, and I lived in a quiet neighborhood near the river. Mercifully, this being Florida, my potential routes were dead flat. So everything was lined up in my favor, but one thing did make me nervous: the lack of fat people. There I was with my 75 extra pounds (down to 14 extra now, thank you very much), and there were all the runners, who collectively looked like they ate nothing but skinless chicken breast and celery-flavored air. Why were there no out-of-shape people out there running with me? Did that mean that it wasn’t possible to do it if you were out of shape, that I was doomed to be a failure as a runner?

Before these thoughts got too far, however, math came to the rescue, a particularly handy bit of math that explains why, whenever we start something, it’s often really hard to find anyone who looks as incompetent or ill-suited as we are.

Being a Beginner Who Sucks Is Normal
Part of that effect is just the fact that, when we begin at things, we’re generally bad or not well-suited for them, since as we progress, we become better and more well-suited. Being a beginner means not looking as cool as the other kids, whether we’re talking about playing violin, studying Taekwondo, running, programming computers, or raising children.

The rest is that math we talk about. Let’s compare beginners to veterans with some made-up numbers that nonetheless show real and useful information.

Quitters
First, how many people begin something and then soon give up? It varies a lot by area, but it’s a lot. Many of our fellow beginners are vanishing after just a few half-hearted attempts.

Veterans Do More of It
How much time do beginners spend at tasks compared to veterans? It’s unlikely that a beginning violin player will be able to spend six hours a day practicing like some advanced students and professionals. A beginning runner can’t run nearly as long a time, as quickly, or as far as a veteran runner. Beginners at the dojang (Taekwondo gym) where I study have access to up to 3 classes a week, while more advanced students have their pick of 8 of them (on average, I do about 4-5 classes per week).

Beginners Vanish
And what portion of a person’s total career at something are they a rank beginner? A person might run seriously for 10 years and only be a beginner for the first 6 months, and the numbers for many other activities are similar.

The Only Beginner In the Room
So beginners who stick with the activity they’re starting might on average do 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of that activity each week that a veteran will do (let’s say 3/8 as an estimate), and they will spend perhaps 1/20 of their career as a beginner. All of which means that for every hour of a thing a beginner does, we might reasonably guess there are 53-1/3 veterans out there doing that same thing. If you walk into a gym as a beginner and there are 20 other people in that gym, by these odds it’s unlikely that any one of those 20 people will be as out-of-shape and inexperienced as you.

Although, of course …
With all that said, those numbers are just estimates, and there are complicating factors: for instance, a whole lot more people start going to a gym than keep going to the gym, so in fact the gym numbers may not be quite so daunting as 53-1/3 to 1.

Get ready to suck!
But the upshot of all this is that beginners stick out, look bad, and are often alone doing it–but this is all just a nerd gate (a term coined by cavers, who use it to describe an obstacle that only discourages people who aren’t committed–it’s one of the terms in my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures). While there are sometimes ways around standing out as a beginner (for instance, taking a beginners-only class), the fact of the matter is that beginners often look silly and may tend to feel they won’t belong.

This is just a phase to push through. However awkward or difficult something is at the beginning, the only way to get really good at anything is to keep working at it (and there’s good science to support that statement!). Some runners started out skinny, and some violinists started out as four-year olds, when playing a barely-recognizable, ear-torturing rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is considered proof of utter genius, but the rest of us poor slobs will just need to suck for a while whenever we start something. And then, magically, we’ll get better and not suck, and people will look at us and say “Man, they must have always been that great at it!”

Photo by Martineric

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Don’t Economize in the Wrong Places

Strategies and goals

We all have a limited amount of resources: limited time, limited money, limited attention, limited skills … and so naturally we economize. To save our resources we take choose things to do without, select more modest alternatives, focus on one thing instead of another, share with other people and so on. And these are necessary skills: being able to spend $20 less on a grocery trip or to free up an hour in your day for something important give us greater power, flexibility, and control in our lives.

Yet economizing is a tricky balance, one that’s easy to lose in either direction. For example, if I try getting a cheaper brand of something at a grocery store, sometimes it will be a good find, but other times we’ll discover we’ve just gotten a really good deal on something no one in the house wants to eat–and a good deal on something you don’t need is always a bad deal.

It’s this way with anything. Putting too much time into “productive work” at the expense of relationships can undermine those relationships so that the support and even reasons for doing the “productive work” gradually erodes away. The classic example of this is the workaholic whose family falls apart due to time not being put in.

It’s difficult to know how to balance all of these requirements. Heck, it’s difficult to even figure out a seemingly simple limit, like exactly how many calories to eat per day when trying to lose weight (because of needing to consider variables for amount of muscle and fat, height, build, lifestyle, types of food, amounts of weight to lose, and so on). This doesn’t mean that we can’t put limits to good use, only that it’s good to question the limits we put on ourselves to make sure they’re still serving the goals they’re supposed to. If this idea turns into constantly revamping tactics so that goals are never reached, it’s destructive–but if it turns into a slow process of fine-tuning our choices and priorities, it can speed us toward our goals more effectively and more enjoyably than if we try to economize too much or in the wrong ways.

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Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople

Resources

A screenshot of part of the Nutrition Tracker tool at SparkPeople

Ever since I started seriously working on my own fitness back in 2005, I have kept track of what I eat, my weight, and how much I exercise in little notebooks that I carry around with me, at least most of the time. Recently, though, a friend showed me SparkPeople, a free nutrition and fitness site. SparkPeople allows users to track what they eat, how much they exercise, and what kind of exercise they do (including both cardio and strength training categories), weight, measurements, and other fitness metrics. It’s well-suited both to weight loss and to other fitness goals and offers charts and totals of helpful values like calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals, calories burned in exercise, and more. There are other features I haven’t used extensively, including recipes, forums, goal-setting, and tracking how much water you drink. All of these features are free; to the best of my knowledge there are no paid membership options on the site. SparkPeople is supported by noticeable but well-behaved advertising.

Personally the most useful feature for me is the Nutrition Tracker, where I can tap into a very large database of foods and record exactly what I’m eating in as precise amounts as I can figure out. This allows me to receive detailed nutritional reporting. The tracking on this site takes me a little longer than my notebook method because I previously counted only calories, and I had memorized the calorie counts of most foods I ate, but it has several benefits. One is that it gives me much more information than I had on my own, protein and cholesterol totals being especially useful to me. Another is that, interestingly, I feel compelled to track everything every day–even on the days when I exceed my calorie goal, when the total is less appealing–because if I track a partial day, it feels like I’m being misleading: it would appear that I had only eaten however many things I tracked instead of that I stopped tracking. Using my paper system, there were days that I didn’t track. I like this slight extra incentive to be consistent.

A third benefit is that I’m forced to write down the specific foods I eat rather than, for instance, writing “omelette” and estimating total calories: my numbers are more precise using this system.

While I find some of the tools a little cumbersome–speaking as a techie, for instance, I’d love to see the tool for adding foods integrated into the Nutrition Tracker page as an iFrame–all in all they have been fairly easy to use and quite useful. Of course you have to have access to the Internet to update the system, but they have a good mobile phone interface that I’ve barely used but that might do the trick for people who don’t always have access to a computer.

Speaking about motivation specifically, notice that this site provides some key pieces: one is supporting detailed tracking and regular review of tracked information, which is a rudimentary feedback loop (a more sophisticated feedback loop would just add free-form discussion or journaling about what led to good and bad outcomes and how to change or stick with behaviors for best results in future). Another is the community that’s available there for encouragement and cameraderie. Yet another is focusing attention on nutrition and exercise issues, since more attention often translates to more and better motivation.

Since there are a lot of features on this extensive site that I haven’t used, I hope other SparkPeople users will post their impressions and tips in comments.

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