Browsing the archives for the tracking tag.
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New Submitomancy Site Will Manage Market, Response, and Submissions Data



Writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, whom I’ve been fortunate to know for several years through the writing group Codex, has fired up an ambitious project to create a site offering a variety of important writing and publishing information, filling in the gap that’s left by Duotrope becoming an expensive, paid service and adding on a number of coveted writerly items. If you’re interested in checking the project out, hop over to Indiegogo and see where it stands: .

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In Which Elizabeth Shack Continues Her Quest for a Simple Way to Track Habits

Guest posts

Here’s a handy guest post from fellow writing and fellow Codexian Elizabeth Shack, originally published here. If you’re interested in the topic, you might also like my posts  “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

The apps here are all iPhone ones. If anyone has suggestions for Android, PC, Mac, or Web-based solutions, please holler them out (via comments)!

About a year ago, I was looking for a habit-tracking app and never found a really good one. I wanted to make a list of 2-3 things I want to do every day, and check them off, without cluttering up my to do list or my calendar. For example: writing new words.

Maybe I was using the wrong keywords, or maybe tons of app developers secretly read my blog, because now there seem to be a lot of good apps. I’ve been playing with three of them.

Good HabitsGood Habits (free) – This is the simplest and cleanest. It displays how many days in a row you’ve done each thing, and your maximum days in a row. Clicking on the name of a habit opens the calendar, where you can edit past days and see a monthly view of which days you did that habit. You can also set reminders.

That’s it. It’s almost exactly what I want, though it’d be nice to include things I only want to do once a week.

Habit ListHabit List ($1.99) – Not quite as pretty, but still nicely designed. It lets you set whether you want to do something every day, or on specific days of the week, or at a certain interval, or a certain number of days a week. That has the side effect of making me want to add more things to it, and it’s also a little confusing–my list for today includes everything that I’ve set to do only once or three times a week, so I see it on my list even if I don’t plan to do it today. (Setting something for a specific day like Friday makes it not show up unless it’s Friday, though.)

If you really need more specific habit scheduling than daily, this is a great app.

Habits ProHabits Pro ($2.99) – This adds more features and is the only app I’ve tried that has an export option. In addition to a daily checklist or monthly calendar view, it shows graphs by day, week, and month. You can also change the item type–instead of a simple yes/no checklist, you can have a counter (how many times you did something), a timer (how long), or a note (where you can enter details about whatever, like what book you read instead of just checking off that you read something).

It’s a little clunky to use and not nearly as pretty as either of the other two apps, but definitely more flexible in what you can track.

So after this research, what am I going to use? Well, I printed out some calendars that I can tape in my journal, where I can see the whole year on one page. If I want to stick with something electronic (and I haven’t quite decided), probably Habit List until Good Habits adds flexible scheduling.

Elizabeth grew up near Johnson Space Center and earned two physics degrees, so of course she writes more fantasy than science fiction. She now lives in central Illinois, where she performs cooking experiments, brings up the rear in 5k races, and does excessive amounts of yard work. 

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A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness

Self-motivation examples

I’m currently reading Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body, and while it’s too early for me to render any opinion on the book as a whole, he relates a true story that beautifully illustrates the power of simple awareness. It goes something like this:

Phil Libin, who weighed 258 pounds, wanted to get down to 230 pounds in six months–a weight loss goal of about a pound a week. However, he wasn’t enthusiastic about making any lifestyle changes, so he decided to try an experiment to see whether he could accomplish his goal by making just one change: becoming very aware of his weight.

Phil created a spreadsheet with a little graph showing his starting weight at one end and his goal weight at the other end, with a line between the two. Above and below the line he put boundary lines: the plan wasn’t for his weight to follow the line to the goal weight exactly, but to stay between the top and bottom boundary lines so that he would be assured he was proceeding in the right direction at about the right speed. The result looked something like this:

From there, all Phil did was track his weight from day to day and enter it into the spreadsheet. If his weight fell below the bottom line at any point (which did happen), he would eat more. If his weight went above the top line (which didn’t happen), he would eat less.

Weirdly, and importantly, Phil made no other attempt to change his behavior–quite the opposite. He didn’t exercise or try to change his eating habits or consciously do anything about his weight except monitor it. And as you can probably guess by now, he landed exactly where he intended to be at the end of the six months, weighing in at 230 pounds.

I don’t actually recommend Phil’s method on its own. You have to be a real data enthusiast to care so much about a graph that you will be sure to keep it up to date and be so interested in what it has to show you. Further, since there are some really easy things you can do to move toward a goal above and beyond just being aware of where you’re going, it seems wasteful to disregard these other options. At the same time, Phil’s experience, at least anecdotally, makes a strong case for awareness being not only an important prerequisite for other useful changes, but a force for change on its own. Also, it makes a good case for focus: if all you need to think about to achieve your goal is “stay between the lines,” then it’s pretty easy to stay mentally on task.

Ferriss offers a free Excel spreadsheet patterned after Phil’s that you can tailor to your own goals at .

Other articles on this site that might interest you on the subject of awareness include


Microgoals, Red X’s, and Unbroken Chains


A post by Trent Hamm on the Christian Science Monitor site today offers a simple and promising approach to consistent success with one straightforward behavior: put up a calendar and make a mark for every day you successfully do that behavior.

There are some research-justified advantages to this approach. First, it brings the goal into awareness regularly, which is essential. Have you ever started on some new habit you wanted to acquire, then realized at a certain point that you had forgotten about it and stopped doing it? Then you know what I mean–and perhaps can see where a big, visual reminder could help.

Second, it emphasizes doing the thing daily, which is of key importance for habit formation (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“). Behaviors that aren’t done daily only form habits after a long time, if ever. Daily behaviors are much more likely to form habits.

Third, it associates something positive with whatever it is you want to do, even if that positive thing is just extending a chain of red X’s on the calendar on your wall. Those red X’s can be a source of pride, satisfaction, and bragging rights, and thinking about those kinds of things is much more motivating than thinking about the reasons you don’t want to do whatever it is.

I should note that this approach seems useful only for very specific, easily judged behaviors. “Eat four servings of fruit a day” can work with this system. “Eat healthily” can’t unless you’ve defined very precisely what you mean by “healthily.” There has to be an easy way to say “Yes, I did that” or “No, I didn’t do that”–though some kind of rating system (zero to four gold stars for the day, for instance) might work out (though perhaps not as easily) for something that’s more flexible.

I also suspect that this would not be effective for multiple goals at once. Having multiple goals running would tend to create conflicting priorities. Still, it seems possible that in some cases having two or three chains of different colors going might be workable if you’ve got some attention to focus on the matter.

Once you’ve got your goal, your red pen, and your calendar (or whatever your system will be), then all you have to do is follow Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice and “Don’t break the chain.”

Photo by wdecora

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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.

Photo by Thomas Webster

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Useful Tool for Daily Tracking:

Strategies and goals

Screen shot for

I’ve talked in other posts about the powerful effects of tracking progress daily when working toward important goals. Tracking gives better information to use in making decisions and offers a big boost to mindfulness–being aware of what we’re doing as we’re doing it so that we have the opportunity to make different choices.

Exactly how we track doesn’t matter much as long as it’s accessible, convenient, and does the job. For anyone who, like me, is around computers much more often than not, is an appealing, free, Web-based tool for tracking progress. Here are some good things about the site:

  • entirely free
  • very easy to use
  • offers charts and graphs
  • encourages daily tracking
  • friendly and visual

As far as I know, there’s currently no mobile version of the site, which would certainly be a welcome addition.

One minor problem with the site is that in a way it encourages tracking many goals at once, as some of the examples on their site demonstrate. While I think they’re just intending to show off everything the system can do, I have to say that trying to track more than a very few, related things at once is an almost sure-fire way to fail. As human beings, we’re just not capable of tackling a lot of different major habit changes at once. As much as we’d love to perfect our lives all in one fell swoop, every time we try to do that we fall flat on our faces, because it requires spreading our time, attention, and effort too widely. Habit change requires focus.

With that said, for someone who wants to track one or a very few goals on the computer, 42goals (or a similar system; there are others available, although 42goals seems particularly well-implemented) will be a great help.

By the way, if you use a system like this, be sure to provide for situations when you can’t use your usual tools. For instance, when you’re going to be away from a computer for a stretch of time, it’s important to have a small notebook or something with you that you can use to record things to copy into your main system later. This has to be planned in advance, since waiting until something actually needs to be recorded usually makes it too effortful to get the tracking done, interrupting the tracking habit and often derailing it completely, even when you’re back in your usual routine.

If you’re tracking exercise and calories for weight loss, by the way, I’d suggest using a much more specialized (but still free) tool like SparkPeople.

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Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople


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.


Why People Who Track Their Behavior Are Much More Likely to Lose Weight

Strategies and goals

notepadMy current reading is Dr. Daniel S. Kirschenbaum‘s 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Kirschenbaum teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, is the director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago, has  done a good deal of original research in weight loss, and has consulted for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Weight Watchers–so we could be excused for assuming he has a pretty good idea what he’s talking about. I’ll review the book itself in a near-future post, but for now I want to make use of a point that, he demonstrates, is powerfully supported by research: among people who are trying to get fit, those who track their progress are a lot more successful than people who don’t.

How Strong Is the Connection?
In fact, the connection between keeping track of what behavior and actually making progress (in terms of losing weight, which isn’t a perfect measure, but has some value) was very strong. People who were very consistent about tracking their diet, exercise, and weight tended to consistently lose weight; people who were a little inconsistent tended to have just a little weight loss or to maintain their weight; and people who weren’t consistent didn’t tend to have any success at all.

Even a person who is normally very consistent will tend to stop losing weight when they stop tracking, according to the studies Kirschenbaum cites (including his own research). For instance people who were very careful about tracking their progress over the holiday season were much more likely to maintain or lose weight than people who didn’t track their progress. Just to repeat that for emphasis: these people were losing weight over Thanksgiving and the December holidays, no mean feat.

Tracking as Feedback
The value of tracking may not be that surprising when we consider the importance of feedback in self-motivation: after all, if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, how can I change it effectively to point myself in the right direction? And we human beings tend to fudge things a bit in our favor. If I eat well for most of the day but have a piece of peanut butter pie with lunch, and if I don’t track calories, I may think I did pretty well–while in reality, that one piece of pie is (for me) about 40% of my daily calorie limit, which means it’s a good bet I completely missed my target. My vague impression that I did well, aided by a desire to forget the piece of pie, reinforces the idea that I’m doing well and my frustration when the scale has a different opinion.

How Long and How Often?
Kirschenbaum feels that successful weight controllers (his term) need to track their progress–especially what they eat, whether in terms of calories, exchanges, planned meals, or any other accurate measure–at least 75% of the time. That may be so, but other research also implies that doing something 75% of the time is not enough to make it an ingrained habit. That suggests that tracking as close as possible to 100% of the time is much more effective, since beyond the benefits of tracking itself, you begin to acquire a good habit that can eventually almost automate that behavior for you.

Though it might seem as though tracking everything you eat would be tedious and time-consuming, according to Kirschenbaum “It takes less than 2 minutes to do a whole day of both writing down fat grams, calories of everything eaten, and exercise; less than 1 minute for most people.” I’ve done this myself for some time, and I have to say that Kirschenbaum’s time estimate seems just about right, although it’s easier for me now that I know the numbers on a lot of foods by heart. Back while I was still learning, it probably took me longer–maybe 4 or even 5 minutes a day.

So time to do the tracking isn’t really a barrier: the real barrier (and I’ll talk more about this Friday) is not wanting to immortalize our own bad choices.

Following Up
Interested in what the research has to say? Take a look at The Impact of Regular Self-weighing on Weight Management: A Systematic Literature Review.

As useful as tracking is for weight loss, it can be just as strong a tool in other kinds of self-motivation. In Friday’s article I’ll talk about ways to make use of tracking to get and stay motivated toward almost any kind of goal.

Photo by Eric Mallinson

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