Quantified New Year’s resolutions: Take an information-driven approach to lifestyle changes

If you’re like 68.8% of the US population, you could stand to lose a few pounds. Or, perhaps you’re part of the 20% of the population that gets under 6 hours of sleep a night. Chances are, there’s (at least) one substantial change to your lifestyle that you’ve meant to make, but have never gotten around to following through with.

That's right, that's a pumpkin pie stuffed inside a cupcake
That’s right, that’s a pumpkin pie stuffed inside a cupcake

Personally, I need to get in shape. You see, my wife published a cookbook this year. It’s all about cupcakes. Specifically, baking lots of delicious things inside of cupcakes. This is probably the epitome of “nice problems to have“, but being the default taste-tester for the past 18 months has caused me to put on some extra pounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been an incredibly tasty 18 months, but at this point I have more buttercream frosting flowing through my veins than I probably should. Couple that with my mostly desk-bound office job, and I’ve found myself with a lot of risk factors piling up for some particularly nasty stuff as I get older.

Making lasting changes is hard. Real hard

In many cases, you’re not just trying to form a new habit – going to the gym four times a week, for instance. You’re also trying to break an existing bad habit – like the fact that I eat a comical number of cupcakes every week. Studies have shown that even when facing clear wakeup calls, such as a heart attack or cancer, very few people are successful at making long-term lifestyle changes. In fact, further research has concluded that fear and guilt are generally the least effective motivators for behavior change. There’s a big part of the problem right there. We tend to think about the changes we should make in a less-than-positive context. “Wow, I really let myself go!”, or “I have to stop smoking or I’m going to get cancer!” Rather, change seems to work the best when it’s rooted in positive thinking, has a specific outcome, and has a well thought-out plan for reaching it.

Putting some numbers behind your efforts

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get scientific about it, increasing your chances for success. Thanks to new technologies, it’s easy and relatively cheap to take an information-based approach to the changes we’re trying to make.

“Lose 25 35 pounds” is a crappy goal*

*It’s a fantastic aspiration, but as far as behavior change goals go, it’s terrible.

Several years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to lose 25 pounds. I thought I had a great plan. I set up an automated email to remind me once a week so I’d stay motivated. It totally failed. I still get those emails, but I’ve gained 10 pounds in the meantime and all they do is make me feel guilty about it. Goals like this are bad because they focus solely on a ending state (me, 25 pounds lighter than when I started) and completely step around the “lifestyle change” aspect of getting in shape. There’s also not even a hint of how I’d start to move towards that goal, short of just willing myself to do lose weight (which hasn’t worked). It’s much better to have specific, measurable goals, preferably tied to discreet actions. “Eat a salad for dinner three times a week” or “Jog every day” are things that are much easier to take the first step on. More importantly, they are things that can be easily measured.

Having more information tends to lead to better outcomes

By keeping measurements of your goal-related actions, you’ll get a good sense of your starting point, you’ll start to see patterns jump out at you, and you’ll build up a document of your small successes that can keep you going when you get frustrated. You’ll also set yourself up to take advantage of a really powerful tool. The feedback loop.

Action -> information -> reaction -> information -> repeat…

Feedback loops in action
Feedback loop in action

A feedback loop is a chain of cause and effect that forms a continual cycle, with the information gained from your previous action informing your next action. It’s a way of understanding how the small changes you make move you closer to, or further away from, a desired state. A great example is dynamic speed signs that show your speed along side the current speed limit. By presenting you with your current speed, in real time, alongside the current speed limit, most people tend to regulate their own driving behaviors. This same process can be adapted to support pretty much any type of behavior you want to tweak.

Feedback loops have four parts:

  1. Evidence –  A measurement is collected (you go stand on the scale).
  2. Relevance – You are made aware of how the measurement relates to you (you gained half a pound).
  3. Consequence – You are presented with paths you could take based on what you’ve just learned. You could stay home, eat poorly, and watch tv all day (probably will result in your next measurement being higher), or you could go to the gym and eat a salad (which will likely result in your next measurement being lower).
  4. Action – You make a choice and act on it.

Then the cycle repeats, starting with a new measurement, context, and set of consequences and actions.

Feedback loops are great, for several reasons. First, they break things down into options that are realistic given the current situation. The options “go jogging” and “rest for a day” are a lot easier to process than “do a triathlon” or “don’t do a triathlon”. They also focus on relative change, so they’re forgiving if you have a bad week. It’s fairly easy to course-correct because you have a constantly updating baseline to improve from. They also make slow and steady progress more obvious. Finally, they put the information in your hands. You don’t have to wait for expert advice from a personal trainer, nutritionist, or a doctor. You gain a more intimate understanding of yourself based on the information you’ve collected, and become the expert about what works for you.

Feedback loops have proven to be successful in training elite athletes, traffic-calming initiatives, and getting people to conserve energy around their houses. So they make a lot of sense as a tool for your personal behavior change. One of the biggest obstacles in the past has been the expensive tools to make measurements, but there are more and more low-cost gadgets and smartphone apps that are making the job easier everyday.

Make a game out of it

Being able to define your New Year’s Resolution into measurable chunks also gives you an opportunity to have fun with it. Competition is in our nature, and once you have a steady stream of numbers rolling in, you can use them to challenge yourself. Whether you like to compete against yourself or others, there’s a ton of options for turning your personal stats into a game experience, to help you get over the fact that, sometimes, making lasting changes can actually be really hard work.

Shocker: Winning prizes is fun

Fitbit badge
Yay! I won a .jpg!

Do you remember the “gold stars” that you got in elementary school? You couldn’t do anything with them, but they were still fun to get. Even if it’s just a stupid image that shows up on my Fitbit page, it feels good to get recognized for an achievement. If you’re tracking your progress towards a goal, even if it’s just on a spreadsheet, milestones will become visible, and you can use that to push yourself forward. This could be a single achievement (“can I beat my personal best time to run a mile?”), or a cumulative one (“how many days in a row can I walk more than 10,000 steps?”). Many systems have these reward mechanisms built in, allowing you to work towards rewards for everything from exercise to quitting smoking.

Competition == community

Walk by pretty much any gym and you’ll see a sign for a “Biggest Loser” competition going on. You might have had one at your office. Sure, the prizes that come with it have been proven to work for behavior change (at least in the short-term), but perhaps the more interesting reason is that competition provides a great foundation for community. When you get a lot of people together working towards a common personal goal, it becomes easier for each individual to make progress. There are more opportunities for support, inspiration from your peers, and yes, a competitive spirit. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true, as a study recently showed that having overweight friends is a huge risk factor for obesity.

Tracking your data as you work toward your resolution can provide a common context for you with a larger group. Strava.com has created a vibrant community of runners and cyclists who track their workout time and compete against each other. National Novel Writer’s Month brings together hundreds of thousands of writers every year for an intensive writing challenge. We recently did a study on NaNoWriMo, and found that people who wrote the most tended to spend about twice as much time on the nanowrimo.org community site than others.

Create some consequences for failure

While it’s fun to work towards a badge or a reward, sometimes it’s equally motivating to work against the threat of a consequence. That’s where commitment contracts come into play. A commitment contract is an artificially-constructed consequence to keep you on task. An extreme example of this is this productivity experiment by Maneesh Sethi, who hired someone on Craigslist to sit near him and smack him if she caught him wasting time on Facebook.

Websites like Beeminder and Stickk allow you to set up commitment contracts, where you pledge to give up a certain amount of money if you fail to meet a goal that you’ve defined (which they help you track along the way). It’s a little gimmicky, but effective. It sort of flips the game on it’s head. You’re no longer trying to win, you’re trying to avoid losing.

Three tips for tracking your New Year’s resolutions

1. Keep a rolling average of your daily measurements

If you have a daily goal that can be measured numerically (your weight, number of steps you’ve taken, hours of sleep, cigarettes smoked, etc…), plot it on a spreadsheet and take an average of the past ten days (which is simple to do in most spreadsheet programs). Use that number as your number to beat for the current day. That will help smooth out the noise and give you a realistic moving target.

2. Set up systems to collect data with little or no effort

There are a growing list of devices that will make the process of recording data about your efforts easier. Reducing the effort required to track data about yourself means you can focus on your goal, and not worry about whether or not you forgot to make notes in your spreadsheet after each workout. Here are some examples:

weight: Fitbit aria or Withings scale
sleep: Zeo, Fitbit
activity: Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up

3. Set up regular reviews of your progress

Taking some time to review you progress will help keep you motivated, and allow you to spot meaningful patterns that you can use to enhance your efforts. Try to set aside a small amount of time every week to look back and reflect.

Some examples of tracking your resolutions:

Click to enlarge:

Badges you can earn on Fitbit.com
Some of the achievement badges you can earn for hitting various milestones on Fitbit.com

Tracking weightloss with Beeminder (with a commitement contract)
Tracking weightloss with Beeminder (with a commitment contract)

Using a spreadsheet to track steps recorded from a pedometer
Using a spreadsheet to track steps recorded from a pedometer (with a 10-day rolling average)

Further Information

Podcast: Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops – Wired.com

Podcast: Save Me From Myself – Freakonomics.com

Quantified Self – lots of great self-tracking examples

What will you be tracking in the New Year? And do you have any other strategies to help you out along the way? I’m curious to know what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.

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Robby Macdonell

CEO at RescueTime