The Purpose of Progress

I’m the sort of fellow that likes making lists, checking boxes, and tracking progress. I guess it’s just part of my personality as a “left-brained thinker.” It’s downright amazing how many tools we have at our disposal for keeping track of our habits.

xkcd on exercise xkcd on exercise.

Off of the top of my head, here’s some things I’ve tracked:

So, what have I gained from being so meticulous with all of this data? Better habits with a side helping of anxiety, of course!

One of the books I’ve read this year, “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal, covers the topic of willpower and habits pretty thoroughly. One of the central themes is that habits take a little while to get started, but you tend to stick to them once you get used to doing them. This applies to all the good stuff and vices equally. I heartily recommend that book for the information it contains, even if the book could’ve been a little more succinct.

I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of habit tracking in so many ways. If I had to estimate, I’ve probably tried a hundred ways of logging the details of my life. My data, as a result, is fragmented and hard to collate. The completionist in me is incredibly frustrated by this.

“Why, the list of books I’ve read doesn’t even include the Michael Crichton books I read when I was 12! I’m appalled,” berates my inner voice.

But, it’s important not to lose sight of the why of habit tracking. What am I trying to accomplish — a checklist or a better life? When I take a step back from the data, I can say without a shred of doubt that my life has improved a lot since I started paying attention to my habits instead of letting my autopilot do the steering.

My data may not be complete and tidy, but I can look back and say things like “whoa, my resting heartrate has dropped 25 beats per minute since I started doing cardio exercise daily!” and “neat, I’ve read at least 6,000 pages this year!”

Perhaps even more importantly, I’ve reprogrammed my own habit autopilot. Going out for a run or bicycle ride is something I do now because I want to, not because I’m trying to check a box. Still, I keep track of my exercises on RunningAHEAD as best I can and, honestly, I feel like the data tracking is becoming a little detrimental. If I have to miss a day because I’m traveling for work, I feel crappier about losing my “daily exercise streak” than missing the exercise itself.

It’s a fine balance, I guess. You can convince yourself that you’ll definitely exercise tomorrow if you miss a day, but if you keep doing that then you’re not really taking care of your body.

The back and forth of habit tracking reminds me of a quote by Chuang Tzu:

When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.

Anyway, I’ve just about finished my cup of coffee on this beautiful Saturday morning, so I think I’m going to go degrease my bicycle chain and then take my trusty old commuter bike out for a ride.

Be well!