Video: For Habits, Try the Strategy of Monitoring.

This week’s video: I’m starting a series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My book describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Last week was the Strategy of Self-Knowledge. This is the first, crucial strategy.

This week — the Strategy of Monitoring. (Which is one of the four “Pillars of Habits, ” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.)

Please excuse the typo in the video. I see it, but I can’t easily fix it. (Secret of Adulthood: Flawed can be more perfect than perfection. Right?)


Monitoring is an observational strategy. It doesn’t require that I change what I’m doing, only that I know what I’m doing. This is crucial to habit formation, because once I recognize what I’m doing, I may choose to behave differently.

Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it. Tracking boosts self-control in key categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV- and internet-use, spending—and just about anything else.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for habits: “We manage what we monitor.” Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control. And on the flip side, anything that makes us lose self-awareness weakens our self-mastery. Alcohol makes it all too easy to place giant bets at a casino; a long, stressful day can lead to a night of online binge-shopping; vacationing with a group of friends can make it easy to blow through a personal budget.

Actual measurement is crucial, because when we guess what we’re doing, we’re often wildly inaccurate. Unsurprisingly, we tend to under-estimate how much we eat and over-estimate how much we exercise.

Have you found ways to monitor yourself — and did you find that it changed your habits?

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  • As the classic Drucker saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

    Monitoring my steps has helped me to be more active, tracking my spending has helped me stay on top of my budget and savings goals, etc. It’s also my favorite way to stay motivated to appreciate the journey, not just the destination of the goal itself.

    Great stuff…can’t wait for the book Gretchen!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the kind words!

  • Blair424

    The cover story for the June issue of Scientific American is “The Neuroscience of Habits”.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Gillian

    This is a timely post! I do believe in the concept of monitoring what you want to manage. It works for me for budgeting and for getting in my almost-daily walks.

    I have set a goal of getting at least 3-4 hours of physical activity each day. I am now expanding the walks tracking to include all activity. The major motivation is weight-control – I think that by being physically active, I won’t have to be quite so obsessive about every piece of food or glass of wine I consume. By physically active, I mean getting out of the chair, onto my feet – walking, gardening, housework. Just relatively gentle physical movement. This might not seem like a big deal to many but my passions lie in reading, writing and studying which provide a decent brain work-out but don’t do much for the rest of me. I know from much past experience that exercise for the sake of exercise doesn’t work for me for more than a couple of weeks and leads only to frustration and a sense of failure. I decided on this new regime on Sunday and set up a spreadsheet to track how much time I actually spend doing physical things. Yesterday (day 1) was a success – almost 4.5 hours. If I spend 2 or 3 hours in the garden this afternoon, I will still be on track. This doesn’t mean that I can binge on food, just that I can have a little extra once in a while. I don’t think the activities will burn many calories but they will crank up my metabolism so that I, hopefully, process the food better. The latest scientific evidence is showing that frequent non-sedentary activity is more beneficial than binge exercising.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Let’s see what do I track: food, weight, steps, I even keep a sewing room journal. It all helps me keep focused where I WANT to focus.

  • Char

    Interesting Gretchen, but in the habit of tracking and controlling data aren’t we missing out on other pleasurable experiences? This is a great strategy when you are focusing on one thing you want to change, but if you want to make several changes, you’d spend your day tracking stuff! How much I ate, how much I exercised, how much I used internet…. Isn’t that also detracting the purpose?

    • Gillian

      This made me laugh, Char, because it is so true (maybe this falls into the category of Gretchen’s “the opposite of a truth also being true”?). I track/log virtually everything I do. I started 4 years ago shortly after I retired. I found that the days came & went, often without leaving much of a trace. I usually couldn’t account for what I had done last week or last month. So now I can look back and see how I spent my time. It usually doesn’t make very interesting reading. I said to a friend a few months ago, never has such a boring and uneventful life been so well documented. Silly really but without it, I feel as if I barely exist. However, it is true that monitoring one specific aspect of life that you want to change, or that you think might be causing a problem, can be very helpful.

    • gretchenrubin

      True, people sometimes argue that monitoring isn’t always a good thing. At times, I did find that the fact that I was monitoring distracted me from feeling an experience as deeply as I otherwise might. If I’m fussing with the sleep function on my UP band, I might not notice how good it feels to stretch out in bed. Nonetheless, monitoring is invaluable, because it helps ensure that I get to bed. How do I get a good night’s sleep if I stay glued to my computer until midnight?
      By monitoring the activities that I want to foster, I get an accurate picture of what I’m doing, which helps me see what I want to do differently. In that way, I ensure that my life reflects my values.

      • I think monitoring only becomes negative when you are missing the self-knowledge about how you should be monitoring. For example, monitoring my weight by standing on the scale felt depressing, and monitoring calorie intake felt overwhelming. I had to find the right way to monitor my weight, so I decided on using the fit of my clothes as an indicator that didn’t cause an immediate negative reaction.

        • gretchenrubin

          A very good point. It’s a tool to control wisely.

  • Catherine Burnett

    Thanks for the pre-emptive warning about the typo! I am a mad freak in that I can see grammar and spelling errors a mile away, and once identified, that’s the only thing on which I can focus (I’ve stopped reading books if I find a typo, as I’m too distracted to read the content and instead keep waiting for the next typo!) I appreciate your vulnerability to disclose an error you made.

    I do monitor many things in my life–schedule, workouts, to-do lists–which makes some people crazy, but it allows me to feel in control of many aspects of my life. When a race (running or triathlon) goes well, for instance, I can review my log to see what things went into making that race successful, so that I can add that to my daily workouts (speed or interval training, new type of gel, new bike route). Or I can review data about my heart rate and see if I need to change my workouts to better impact my fitness.

    Thank you for your fascinating work with happiness and habits, Gretchen. I’m a fan!

  • Katie Kelly

    I, too, am a monitoring nut — I am passionate about my FitBit (Gretchen, gently reminder that FitBit and Nike are different products) and have hooked several friends on this nifty device to manage activity. Regarding monitoring “too much,” I find that the food intake is something I’ll do from time to time, if my sweet tooth seems to be getting away from me, and after a month of monitoring, I have a pretty good idea of what to gently correct and I can stop monitoring — until the next time. So it’s not an all or nothing proposition.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, it’s the Nike FUELBAND. I thought the fit Bit was Nike.

  • Ines

    what is the monitor device you use?

    • gretchenrubin

      I use the Jawbone UP Band.

  • Amelia

    Looking back a few years ago, I managed without a lot of measuring and still felt very in-control, to the point that I was almost unaware of how in control I was. In my current life environment, I find myself struggling to self-control because of a lot of other constraints that I am now subject to with regards to work. I’m very aware and monitor constantly in an conscious/unconscious effort to gain self-control and find it much more energy draining compared to a few years ago. I long for those aware/unaware days!

  • Gabby Domingo

    If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that each individual and each business is unique unto itself. That’s why we work closely with you to clearly identify the outcomes you want to achieve. Then we help you to create a Customized Action Plan to achieve those outcomes. Most importantly, we keep you motivated and held accountable to execute your Customized Action Plan.

  • marie

    I am a big fan of the app My Fitness Pal. I use it on my iPad to track both the food I eat and my exercise. I like that I can see at a glance how my day or week is going, and can “budget” for special meals, or nudge myself to get regular exercise. You can search their data base for different foods, or put in a barcode or a recipe if you need to. It’s a reward to plug it in, and it’s so easy, much easier than trying to write everything down. It just keeps me on track!
    I’m also in grad school, and I find it helpful to track tasks within my assignments. This is both reminder and reward. I can see the smaller steps I need to do to progress, and enjoy the satisfaction of checking things off, however small. I use a little bound notebook and a version of the bullet method.

  • Marla

    Hey, just wanted to share, one thing that has helped me get more sleep is the sleep tracker app “Sleep Cycle.” You put your phone in bed with you and it can tell when you fell asleep and what stage of sleep you’re in (REM and deep sleep). It also tracks how well you slept compared to other nights. You can also put in sleep notes and see how certain factors affect your sleep. For example, I know if I drink any coffee after 3 pm, or take a nap during the day, I don’t sleep as well, but if I have a beer, I actually sleep a little better. Anyway, this app has really worked for me with the sleep habit, because I’m a HUGE measurer.

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