Self-monitoring: a simple and powerful way to break bad habits

Hopefully you have read part 1 in this series and you have managed to pin down what is maintaining your bad habit. Now that you know your enemy a little more, I can share a strategy with you to help kick that habit!

Self-monitoring is the act of keeping a daily record of a specific behavour that you want to change about yourself.  It’s a easy three step process that has a good success rate of breaking stubborn bad habits.

Let’s get started!


1) Set goals

Ask yourself

-What do you want to achieve? Your dream goal.
-What should be your first step to get there? What behaviour change needs to happen?
-What is your target behaviour?

Behaviour babble: A target behaviour is something that you want to focus on changing


The golden rules of goal setting are….

  • Be specific! Otherwise you won’t know whether you have achieved your goal or not!
  • Be measurable! Can you count the number of times your target behaviour occurs? Could a stranger know what to look for based on your definition?
  • Be achievable! Try to measure how often you do your target behaviour over the course of a few days. This will give you a good idea of where to set your first goal. i.e. if you smoke around 20 cigarettes a day, then setting your first goal to smoke only 1 cigarette a day might be pretty difficult to achieve.

Life goals

Good examples……

  • How many cigarettes will you smoke? First goal: 15 a day. Ultimate goal: 0 a day.
  • How many unhealthy evening snacks will you eat? First goal: 6 a week. Ultimate goal: 1 a week.
  • How many miles will you run? First goal: 2 miles twice a week. Ultimate goal: 20 miles three times a week.
  • How many minutes will you spend procrastinating/not being on task? First goal: 30 minutes. Ultimate goal: 5 minutes.



2) Self-Monitor your progress

Self-monitoring is the act of recording how many times you do your target behaviour on a daily basis. It sounds incredibly simple, but the mere act of keeping tabs on your behaviour can have a powerful effect on the way that you behave.

It was the reason why a women went from being a heavy smoker for 25 years to stopping smoking within a matter of weeks! (Rozensky (1974).

So how do you do it?  You need to find a way to record your target behaviour on a daily basis.

Here are some suggestions

  • Want to eat more healthily? Count the number of calories you’ve eaten per day. Or the number of unhealthy snacks eaten per day.
  • Stopping procrastination? Use a stopwatch (most smartphones come with a built in stopwatch app) to count how many minutes you are off-task from what you should be doing.
  • Want to exercise more? Use a pedometer the number of steps taken per day. (Fitbit anyone?)
  • Stopping smoking? Count the number of cigarettes smoked per day. (Using a tally on your phone’s note app, or keep an actual notepad in your pocket if your really old school!)


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Self-monitoring Tips

  • Make it easy to do

Why are fitness gadgets such as Fittbit so successful? Because you put it on your wrist, set it up and then it magically starts to record your exercising habits. Easy!

Whatever behaviour your recording, make sure that you use something that makes recording that behaviour easier.

  • Use your smartphone

If you have one, a smartphone will make it much easier to monitor your target behaviour. We keep them within our reach at all times (that’s not just me right??) so you can keep tabs on every instance of your behaviour and they have an unimaginable number of apps available to make recording your habits easier.

  • Start recording ASAP (if its a behaviour that you want to decrease)

Are you recording a behaviour that you want to decrease, such as the number of chocolate bars eaten per day? Then start recording it as soon as you start to show the warning signs that your bad habit is on the way! For example, start recording once you pick up the chocolate bar or opening the wrapper, rather than when you’ve polished off the bar.

Research has shown that this method on its own can be effective at reducing your bad habit!


3)Track your performance

Keeping a clear, daily record of your target behaviour will allow you to get a better picture of how you’re progressing. One of the best ways is to…

  • Use a graph: If your using a smartphone app to track your progress, then chances are that it has an option to view a pre-made graph of your progress. See this Fitbit graph below measuring weight loss.

fitbit graph

  • Use Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. If making a graph is a step too far, then keep a clear track of your progress by recording your data using a Google Sheet like so.

Google form ed2

Now that you are keeping a clear record of your progress, over time you will clearly see whether self-monitoring is working for you, or if you need to add something else to make your plan more effective.



So why does self-monitoring work?

To tell you the truth we aren’t totally sure as to why self-monitoring works so well.

But one explanation that makes a lot of sense is the idea of guilt control. We strive to reach our behaviour change goals and improve in our habits because if we don’t improve, if we catch ourselves not meeting our goals, then we start to feel guilty. To avoid feeling guilty we make sure our performance is up to scratch and that we keep on track with our good habits.

(In behaviour babble terms, self-monitoring improves our bad habits through negative reinforcement to avoid guilt).



Now all that’s left to do is go and start self-monitoring your own behaviour!

See if you notice any changes in performance after a week or so!

Let me know how you guys get on!

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