Tracking

Google has a program called Self-Powered Commuting, where they let employees track the days on which they get to work via self-powered methods (primarily biking or walking). At the end of the year, they tote up the number of days, and donate a proportionate amount to charity.

What’s amazing to me is how effective this program is at making me feel guilty when I don’t bike to work. I have the tracking page set up to open as one of my initial tabs, and every morning I don’t bike to work, I feel a slight twinge when I have to close the tab without clicking the button. And when I look back at the month, I can see which days I missed and wonder what my excuse was for not biking. The simple act of checking in once a day and tracking how I did is remarkably effective at reinforcing the habit of biking that I want to inculcate in myself.

Eric's Personal Score BadgeIn a similar vein, I recently found Joe’s Goals, which is a website based on the same concept. It allows you to set goals for yourself, assign them different point values, and track them on a daily basis. For instance, I give myself 1 point for flossing and eating 4 fruits a day, but 3 points for going to the gym or posting here. And now I can see tangible progress towards acquiring these habits – I’ve flossed every day for a week!

It’s silly that such a small thing as checking a box once a day can reinforce habits that I have been saying I should acquire for years. But it does. By reducing my goals down to a daily yes-or-no question, there’s no fudging, there’s no “I’ll get to it tomorrow” – there is only whether the box gets checked or not. I read recently that new behaviors take a month to set into place as habits (Google Answers has a couple references), so if I can keep up these habits for a month, then I can perhaps add a couple more next month. We’ll see.

But I think tracking has applicability beyond personal improvement, specifically in management. One of my favorite management anecdotes is the story of how Andrew Carnegie (I think?) was asked to figure out how to make an underperforming factory more productive. He said all he needed was a piece of chalk. He arrived at the shift change between the night crew and the day crew, asked the outgoing crew how many widgets they had produced, wrote that number on the wall with the chalk, and waited. The incoming crew asked what that number was. He told them. At the end of their shift, the number was erased and replaced with a higher number. The night crew put up a higher number, and soon the factory was outperforming other factories. The story may be apocryphal, but I find it indicative of the power of tracking (and also competition in this case).

Many management texts recommend SMART goals – that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. And those are good, although the method biases action towards easily measurable goals, which may not be aligned with overall organization goals. But the Self-Powered Commuting and Joe’s Goals pages show me that having regular checkpoints is really important as well, so that one can’t be procrastinating on those goals. I suspect that some of the benefit of Agile methods is having a daily stand-up meeting, so everybody knows they have to make progress each day. My best manager checked in with me once a week, to find out what I’d done the previous week, and what I planned to do the next week.

What are the behaviors you want to inculcate in yourself and others? Would tracking those behaviors, either privately or publicly, help? It’s a theory, and we’ll see how the Skinner-ian self-management experiment goes for me. If I’m still sticking with it in a week, I’ll move the Joe’s Goals tracker to my sidebar :).

8 thoughts on “Tracking

  1. I’m sure that Scrum has some sort of other tangible benefits, with all the little task cards and what not, but IMO, its primary benefit are the daily standups. When those happened with all the participants on a daily basis, things went well. When they didn’t, everything went to crap.

    The process of getting everyone in a room and forcing them to remember what they did yesterday, and know what they were doing today, and having everyone hear that info, was tremendously helpful. In part because it forces you to think about what you’re doing, but also because everyone hears it, and so if someone else is doing something relevant, they can speak up immediately.

    It was that bouncing around of ideas that made the difference, IMO, but definitely having to stand up in front of a crowd and say, “I did nothing of note yesterday,” forces you to examine exactly *why*…

  2. Cool stuff…. the feedback/measurement having an effect totally makes sense.

    But to go to the totally trivial side, for flossing, I am a huge proponent of the Reach Access Flosser–it’s a floss-on-a-stick instrument. Makes it so easy and slobber-free to floss that it becomes the default action.

  3. Joe’s Goals looks like an excellent link — thanks! I like to think that acquiring new habits becomes easier the more you do it. Right now it takes more than a month for any good habit to become second-nature, but I’m hoping that the time frame compresses as I become more confident about my ability to change my own habits.

  4. Joe’s Goals looks like an excellent link — thanks! I like to think that acquiring new habits becomes easier the more you do it. Right now it takes more than a month for any good habit to become second-nature, but I’m hoping that the time frame compresses as I become more confident about my ability to change my own habits.

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