What Gets Measured Gets Managed

In a previous post, we discussed self-management—the process of identifying and modifying antecedents and consequences in an attempt to change your own behavior.

We also discussed how effective self-management entails three components, or what Dr. Robert Epstein called “the 3 Ms”: Modifying your environment, Making a public commitment, and Measuring your behavior.

Many behavior analysts might argue that modifying your environment and making a public commitment are the two most important aspects of any behavior-change program.

And understandably so.

First, let’s recall that our behavior is a function of three interlocking factors: our genetics, our history of experiences, and our current conditions (or current environment). Remember, also, that other people are an important part of our current environment—for both evolutionary and cultural reasons, they can have a powerful impact on what we do.

Given that we cannot change our genetics or our history, we’re left to “play with” our current conditions—the antecedents and consequences, both social and non-social, that are impacting our present behavior. So, in that sense, modifying our environment and making a public commitment are vital to changing our behavior.

But in the realm of self-management, the importance of measuring your behavior cannot be understated. Let’s discuss two reasons why.

Measuring Behavior Answers the Question, “Is My Plan Working?”

First, if you are unable to precisely measure your behavior, you will have a difficult time determining exactly whether your self-management plan is working.

Let’s take, for example, someone who isn’t happy with his current weight and is thus trying to lose a few pounds. He modifies some antecedents and consequences in his environment in the hope that doing so will “make me healthier.”

Okay, that sounds reasonable.

But remember that “healthy” is a label for different types of behaviors: eating nutritious food, exercising, getting enough sleep, meditating, and so on.

So, you ask him exactly what behaviors he is trying to change, what behaviors he thinks would produce the desired weight loss, to which he eventually replies, “I want to eat better and exercise more.”

Well, that sounds like a good strategy, one that will possibly produce the desired outcome if done consistently.

But it also begs the question: What exactly do you mean by “eating better” and “exercising more?”

Of course, the answers to these questions might vary from person to person. For one person, it might be eating a 1500-calorie vegetarian diet and walking 30 minutes each day. For another, it might mean eating 200 grams of protein and lifting weights three times per week for 45 minutes. And for a third person, it might mean eating fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates and taking 10,000 steps every day.

Regardless, notice how “eating 200 grams of protein” is more precise than “eating better,” and “walking 30 minutes each day” is more precise than “exercising more.” One can easily measure whether they occurred.

When you have precisely defined behaviors, measurement is easier. And when you can measure your behavior precisely, you’ll have a much easier time determining whether your self-management plan is working.

Measuring Behavior Often Changes Behavior

The second reason that measuring your behavior is important is because doing so can often provide feedback that, itself, affects your behavior.

For example, imagine a person who wants to lose weight by reducing her carbohydrate intake to fewer than 50 grams per day. She’s been trying to follow a “low-carb” diet for the past few weeks, so she thinks she can’t be too far off from that 50-gram total already.

Nevertheless, before she tries to modify her environment, she should still get an idea of how many grams she’s currently consuming each day (what behavior analysts like to call “baseline”). After 1 week of tracking every bit of food she consumes, she’s shocked to find that she’s been consuming well over 150 grams of carbs every day—certainly not what most would call a “low-carb” diet.

Even without additional modifications to her environment, obtaining this information might be enough to get her to eat fewer carbs each day. In essence, the feedback is now a part of her environment that is affecting her behavior in a positive way.

Moreover, as this person continues to measure her carb intake, if she finds that she is eating fewer carbs and losing weight, this feedback might be enough to reinforce the behavior of consuming no more than 50 grams of carbs per day.

So, there you have it: two reasons why it’s so important to measure your behavior.

Modify your environment, and make a public commitment. But don’t forget to measure your behavior.

As management guru Peter Drucker was fond of saying, “What gets measured gets managed.”