“What gets measured gets managed.” (— Peter Drucker?)
There is an old saying in management, if you want to improve something, start by measuring it, or you won’t see how to make a difference. (— Catharine Paddock, Ph.D.)
Makes sense, once you think about it, right? It makes so much sense that a billion-dollar industry has grown up around the concept. Fitbit, Jawbone and the Apple Watch have been joined by hundreds of other devices and smartphone applications to make monitoring our bodies’ vital signs and other health measures easier than ever, without the bother of a health care professional or fitness coach.
“What gets measured gets managed.” This is a similar, well-known quote by Peter Drucker (famous 20th century management expert) — or William Thomson aka Lord Kelvin (19th century Scottish physicist) — or Peter Drucker’s intern — no one knows for sure. Moreover, Dr. Paddock’s quote, above, is almost certainly referring to this second, more succinct version. Moreover-over, an internet search using your favorite search engine will produce a plenitude (like plethora but more pompous-sounding) of references to this famous quote, as applied to health and behavioral change.
Why is this concept referred to so often in wellness circles? Research. It has been studied in business for many decades and, more recently, in health and wellbeing circles extensively. As Paddock elaborates, “Ultimately, how consistently a person tracks key parameters is strongly predictive of whether or not he or she will achieve a goal.” She goes on to cite specific studies by Hutchesson, Laitner, Minski, Perri et al. (see references below).
The overwhelming evidence is conclusive: “What gets measured gets managed” is true. The very act of becoming aware of personal weight trends or exercise patterns, through keeping track of these things, prompts positive changes in behavior. One health writer said there is no such thing as a free lunch, but self-monitoring comes about as close as you can get. He is saying that once you start tracking a behavior (especially one that needs managing), you almost can’t help but begin to make positive behavioral adjustments.
There is a place to start for everyone, no matter how technically proficient one is. This concept applies to tracking your weight weekly on your analog (wall) calendar as well as tracking your steps daily on a state-of-the-art digital body-monitoring device. And to boost effectiveness even more, reminders to self-monitor can be sent by machines (your smartphone and favorite app) or humans (your fitness coach or health care provider). Reminders are an important source of extrinsic motivation to keep up the monitoring and, therefore, increase the likelihood of goal accomplishment.
An important benefit of self-monitoring is that it gives immediate or short-term feedback about a long-term goal. For example, one can strive to fit into smaller clothes as a result of weight loss. But this result (goal) is relatively far off, which can make it difficult to keep nutrition and exercise aspirations on track. But daily feedback — say from a food intake log or a device to track exercise minutes — can keep us motivated until we actually see the longer-term goal of pounds melting away. We see daily progress in some form even if the scale hasn’t moved yet.
Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., offers these tips for a structured approach to certain goals, whether you’re a coach offering encouragement or doing it all on your own:
- Maintain a food intake log and a physical activity log at least three (3) times weekly. Try to track on two weekdays and one weekend day. The more, the merrier.
- For a weight loss goal, track weight once per week — at the same time and under the same circumstances (e.g., every Wednesday morning, right out of bed, in similar night clothes).
- Emphasize conscientious self-monitoring especially in the early weeks or months of desired behavior modification. Tapering off is OK after that, but some level of tracking should continue long-term.
As with expensive exercise machines, start small. Don’t go out and buy a costly self-tracking gadget right off the bat. Better yet, start tracking with paper and pencil first. The digital novelty will wear off. Before you spend big bucks on a self-monitoring device, get an idea if this is something you’ll want to keep up. If so, keep it up.
Hutchesson, M.J., et al.; Enhancement of Self-Monitoring in a Web-Based Weight Loss Program by Extra Individualized Feedback and Reminders: Randomized Trial”; Journal of Medical Internet Research; 2016.
Laitner, M.H., Minski, S.A., & Perri, M.G.; “The Role of Self-Monitoring in the Maintenance of Weight-Loss Success”; Eating Behaviors; 2016.
Muth, Natalie Digate, M.D.; “Coaching Behavior Change: Why Self-Monitoring Is a Key Ingredient in Successful Behavior Change”; American Council on Exercise: ProSource; June 2016.
Paddock, Catharine, Ph.D.; “How Self-Monitoring Is Transforming Health”; Medical News Today; August 15, 2013.