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Staying on Track by Tracking

Imagine you are about to embark on a trip across the sea to Utopiaville. You make sure your ship is in great shape with plenty of fuel and supplies. You point your boat in the right direction and head out. You happily reach land and ask the locals how they like Utopiaville. “Oh this isn’t Utopiaville. This is Miserytown. Utopiaville is 5,000 miles north of here.”

Going on a voyage without a navigation system would be ridiculous. But that is what we do whenever we set a goal but don’t track our progress. We point ourselves toward our destination but don’t know whether or not our progress is keeping us moving at the correct speed and in the right direction until we either get there or we don’t. By then it’s too late and we end up in Miserytown with our goal unfulfilled.

According to a meta-analysis of 138 studies by the American Psychological Association, the more often you track your progress, the greater the likelihood you will succeed in achieving your goal.

For individuals, we commonly fail to track our progress with personal goals, such as saving money for a specific purpose, losing weight, or allocating our time more effectively.

But businesses often fail to track as well. A 2016 study of over 250 small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. showed that only 1 in 10 small-to-medium businesses that have growth targets track them in real-time. The study also showed that companies that track performance are nearly twice as likely to hit their targets.

There are several other benefits to tracking as well. The obvious one is that it allows you to adjust if you are not making the progress you want. For example, setting a household budget is great but you won’t adjust your spending habits unless you track where your money is going.

Another benefit is motivation. Looking at your fitness tracker and seeing you have exceeded your intended number of daily steps can give you a boost and propel you to keep it up. If the number is low, it’s a kick in the pants to get moving!

It can also help you to determine if your goal is realistic. If you are doing the best you can reasonably do but still fall short, adjust the goal itself. (Whether you are actually doing “the best you can” is another issue.)

Below are some tips for making tracking part of your success strategy.

Set the goal and know your baseline

Determine what you want to accomplish or improve and the benefits you hope to achieve by reaching the goal. Then assess your baseline, which is what you are doing now that you will need to change in order to get there. You can’t know if you decreased your spending by 20% if you don’t know what you spend now.

Set the tracking system and make tracking a habit.

I track my weight loss progress by using a simple spreadsheet. I have the habit of stepping on the scale every Monday morning (9:00 a.m. if possible). I have a reminder on my calendar that pops up every week at that time. Reminders are necessary at first but are not needed as the tracking becomes a habit. For example, I no longer need my Monday reminder because the habit is engrained, but I keep it in place just in case.

Don’t overtrack

I have been guilty of tracking too much, or tracking for no specific reason than to see the data points. Try to avoid too-frequent tracking where the individual points mean little compared to longer term progress. Often longer-term averages give you a better snapshot of your progress.

Last year I started tracking my retirement portfolio daily along with daily market changes. Since I don’t respond or adjust to daily ups and downs, tracking that often only wastes time. (I currently do it weekly though honestly that is way too often as well.)

Record and share for more success

The APA report referenced earlier also found that your chances of success go up further if you report your progress publicly and/or physically record it. If you are a leader, report the data to your team and subordinates as you track it. Then when you need to make a change, they will know why.

Tracking may seem like a lot of work, but it’s not nearly as costly as missing your goals or having to undo or redo your efforts.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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