You should track your progress on at least one thing in life

Back in my teenage years, I took up weight training. I was determined to change my body from soft and flabby to at least mildly toned.

I started at a gym, got given a program and I went regularly. I kept a basic record of my progress (weights and reps) and over the next couple of years, went at least some of the way towards changing my body.

In my 20’s my fitness focused shifting to cycling. I didn’t do the whole lycra thing (much the appreciation of my friends and family), but I did use my bike to get just about everywhere – work, study etc. I didn’t really track my riding, because I did it as a form of transport, not strictly as fitness.

In my 30’s I kinda let it all go. I remained modestly active but my 30’s were a period marked by illness, not just mine.

Now I am in my 40’s, I am determined to head into the latter parts of my life with reasonable fitness. Part of that has been resuming the weight training. The difference is I now have the necessary equipment at home and don’t have to hang out at a gym (other than the weights, I hate those places).

At first I did the weight training but kept no records. I had memorised the approximate weights and reps and each time I worked out, I just did something approximating my last workout.

A month or so ago I started actually properly recording my weights and reps in a graph book I had lying around – much like I used to in my teens. Nothing fancy. Just pen and paper.

Keeping records fundamentally changes the experience for the better. I can see my progress. Every time I pick up a weight or start an exercise, I know that my job is to equal or better my last attempt. Rather than using fatigue as a guide, I use the numbers. They help stop me bailing out of an exercise early, because it starts to feel a bit hard.

Resuming the recording of my weight training progress has provided valuable metaphor for other things in my life. Without appropriate tracking of progress (and the small mental celebrations that go with improvement), you can quickly start using your emotions as a guide to whether or not you should continue. If I couldn’t look at my record book and see how far I’ve come, what would continue to motivate me to keep pushing myself in that gym room? If I looked inwards, I might find only boredom or disinterest or lack of motivation. So instead I look outwards, at my record book. It tells me where I’ve been and what I’ve achieved and it shows me that further progress is possible.

Some people love tracking their progress on various indicators – the quantified self movement. I’m not sure I’d want to track everything I do, but I think it is valuable to have at least one thing in your life that you are tracking, that has the capacity to show improvement. Fitness is one of the most obvious examples.

Now it is probably helpful if the activity you choose to track has some personal relevance. I do weights because of a strong belief (that I am confident is supported by evidence) that entering into one’s later years with good muscle mass, bone density and strength is a good thing. I want to be as healthy as possible in my 50’s and beyond, having spent a large chunk of my 30’s unwell.

But you can realistically choose any activity, where you suspect you will get better over time and track that. Maybe you only want to do that activity for a couple of months. Maybe it is not the activity itself that is important, but proving to yourself that you can improve at something when you expend effort. Maybe you want to demonstrate to yourself that you can attach your behaviour to something other than ‘motivation’.

If you do decide to track some aspect of your life, I suggest not spending too much time trying to find the perfect tracking tool. If you can use pen/paper, go with that. If you know of a good app or program that will work (e.g. a recommendation from a friend) go with that. But don’t procrastinate trying to find the perfect tracking tool. All the tool needs to do is capture your performance at any given point and then visually represent your improvement over time. For example, I can clearly see with my graph book that my weights and reps are trending upwards.

Start tracking something today.

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