How To Form Good Habits

Posted on March 16, 2013

Every morning I am excited to wake up and enter data into a spreadsheet. I log daily metrics like how much sleep I just got, the number of coffees I drank the day before, whether I exercised or not. This has helped me be more mindful every day of how I can make healthier choices that increase productivity.

Lately, I’ve been trying to eat less meat 1. Of course, I wasn’t about to become vegetarian overnight; bacon is just too delicious.

So instead of trying to change my meat consumption, I started off with the easy step of just keeping track of how much meat I ate every day. Mentally, I was in “data collection” mode. I was just trying to get a sense for the scope of the problem. After I collected some data, I could then analyze it and figure out a great plan that would totally, absolutely, guarantee a fool-proof path toward vegetarianism.

But a funny thing starts happening once you start seeing a number every day. You become addicted to improving that number 2. At lunch time, I would vacillate over eating a burger or a falafel. Either choice would be equally delicious, and true, the burger would be more filling, but dammit, I wanted to see that vegetarian number tick up! So I ate a vegetarian lunch of falafels.

Never mind the fact that the burger likely came from a factory-farmed cow contributing to superbug antibiotic resistance; that every 1 pound of beef produced requires 15 pounds of grain, with all the petroleum inputs and fertilizer runoff attendant with producing that grain; that a falafel is healthier and won’t put me into a food coma for the rest of the afternoon; that I was still “collecting data” and hadn’t even decided to actively eat less meat yet. The only reason I chose to eat a falafel over a burger was so that a number I saw every day would be a little bit better the next time I looked at it.

I never got around to formulating my totally, absolutely, guaranteed fool-proof plan toward vegetarianism. Just tracking and being reminded of the daily habits I wanted to form was enough to start altering the choices I make everyday to better reach my goals 3.

  1. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants [emphasis added].”

  2. Paul Graham: “… if you start measuring something you start optimizing it”

  3. If I had ambitions as a self-help author for internet savvy millennials, this is where I’d reveal the secret to success:
    1. Choose good metrics  
    2. Obsess over those metrics every day.  
    3. ???  
    4. PROFIT!!!