The things every high-achiever should know
In: Achieving Goals3 Mar 2011
Most bloggers (including myself) in the sphere of goal achievement and personal development are quite fond of tracking. They stress the importance of setting up systems to track your progress and measure it frequently. And there is a good reason they recommend this. It works. Very well. Seeing your progress is incredibly motivating, and seeing your progress drop is painful to witness, which gets you back on track quicker.
However, I’m here to talk about the dark side of tracking. The side of tracking that can actually prevent you from achieving your goals. It’s seldom discussed, which is why I feel the need to address it. If you’re someone who diligently tracks your goals, you will benefit from this post.
Tracking Progress? What For?
There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.
Enter Josh. Josh has been one of my best friends since 5th grade. After graduating high school, we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him much during my freshman year. When I returned home and met with Josh to catch up, I noticed something peculiar. He was, for lack of a better word, ripped. I spent that year partying, pledging, watching TV, and occasionally dropping by the school’s gym, whereas Josh diligently trained in the gym week after week. And it paid off big time for him. After the mixture of shock, awe, and a tinge of jealousy passed, I immediately signed up to his gym and started weight training with him as my tutor.
One thing I noticed about Josh’s training program is that he had a powerfully intuitive sense of how much he lifted on each exercise, what to expect for each set, and how many repetitions he should be aiming for in order to bust through a plateau. Considering all I had learned from various books and blogs about tracking goals, I asked Josh, “Do you track your progress in a notebook or something?” His response: “Writing down my progress? What for?” He then proceeded to let me know that he expects to get 7 repetitions using 85 pound dumbbells and told me to give him a spot starting at 5 repetitions. This man clearly had no need to formally track his progress.
I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed by all of these unfamiliar exercises and had no idea what a good weight for an exercise would be. And then I had to factor in how many repetitions I should expect based on my past performance. It was a lot to take in. I eventually chose to walk around with a pad and pencil and write down my progress. I studied each workout and started to gain insights. For example, my bench press was increasing steadily but my progress on lat pulldowns was stalling. I started working that exercise harder and at different angles and was able to break through the plateau. Through that one insight, I was already reaping the benefits of tracking.
By now, I’m sure many of you are starting to understand why Josh wouldn’t have benefited at all from tracking his progress, whereas I benefited immensely. Josh had been working out for over a year, and had done so many sets of these exercises that his mind was able to automatically recall past performance and use that data to determine the weight and repetitions needed to keep his progress consistent.
In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell uses many case studies to prove this point. Specifically, he argues that years of practicing an art or skill allows someone to make incredibly complex calculations, analyses, and decisions in the blink of an eye. That’s exactly what Josh was doing, and that’s precisely why he had no need to track every set of every exercise and then spend time analyzing it later.
But that begs the question, is there any downside to tracking goals when you don’t need to? At first glance, it would seem harmless if Josh had chosen to write down his exercises and analyze them every week or two. However, I’ll argue that for high achievers who are usually juggling many difficult projects and goals at once, tracking progress when it’s unnecessary can be detrimental to your progress in other areas.
Time Flies When You’re Tracking Goals
After about 18 months of going to the gym four days a week, I simply stopped tracking my progress because it was no longer necessary. I had reached the point where Josh was 18 months prior. And then I noticed something wonderful happen. My workouts were shorter because I wasn’t pausing to write things down and look over the numbers. I had more time each week to explore an emerging passion: blogging. For a student taking over 20 credits along with a job and an internship, this extra time was a god-send. Additionally, I even enjoyed my workouts more because I never had to break the flow of the workout to write down the numbers in my notebook.
The downside to tracking goals unnecessarily is quite simple: you’re wasting time and mental energy when you track goals that don’t need to be tracked. The reason this blog exists right now is because I understood when my time was better spent elsewhere. In essence, the time you spend each week analyzing progress that doesn’t need to be analyzed could be used to reach new heights in another area. And now that I’m very comfortable writing blog posts and marketing my content, I don’t need to track my Google Analytics numbers as frequently as I used to. Because of this, I now have more free time to dedicate towards my professional development, which is a growing priority now that I’m graduating. I couldn’t possibly have accomplished all that I’ve done in the past few years if I had diligently tracked every workout and reviewed Google Analytics. Even if I had increased my time management skills to create extra time for myself, I would be too mentally exhausted from all of the data analysis to actively pursue a new project to the best of my ability.
Conclusion – Little Changes, Big Results
The message for this blog post is simple: tracking goals is an amazing way to keep motivated and gain insights when you are just starting out. However, tracking goals unnecessarily is a waste of time and mental energy. And by knowing when to scale back and eventually quit tracking altogether, you create a gap in your schedule that you can dedicate to emerging interests and/or re-dedicating to other areas. I chose to start off this post by demonstrating that there is nothing to lose by “untracking” goals once you’ve reached the point that your subconscious tracks everything for you. Little changes add up to significant results over time, and “untracking” is no exception.
Photo by Peter Kaminski.
I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, experiments and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness, fulfillment and success.
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