The Tracking Paradox
To track or not to track?
The Tracking Paradox
“What gets measured gets managed.” – Peter Drucker
I’m a big fan of tracking.
I journal every day, keep travel logs on the road, religiously jot down weight, sets, and reps during my workouts, and meticulously ink my distance and average pace after a run. I use a paper habit tracker to manage key daily behaviours I’m focused on starting or stopping, the Todoist app to track daily tasks, and Google Calendar to monitor how I spend my time.
You get the point. I track. A lot. And it’s served me well in many areas of my life.
But like all things, tracking, while great in moderation, takes on characteristics of its opposite in excess. There is an evil side to tracking, one I’m intricately familiar with.
January 2021 marked my first month of serious running.
I had only picked up the habit two weeks earlier, having been influenced at Christmas by my brother and sister who are both avid runners. Like any good runner, the first thing I did was download a tracking app to measure my distance, time, and pace.
I became hooked.
Not on running per se, but rather on the numbers I produced when I ran. Every kilometer, the app would spit out my pace, distance, and total duration. If my next kilometer was slower than my last, I kicked myself to pick up the pace. Each run had to be better than yesterday’s. Faster, longer, harder.
In my first month as a runner, I notched 145km or about 5km per day—not bad for an amateur.
But it wasn’t because I loved to run. In fact, the more fixated I became on the numbers the more I hated it. Running became about the metrics on my phone, not the act of running itself. As the months went on, I kept running but my total distance dropped.
By April I was running nearly half of what I had done in January. Running was no longer fresh air, a mental reset, and an enjoyable way to exercise. It was an arduous chore where I had to prove myself by running faster and harder than I did the day before.
At that point, I knew something had to change.
I knew that the only way to make running a sustainable part of my life was to enjoy it. I needed to run for the joy of running, not for some external metric. The app had to go. Slowly, I taught myself to run at my own speed, to not care about my pace or distance, and, most importantly, to make it feel good so I was excited to come back the next day.
The lesson I took from my running conundrum was this:
Tracking can be a fantastic method of driving results, improving performance, and adhering to desired behaviours. But you cannot track everything and you should not track some things.
Know thyself. Identify where tracking is helping and where it might be hurting.
After learning how to love running despite external metrics, I’m back to tracking my runs but with a much healthier and more constructive approach. I use it as a tool to measure my progress and identify what causes certain runs to feel great and others to feel sluggish.
If you face the same tracking struggles that I did or you want to start tracking while maintaining a healthy relationship with it, here are five guidelines to make tracking an effective tool, not a negative emotion.
Tracking Guideline #1: Mainline intrinsic motivation.
Before you start tracking a habit, solidify it as a consistent part of your life by finding and maintaining your intrinsic motivation to do it.
You could set up the best tracking system in the world to ensure I take every action required to become a professional ballerina. But considering I have no interest in learning ballet, there is no chance in hell I’m going to follow it.
Define your deeper “why” so that what you’re doing doesn’t become about hitting a number.
With purpose or meaning behind your actions, like living a longer life, feeling happier or healthier on a daily basis, or setting yourself up for future success, habit tracking will be an effective tool, not a heavy burden.
Tracking Guideline #2: It’s okay to “screw up” or regress.
Just be consistent every day.
That doesn’t mean going harder, faster, and heavier than the day before. It just means showing up, sticking to your plan, and doing something, no matter how small, to get a little better every single day.
Don’t become so obsessed with numbers on an app or words in a journal that you would rather completely skip a workout (or choose not to engage in your target habit) than just do the scaled-down, “two-minute” version of it.
Tracking Guideline #3: Set a realistic schedule and know when enough is enough.
Don’t start at your end goal.
If you want to exercise for 60 minutes every day or meditate for 10 minutes five times per week, don’t make that your starting point. Start small, be consistent, and then scale up over time.
It’s also important to know when enough is enough.
At large, our society is all about getting more. We are taught to approach the things in our life as if there is never enough. More money. Bigger houses. Faster cars. Nicer things. You should never stop accumulating!
This mentality is flawed.
In fitness, just as in wealth and material possessions, there is a point of enough. What that point is, only you can decide. But once you hit it, don’t ceaselessly strive for more. It’s important to strike a balance between setting new goals and finding exciting ways to improve without feeling like you aren’t enough or that you must do and be more.
Striving for more should be an added bonus, not a necessary evil to stay at baseline contentedness.
Tracking Guideline #4: We live in the real world, don’t lean too heavily into the digital one.
Tracking should enable improvements, not cloud over your real-life experiences.
Do the things you do for the sake of doing them or for the outcomes they drive, not so you can tick a box or get a digital high five. The behaviours and habits you engage in on a daily basis should, for the most part, enrich and improve your life.
Don’t forget why you started in the first place.
Tracking Guideline #5: Lean into support.
There's more than one way to skin a cat.
You can track individually in a journal or with an app, or you can have an accountability partner with similar goals that you perform your target habit or regularly meet with.
Keep the end goal in mind and be open to how you get there. Setting and achieving goals with others is often far more fulfilling than doing it on your own.