One tiny action that will improve your life

updated from the original article dated 8/24/2010

What gets measured gets managed.
–Dr. Peter Drucker

a tape measure

photo courtesy of gd365

This is an incredibly powerful statement. It’s why step one in any effort to lose weight should be to keep a food log…and it’s why that simple act is so often the turning point for people. If there’s any aspect of your life that is out of your control, or simply missing, you can make a great stride towards changing that fact simply by measuring it.

Do you feel you’re wasting your life away in front of the television or computer? Is your weight out of control? Do you smoke and wish you didn’t? Does being fit seem attractive, but getting there impossible? Start recording your behavior. Just doing it for a single 24 hour period will be illuminating. The knowledge you gain might encourage you to continue for a week, and then maybe three. If you do something consistently for 3 weeks, it becomes a habit.

You don’t have to stop the activities, but you’ll be doing them consciously now. And conscious behavior, even if it’s destructive, is worlds apart from unconscious behavior. For one thing, you’ll get more out of it. It’s one thing to savor a chocolate truffle, a glass of fine wine, or even a piece of pizza from that awesome pizzeria you discovered recently…it’s entirely another to mindlessly consume a pint of ice cream in front of the TV. Think about the last time you truly savored something special – like the aforementioned chocolate, or a lover’s kiss, or a hug from your child…didn’t it feel like time stood still? Now think about the last time you ate the ice cream in front of the TV, or got the munchies and ordered pizza and ate half of it, or drank a half a bottle of wine before bed….didn’t the time seem to vanish? Isn’t it hard to remember what it felt like or tasted?

I’d love to tell you to make a promise to yourself: “I will always pay attention and *enjoy* my indulgences.” It would make an astounding difference in your quality of life. But it’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic because right now, if you’re like most of us, you usually indulge out of reflex. And the problem with reflexive behavior is that you’ll do it and be done doing it without ever “waking up.” If you make the promise you’ll just end up slipping and will feel discouraged and bad about yourself. That’s a lose-lose scenario because you’ll have taken a step back without ever even having taken a step forward.

But there is a way out, and I speak as one who has always had an “addictive personality.” Believe me, reflexive overindulgence comes naturally to me, so I understand overeating to the point of obesity, procrastination to the point of failure, and other similar destructive behaviors. That being said, I am fit, I have been successful in two careers, I’m married to a beautiful woman who is my best friend, and we’re raising two small children. So how?

Attention.

Attention is an incredibly powerful tool. If it doesn’t seem like much, it’s only because you’ve never used it with enough focus and time to see its power. Think of water from the tap, dribbling over your hand. Now think of the Grand Canyon, carved by the same substance. Ok, so that took eons, but it was plain, ordinary water that did it. Add a little grit and pressure and you can build a waterjet that is capable of cutting thick steel in seconds. Attention is the same way. There may even be aspects of your life in which you already make use of the power of attention, but you don’t think of it because you’re used to it, take it for granted, or perhaps it may not be a particularly noteworthy effect. One merely has to watch a 13 year old play a first-person-shooter to witness near-preternatural reflexes and accuracy produced by unwavering attention over time.

So how do you focus attention onto something that you don’t already pay attention to naturally? Start with a splash. Measure it for a day. Let that stretch into a few days, then a week and beyond and you have a trickle. Eventually it will be a steady stream of attention that will be under your conscious direction.

I’ve listed some suggestions of things that may benefit from measurement. I don’t recommend picking too many at once. You want to pick one, two at the most, and coax the act of measurement into a habit first. Remember, the whole point is focus – you don’t want to start off fragmented. Once you’ve seen the results, and are habitually measuring a couple of items, you will have built up your ability to focus consciously, just like a muscle, and can start slowly increasing the load.

  • Your diet. You can log food, count calories, zone blocks, your weight, or some combination of the above.
  • Your exercise and activity. You can count squats, trips to the gym, flights of stairs, minutes spent walking, steps (carry a pedometer), etc. This is another one that can be done in combination with tracking your weight, but remember that serious resistance training will also build muscle mass.
  • Hours watching television.
  • Hours “online”. It may be enough just to focus on your most pervasive online activity. For some it’s online forums, others may waste hours on online games or funny videos. Just be careful you don’t create a new activity just to avoid the one you’re measuring.
  • Time spent outdoors. This is an example of measuring a positive behavior that you might want to increase.
  • The number of physical “things” you own. Most of us have too much clutter, and physical clutter is also mental clutter. Track every new thing you acquire and every thing you throw away, give away, or sell.
  • “I love you”s. It may seem cold to record each time you say “I love you” to a significant other or member of your family, but if the last time you did so was more than 24 hours ago, this may have more of a positive effect on your life than you think.
  • Cigarettes smoked.
  • The time you wake up in the morning…or the time you go to bed…or hours of sleep.
  • Quiet time. This is time sitting still, ideally meditating, or just focusing on your breathing.

Remember, what you’re really doing is learning to focus your attention. Don’t worry right now about using it for any particular purpose. As your ability to consciously focus attention grows, you’ll find that whatever you turn it to will begin to improve seemingly of its own accord. There’s no need to force it.

This is what waking up feels like.

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