Self-monitoring for change
Posted by Lori Eisner, PhD
As 2018 draws to a close, many people will be starting to think about their New Year’s resolutions and how they want to be different in 2019. Some of the most common resolutions are to eat healthier, get more exercise, save more money (or spend less money), focus on self-care, make new friends, learn a new skill or take up a new hobby, or get a (new) job. Before making any change, I often recommend that my clients engage in some type of self-monitoring to get a baseline measure of whatever it is they want to be different. The purpose of self-monitoring is threefold: it can bring thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns into awareness, it can serve as an intervention in and of itself, and it provides the data necessary for making small changes and maintaining your motivation in the direction of your goal.
Self-monitoring is a way to increase one’s awareness of their experience, inner or outer. You can monitor how many times you have a particular worry thought. You can rate how high and how low your anxiety is each day. You can track how hungry you are and what you are eating. You can keep a log of everything you purchased each day and what mood you were in when you made the purchase. Often times when I ask people to self-monitor, they return the following week surprised by how much they either overestimated or underestimated that a particular thought, feeling, or behavior was occurring. Self-monitoring serves as a way to gather more accurate data about how often something is (or is not) happening.
So how does one get started with self-monitoring? These days there are so many different options for self-monitoring. There are fitbits and smart watches. Searching the app store on your phone will bring up apps to self-monitor almost anything (medication compliance, exercise, food/calorie intake, sleep, mood/anxiety). If digital tracking is not for you, a quick search on Pinterest will pull up hundreds of different ways to track your emotions or habits, many involving elaborate charting or bullet journaling.
There is no ‘right’ way to engage in self-monitoring. The advice I often give to my clients is to keep it simple and find something that works for you. Often times the pursuit of the ‘perfect’ way to track something becomes just another way to avoid the very thing you want to change. Self-monitoring can be as basic as using a pen and paper that you keep on your nightstand. The other suggestion I make is to pair the act of recording with another activity that you already do daily so that you remember to actually do the self-monitoring. For example, after you finish a meal, log what you have eaten or track your mood twice a day after brushing your teeth in the morning and evening. This way the activity you are already doing regularly becomes a cue or a reminder for engaging in your self-monitoring.
Self-monitoring also serves as an intervention. On the most basic level, it provides a sense of agency, a feeling that you are doing something in the direction of change. Seeing the frequency, intensity or amounts of your thoughts, feelings or behaviors can also create discomfort that motivates change. We know that people are more likely to change their behavior if they know that they have to record it, and even more so if someone else, like a therapist, is going to see what they have recorded.
Honest self-monitoring will start to give you a real picture of your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors and provides a jumping off point for making small changes in the direction that you want to go. For example, once you see exactly how much you are drinking, can you start to cut your drinking back by a half glass every night. Consistency in self-monitoring over time allows you to continuously adjust and set new goals. It also provides you with a longstanding record that allows you to see the ups and downs of your journey. Seeing the reality of your progress or change over time may help you stay motivated in moments when you may want to give up because you have returned to an old behavior or gotten off track in a given moment.
So if you are looking to get a head start on your 2019 resolutions you can start today by monitoring what it is you are seeking to change. And when the ball drops at midnight, you will already be on your way to a better version of you.