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the science of self-monitoring

Help clients achieve more by helping them measure their progress.

Over two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin used detailed grids to measure his progress toward the 13 goals he had set for himself (yes, that’s why the popular organizer is called a Franklin Planner). He believed
this logging process deepened his self-understanding and enhanced his efforts to modify his behavior. As he put it, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

Today, many accomplished people use the same technique in their efforts to achieve more and perform better. Elite athletes, for example, routinely keep detailed logs of their performances and of the factors that contribute to peak performance. Research confirms that recording aspects of behavior
and progress toward goals—a process psychologists call self-monitoring— enhances success in making a variety of life changes. Self-monitoring has proved an effective tool in improving athletic performance, academic achievement and parenting skills; in clinical situations, self-monitoring has been shown to aid in reducing weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, disruptive classroom behavior, nail biting and even hallucinations (Kazdin 1974; Kirschenbaum 1987)! When combined with goal setting and other behavioral-change techniques, self-monitoring is a simple but powerful tool that fitness professionals can use to help clients achieve more.

Why Self-Monitoring Works

Self-monitoring enhances performance for a variety of reasons. When clients are performing well, it gives them a small, satisfying reward to record progress and give themselves a “good grade.” When they are struggling, giving themselves a “bad grade” is a reminder that encourages them to evaluate alternative strategies. For example, a client might skip his workout one day because of obligations at work or home. Coach him not to beat himself up about this, but to develop a strategy that will help him stick to the regime. Suggest that he wake up an hour earlier in the morning and do the exercise then; or have him write the workout in his appointment book and honor it as he would a business meeting. Self-monitoring helps clients avoid the “all-or-none” thinking that often leads to the “snowball effect” (suffering a minor setback, considering oneself a “failure,” and letting that small lapse snowball into a major relapse and a total collapse). Furthermore, self-monitoring tends to counteract the natural tendency to overlook progress, as when dieters focus on times they broke their diets, while minimizing all their successes.

By forcing clients to be accountable and honest with themselves, self-monitoring also makes it difficult to rationalize weak progress or ignore repeated setbacks. Consider the experience of this person, who used self-monitoring as one element of his weight loss strategy: “When I was keeping records of my eating, some days I wouldn’t record. After this had happened several times, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t keeping the records because I wanted to pig out. So I had to face my true feelings. Did I want to stop overeating or not? I decided I did, so I forced myself to record the reasons why I wasn’t keeping a record. That worked well, and pretty soon I went back to keeping records all the time” (Watson & Tharp 1993).

Finally, self-monitoring facilitates “course corrections.” For example, people who record progress toward their eating and exercise goals often learn they
are suffering from “weekend snowballs”—making solid progress during the week, but letting minor slips snowball into periods of inactivity and overeating on weekends. Armed with this knowledge, self-monitors can then make “course corrections”: On weekends, they can redouble their efforts to exercise and perhaps decide to cook healthy meals at home rather than eat out.

Self-Monitoring in Action: Useful Techniques

Use What You Already Have. Most trainers already record the basic aspects of each client’s workouts: the length and intensity of cardiovascular exercise, the amount of weight lifted, the number of repetitions for various exercises, and so on. But most trainers would admit that they don’t share and discuss this gold mine of information as much as they could. Nothing builds confidence like success, and clients often don’t realize just how much more weight they are lifting in session 6 compared to session 1, for example. Jointly reviewing past progress builds self-efficacy, enhances motivation and makes it easier to set the specific, challenging goals that provide maximal boosts in performance and increase adherence to exercise programs.

Make It Visual. Try using a spreadsheet to create visually compelling charts and graphs of client data. Most people find steadily increasing lines that reflect improved strength and conditioning far more motivating and understandable than rows of numbers. Workout data won’t help clients if the data exist only on your clipboard or in a centralized file. They need to be in front of clients on a regular basis, and in a comprehensible, inspiring format.

Focus on Controllable Behaviors. If your clients are trying to lose weight (most of them are), here’s a good way to undermine their confidence and enthusiasm: Ask them to weigh themselves each day, starting on the first day of the exercise program. This is demoralizing, not only because weight loss occurs slowly at first, but also because it is not a “controllable behavior.” In other words, clients can’t wake up in the morning and say, “I will lose weight today.” But they can say, “I will go to the gym today” or “I will eat vegetables four times today.” Tracking progress toward these kinds of “controllable” goals is much more motivating, particularly at the beginning of their weight loss effort.

Of course, some clients benefit from regular weigh-ins. In fact, three-fourths of those who lose weight and keep it off weigh themselves at least once a week (Klem et al. 1997). Over the long term, weighing can be a strong indicator of whether weight loss strategies are working, and it becomes motivating once clients start to lose weight. However, trainers may consider participating in and supervising the weighing to help diminish reliance on uncontrollable feedback or measures of success that clients may experience because of a number on a scale. Trainers can also use weighing as an opportunity to discuss personally controllable behaviors related to the losses or gains.

The take-home message is that clients will be more motivated and comply better with an exercise regimen if they begin by tracking progress on controllable behaviors, such as workout length and intensity, rather than physiological “outcome measures,” such as changes in weight, blood pressure, body fat or medication needs.

Help Clients Take Self-Monitoring to the Next Level. Recording progress can help clients achieve all kinds of goals, both in and out of a personal training studio or health club. Encourage clients to set goals in different areas of their lives and to record their progress toward each goal on a simple 1–10 scale each day. This technique facilitates progress toward any kind of goal, and the familiarity of a 10-point scale lends itself to intuitive computer graphs. Students in yoga classes, for example, can make daily ratings of how flexible they feel, or the amount of back pain they are experiencing; newcomers often see dramatic, and encouraging, improvements after just a few classes. Students in cardio-focused classes can rate their overall level of exertion or stamina—and will likely see similar improvements. This technique is also well-suited for rating progress toward nutrition goals or even non-health-related goals.

Arming clients with techniques that help them accomplish goals both in and out of your facility positions you as less of an “exercise helper” and more of a “life goal facilitator.” This kind of positioning deepens your relationships with clients, builds client loyalty and enhances the long-term profitability of your business.

  • Self-monitoring software can simplify the entry of progress data and enable sophisticated analyses with point-and-click simplicity. For example, check out ChangePlanet’s Change Your Life software at www.realscienceofsuccess.com/software.htm.
  • DataforLife (www.dfl.com) sends users daily “iMails” containing questions about their behavior and progress toward goals. Users record their answers and get graphs of their progress directly in e-mails. DataforLife includes many health- and fitness-related questions, as well as summaries of research on effective weight loss techniques.
  • Writing about past experiences and future ambitions nicely complements “quantitative” self-monitoring and has been shown to contribute to psychological and physical health. For practical, proven journaling techniques, check out Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James Pennebaker, PhD (Guilford Press 1997).


Kazdin, A.E. 1974. Reactive self-monitoring: The effects of response desirability, goal setting and feedback. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42 (5), 704–16.
Klem, M.L., et al. 1997. A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66, 239–46.
Kirschenbaum, D.S. 1987. Self-regulatory failure: A review with clinical implications. Clinical Psychology Review, 7, 77–104.
Watson, D.L., & Tharp, R.G. 1993. Self-Directed Behavior: Self-Modification for Personal Adjustment. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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