Documenting your own behaviour – a tried-and-tested behaviour change technique

Self-monitoring

At New Year, you may have set yourself a specific goal that you want to achieve this year. Maybe you have also already planned exactly when, how and where you will work on changing your behaviour. This first step has already taken you a bit nearer to your goal. Congratulations!
However, it may be that you will come up against problems as soon as you start to try. The next two articles describe some more practical techniques that will help you to change your behaviour.

The principle of self-monitoring is based on regularly documenting your target behaviour; the point is to record whether and how you have changed your behaviour or achieved the resulting outcomes.
Research about the effectiveness of different behaviour-changing techniques unequivocally shows that documenting your behaviour changes is helpful.
Self-monitoring is more clearly associated with successful behaviour changes than any other technique! People who note down or measure their physical activity are more likely to integrate regular exercise into their daily lives. The same is true for a balanced diet: people who document what they eat are more likely to successfully eat a balanced diet in both the short and the long term. Various reviews emphasise that people in weight-loss programmes are more likely to lose weight when they weigh themselves regularly. Additionally, new behaviours do not necessarily need to be something new. For example, documenting your behaviour will also help to reduce your consumption of alcohol or sugary drinks and so achieve a personal goal.

How?

How you document what you have done is less important that the fact that you are recording it somehow. Traditionally, you would use a diary – pen on paper – for documenting something. In recent years, however, various new apps on the market allow users to monitor different behaviours online and in addition, to create summaries or overview graphs. When it comes to diet, the apps provide photo documentation, for example, that in part directly analyse the components on the plate, which means that documenting them is much simpler. If a behaviour (movement meter) is measured via a sensor (e.g., FitBit or AppleWatch), you can document it without having to enter it manually. If so, it is important to bear in mind that this will only have a positive effect on behaviour if you regularly take pay attention to the measurements and analyse them.

Why?

Why will it help me to record what I’m doing or achieving? The principal reason is presumably that it makes you focus regularly on your behaviour. By documenting it, the goal remains present and the days when you achieve it are clearly visible. When you start to change a behaviour, documenting it is also an opportunity to specify your baseline. On this basis, you can define realistic goals and assess later results compared with the starting point. Documenting the behaviour-changing process gives you constant feedback and thus a basis for adapting your personal action plan if required. Furthermore, even small success become visible when documented regularly. This remains true: small steps lead you to your goal – be motivated by your experiences of success!

What?

When documenting, you should consider whether you are noting the behaviour itself or any results arising from it. For example, you can note your daily activity itself (e.g., 45 minutes of Pilates, 20 minutes of walking to work). Alternatively, you could also record desired changes to particular parameters caused by exercise, such as weight, blood pressure or personal best time over a particular stretch of the way. Another example would be to note if you have completed a relaxation exercise, whereas the underlying goal would be recorded with your subjective perception of your stress levels or sleep quality. Even if the effects of the behaviour meet your final goal in certain measurable parameters, it is recommended that you record the behaviour itself. The reason is that this will motivate you! You can adapt a behaviour step by step over a monitored period of time and directly influence the change yourself. By contrast, goals for a “healthy lifestyle” are often located in the distant future. To give an extreme example, I won’t learn whether my cardiovascular risk has decreased for another 30 years. You need to be careful with body weight too. On the one hand, sustained weight loss needs time; on the other, a change in body composition won’t necessarily be visible on the scales. You may have built up increased muscle mass due to increased physical activity. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep your long-term goals in mind, but it is much more motivating to pay attention to short-term perceptible changes, such as the behaviour itself or, for example, your wellbeing.

How, exactly?

Particularly regarding diet, the question is exactly how you should document it. If you take nutritional advice, you may be asked e.g., to make precise notes over two weeks of what you eat, and how much. This makes it possible to analyse the nutrients and specific recommendations. When you yourself initiate the goal of “eating a bit more healthily”, the devil isn’t so much in the detail. If you undertake to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables and less sugar, it is less meaningful to consider how much risotto you eat. Instead, for example, you should record that you drank a sugary drink and whether you ate an apple with breakfast. Did you have any chocolate, or a few almonds, between times? Whether your goal is diet, or something else, the same principle applies: the documentation should suit the goal. It should be as simple as possible, but still provide an overview of frequency, duration, intensity if necessary, or certain other qualities of the behaviour.

Some tips for changing behaviour

Making regular notes about what you have done is an additional effort. To implement the technique successfully, however, the following tips may help:

  1. Look for a way of keeping your records that is right for you personally. If you write a diary anyway, then it may suit you to note down your behaviour by hand. Maybe you find it easier to use an app and check a box. Try it out and find what works for you!
  2. Self-monitoring, like other activities, is less likely to be forgotten if we tackle it at a specific time or on a specific opportunity. Consider when you can take a few minutes out of your daily routine to make your records. In the train on the way home from work? Or in the morning, before you read the paper?

As we mentioned, self-monitoring is a very effective method of helping to change behaviour. As soon as your behaviour is becoming more and more of a habit, recording it becomes less important. Some people keep up their training diary forever. Recording other goals, such as a more relaxed morning routine, year in, year out, makes less sense. Take up self-monitoring again when you find it hard to keep to your new habit, or when you are temporarily out of your new routine. Good luck!

 

Sources:
Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(1), 92-102.
Fischer, X., Donath, L., Zwygart, K., Gerber, M., Faude, O., & Zahner, L. (2019). Coaching and prompting for remote physical activity promotion: Study protocol of a three-arm randomized controlled Trial (Movingcall). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 16(3), 331.
Greaves, C. J., Sheppard, K. E., Abraham, C., Hardeman, W., Roden, M., Evans, P. H., & Schwarz, P. (2011). Systematic review of reviews of intervention components associated with increased effectiveness in dietary and physical activity interventions. BMC Public Health, 11, 119.
Michie, S., Abraham, C., Whittington, C., McAteer, J., & Gupta, S. (2009). Effective techniques in healthy eating and physical activity interventions: A meta-regression. Health Psychology, 28(6), 690-701.
Michie, S., Richardson, M., Johnston, M., Abraham, C., Francis, J., Hardeman, W., . . . Wood, C. E. (2013). The behavior change technique taxonomy (v1) of 93 hierarchically clustered techniques: Building an international consensus for the reporting of behavior change interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 46(1), 81-95.
Samdal, G. B., Eide, G. E., Barth, T., Williams, G., & Meland, E. (2017). Effective behaviour change techniques for physical activity and healthy eating in overweight and obese adults; Systematic review and meta-regression analyses. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 14(1), 42.

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