For those of us whose New Years' resolutions were never realized or did not last past January 7th, the missing element may have been self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is possibly the single most important mechanism in changing any thought or behavior. It is an extremely broad term which encompasses tracking nearly any pattern from which to move forward and assess your progress (or lack of progress) towards a goal. It's a skill that is so engrained in our lives that we forget we are constantly monitoring ourselves in various ways (e.g. stepping on the scale, looking at the speedometer, counting calories). It is the basis of that ah-ha experience - wow do I really (insert habitual or outside of consciousness pattern here) that much or that little? Self-monitoring allows us to uncover necessary changes and set realistic goals. This is why it is such an essential part of changing any behavior. In fact, study after study has shown that simply monitoring your behavior is a powerful intervention in itself. The problem is that self-monitoring required planning, motivation and vigilance - things that most of us trying to change a behavior lack (hence the reason we have a problem to begin with). Fortunately, there are a range of technologies -old and new - which make self-monitoring our behavior easier and more effective than ever before.
Possibly the oldest most accessible form of self-monitoring technology is creating an audio, still image or video recording of yourself performing (or not performing) a target behavior and reviewing it at a later date. Audio and video review gives you a glimpse into subtleties from body movements, to what you are eating at each meal, to patterns of speech that are automatic and pass through our consciousness without notice. Audio and video self-monitoring techniques are used in nearly every optimal performance training program and can have special clinical applications with problems like social phobia and addiction when done under the supervision of a clinician. As I have previously pointed out in an article on using audio review to help combat fluctuating motivation - hearing and watching oneself can be quite anxiety provoking for some because it magnifies all of the negative traits we typically suppress. Therefore, it should be handled with care and never used to highlight extreme negative behaviors. However, when done to change a mild deficit or to highlight a positive behavior it can create powerful and profound insights that can lead to long-term realization and behavior change.
There are plenty of applications that will allow you to enter specific information over time and then provide you with graphical displays of a target behavior. For example, you can click a button every time you have a craving for a cigarette and that information can be used to help you implement behavioral strategies during those times. While these simple diary methods are the basis of self-monitoring, they require you to be vigilant about tracking your behavior (and force you to face the reality of your actions) and therefore can be like getting a root canal for some people. Text messaging programs and mobile applications that provide assessments are great ways to get that external reminder to make sure you are tracking your behavior. These programs can also be great electronic nags because they will not stop prompting you until you respond - something that simple calendar alerts cannot do. However - you still must respond or enter data for these programs, which can be a barrier to those who might be less than motivated.
Say hello to actigraphs, accelerometers and GPS - the ultimate passive technologies. If you want to assess how many steps you took or when you have the most trouble sleeping and examine how you have progressed over the week all you need is a smart phone or a device the size of an eraser. The addition of GPS extends to tracking where you have been and where you should be going - or not be going. For example, individuals attempting to reduce their drinking might put in the location of certain bars and be alerted as they approach these tempting situations and be redirected to the closest AA meeting instead. Depressed individuals can be alerted and motivated to act if they do not take a certain number of steps and/or go beyond 1 mile from their residence by a certain time of day.
The newest incarnations of these technologies are attempting to integrate smart phone features with biomonitoring and biofeedback technologies. While this has been happening for years in specialty settings there is now an emerging group of small devices that can track every heartbeat, electrical impulse through your skin, blood pressure oscillation, muscle contraction and brainwave that you have - and alert you when they are irregular or pass a certain threshold. There use can extend to nearly any behavior change goal as they offer a glimpse into previously unconscious signals in your body. Moreover, while most of these devices are simply monitoring devices - more and more you will see devices that offer a biofeedback component to guide you to relax when you are feeling your worst and let you know when you have achieved some balance in your body. Ahhhh.....
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