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Lifestyle Productivity

Tracking and Loss Aversion

“What gets measured gets managed.”

Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005)

This quote is probably one of the most life changing ideas I’ve come across this year. I like to add “…and what gets managed gets improved, as long as you’re aiming up” to the end of it to give it that extra punch. The idea is pretty simple, we’re able to manage the things we pay the most attention to and we can manage to improve them with a little intentionality.

If we’re trying to lose weight, we’ll need a way to determine if we’re making progress. Most people use weight, but we can use an indefinite amount of different measures. We can measure our BMI, arm width, torso width, torso circumference, daily energy levels, etc. Once we pick a measure, we track the measure over time and we can see if we’re moving towards our goals or away from our goals. In The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (which is on my Must Read Book List), Tim suggests that people measure as many variables as possible when they are trying to make new changes to their fitness routine so they can see potential progress in domains they may not be focusing on. This prevents us from quitting if we aren’t meeting the goals we set for ourselves. For example, if we spend a week doing kettlebell swings and we don’t lose any weight but we’re able to increase our maximum number of reps, then we aren’t totally wiped out from the failure. The progress in the other domain gives us the boost we need to stick with it. As long as we’re getting better, it’s all good.

The best part of measuring multiple variables is being able to improve them intentionally. I’ve noticed this in my own life, anything that I keep track of inevitability gets improved over time. This is partly because I’m (possibly unhealthily) obsessed with personal development but also because I know my metrics and where I objectively stand.

Tracking

Man will only get better when you make him see what he is like.

Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)

We can think of tracking as our ability to notice when we’re on path towards our ideal life so we can use it to stay on the path towards our goals. It’s helpful to see tracking as a skill that we practice, but it’s much more than that. Our ability to track is deep-seated in our biology. We have connections in our limbic system wired throughout our entire body which entangles our emotional states with the trajectory of our desired goal. We have visceral feelings when we suspect something may physically harm us or feelings of unease when we’re doing something we know we shouldn’t. These deeply ingrained systems are examples of our tracking mechanisms letting us know where we stand in relation to our goals.

A relatable example of tracking mechanisms controlling our emotional states is being hungry. When we’re hungry, our entire body’s mission becomes “get food.” All of our senses become hyper aware of everything food related and we become perspective of all the possible ways of getting food. Our whole body is oriented towards getting the goal: food. This happens all the time when I’m hungry and I drive by an In-N-Out. I’m minding my own business, when BAM! I’m hit with the sweet aroma of burgers and fries. Now, imagine you’re hungry decide to go drive to your favorite restaurant. You get a flat tire on the drive and it’s going to take a while to get it fixed. Something came up that stopped you from reaching the goal. That bag of negative emotion you feel when an obstruction comes up is your tracking mechanism saying “You are off course!” or “Something is stopping you from reaching your goal!” Now, imagine you fixed the tired and made it to the restaurant and you see your hot meal coming out of the kitchen headed towards you. As the food gets closer and closer, your brain releases a bigger and bigger dopamine kick. These kicks also strengthen actions committed right before that point making them more likely to occur in the future. The same phenomena happens with all of our goals. We experience positive emotion when we move towards our goals and we experience negative emotion when we are impeded or off course from our goals. The feelings are experienced proportionally less intense as the goals become less crucial to our survival.

Tracking works best when we have a clear purpose. Tracking doesn’t discern what is a proper purpose and what is an inauthentic purpose, so we decide what we dedicate ourselves to, and tracking can be one of the many tools we can use. It provides powerful motivation and a built-in incentive structure. Some people like to track for shiggles, but I like to track with a specific goal in mind because seeing ourselves move towards a goal makes us happy, staves off depression and anxiety, and boosts confidence.

I mentioned this earlier but it’s so important to track multiple variables. In a classroom, only measuring our overall grade in the class may be discouraging since it doesn’t change as quickly as we’d like. It usually takes week of consistent improvement to raise an overall grade in a course, especially towards the end. But if we measure the number of questions we can answer easily in our a certain class, then we may see improvements faster.

Tracking multiple dimensions gives us boosts when we see improvement and prevents disappointment because we won’t trick ourselves into thinking that we’re stagnant. The more things you keep track of, the more things will improve, and the more you’ll be able to see how you’re progressing in a comprehensive way. When we are working on ourselves, there is always going to be some improvement in some dimension but it’s easy to miss those marks. Tracking is a way for us to see some of the different things that are improving. Keep track of many things, the more specific the better.

Loss Aversion

I like to think of Loss Aversion as an internal mechanism which motivates us to act to prevent losing something. Some examples of this could be going to work to pay the bills in order to avoid the water being shut off or studying for a test in order to avoid getting a bad grade. Loss aversion can also help us stay on the path towards our goals because it gives us something to run from. Research from Center for Experimental Social Science at NYU demonstrates that people will work way harder to avoid losing $5 than earn $20. Tracking and Loss Aversion are both powerful motivators but Loss Aversion is more effective. Not surprising considering that most people are more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli.

Everyone loves to envision themselves at the top of the mountain, so to speak, looking down at the world from their throne of success. That kind of envisioning is using the Tracking mechanism to create a possible future that we would love to run towards. But I believe that knowing what you want to do and where you want to go is not enough to accomplish something great. It is just as important to know what will happen if you do not take the actions necessary. If you don’t feeling like studying, ask yourself “What will happen if I don’t study?” Be vivid. The more clear the scenario of disaster, the better. I get myself to work out, stick to my routines, and create on a regular basis by asking myself:

What would my life would be like if I didn’t do this?

If keeping your own vision doesn’t work, there are fun apps to monitor loss aversion, feel free to google them and pick one that’s best for you. There are also organizations called Anti-Charities. You pledge money to these organizations and they will donate the money under your name if you don’t accomplish your goals. An example would be something like: Donating $5 to the KKK every day that you don’t study for an exam.

As much as I wish we could all just track down our goals like my dog when we wants to eat, success is extremely rare when we track without loss aversion. Trust me, I’ve avoided loss aversion intentionally for years but when I carefully reflected on a majority of my achievements I noticed that what really got the job done was the fear of getting the stick if I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.

Create something to run to and create something to run from. It will be pretty hard to procrastinate or do meaningless work if you are clear on what you want and what you do not.

Run towards Heaven and away from Hell. Nowadays, I hear so much contention between positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Some people say we should only use positive reinforcement and avoid positive punishment but I say we should use a combination of both. Run towards the carrot and away from the stick. Usually just one good reason isn’t enough, most of the time we’ll need more than one. Combining Tracking with Loss Aversion gives us at least two good reasons to do the things we want and it’s a surefire way to success.

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