Creative Self-Management: Plotting to Change Personal Behavior

Changing things about ourselves that we want to change is a big challenge for everyone. It often can seem even harder if they also are things we need to change for reasons of physical or behavioral health. On the other side of these changes, there is the challenge of maintaining whatever we have been able to accomplish in terms of weight loss, regular exercise, or just being nicer to people we care about. In the preceding commentary, I offered some suggestions about defining and measuring behavior and other things we want/need to change. I continue the theme of measurement here by describing a special tool that many of those who have managed to change and then maintain these gains have used.

graphWhat is this special tool? Maybe it isn’t really so special after all. It is something most of us have known about since at least junior high school, if not before. It’s a graph. Yes, a plain old ordinary graph. In this case, a simple line graph (not a pie chart and not a bar graph, please). On the horizontal line (axis) of the graph (the x-axis, for those who remember their math classes) you plot time – sessions, hours, days of the week or month. On the vertical line, you plot whatever it is that you are working to change: weight loss, number of times you left a mess in the kitchen for your spouse to clean up, number of miles walked or run, time spent in the gym, time spent writing the Great American Novel, whatever you want to change.   

Plotting actual numbers works better for some things than for others. Miles walked or run is an easy one. Simply count and plot the number you get. But compare this to weight loss. It can be potentially embarrassing for some people to plot actual real weight, especially if the graph is on public display (and public display can help you reach your goal (see below). The point of graphing is not to humiliate or even make uncomfortable, it is to help bring about changes that are good for people. So, instead of plotting pounds, plot percent change from the baseline weight. Divide your start weight into today’s weight, giving you a fraction (say your start weight is 175 and todays weight is 155, your dividend is .88). Subtract that fraction from 1.0 and then remove the decimal point. In our example, the number is -12 or a 12 percent weight loss from baseline.  If you set up your graph so that you can draw a dashed line across the 1.0 point, at a glance you can see where your weight is going relative to the baseline, which is the dashed line. 

talking on phoneAnother measurement consideration is plotting time engaged in an activity versus a count of the number of times you did something. Exercise can be plotted usefully either way: time spent walking or miles walked are both useful. Or time spent reading versus pages read (although I personally would opt for time spent reading).  But what about time spent smiling versus number of times I smiled today? I would opt for the response count here. But, if were interested in decreasing “talking on my cell phone” it would be more useful to record the time I spend engaged in that activity, rather than the number of words I speak. You have to use your judgment as to which measure gets closer to accurately portraying what you want to change.

Finally, consider plotting your data cumulatively.  I once was faced with a task in which I had to complete “one unit” each day for 90 days. Getting off this schedule was going to wreak havoc in my life, so I had to stick to it. I did so by constructing the following graph. Units completed was on the Y-axis and successive days on the X-axis. The Y-axis extended up to 10 units (at which point I started a new graph -I actually taped several of these graphs together to make a single, long “cumulative record” of my progress) and the X-axis showed 10 days. I drew a solid line connecting the 0, 0 intercept point of the x and y axes and the 10 day, 10 unit intercept point. This meant that this target line was at 45 degrees. I could see whether I was meeting my goal of one unit a day by looking at the line. If my actual daily data points fell directly on the target line, then I was on target for meeting my goal of completing one unit a day. If I got ahead of schedule, my progress line rose above the target line and if (heaven forbid) I failed to meet my daily goals, my progress line fell below the target line. I did fall behind over the 90 days, but for only an occasional day at a time, and I made this up and stayed on the target line by “doubling up” on the day after I fell one unit behind. This simple method thus kept me on task for the full three months of the project. Nothing became more aversive than seeing my line dip below the target line, and only a few things were more rewarding than to rise above my goals for a rare day or two. 

Some Other Tips

Once you start, plot every day. Even when it pains you to have to do so because of that Vente super mocha frappe strawberries ‘n crème double rich whatever you gulped down yesterday when you thought no one was looking.

Post it publicly. I don’t mean at your mailbox, but in your house where you and everyone else living there can see it. If you can stand to do that – some can’t. Even braver souls will post it at work, but that’s a bit much for some of us, for many reasons. You may generate not praise but derision or laughter, at least in the beginning.  However, the more public you are, though, the more accountable you will be. And perhaps the more likely to meet your goals. While others may or may not comment, you may over time take a lot of pride in your progress and like seeing the numbers go in the direction you seek, even if others never ever comment. Nothing generates comments like persistence. And nothing generates persistence like positive comments (at least for me). Sometimes people don’t comment, not because they are not interested, but for complicated social and personal reasons. They may believe, for example, that a positive comment from them may make you feel badly about yourself, and them, if your efforts to change are not successful in the longer term.

Keep going after you reach your target.  Nothing helps you maintain hard-worked-for gains better than continuing to monitor what you are doing. Reward yourself.  Dance a jig, smile broadly, or find a friend to brag to about your good work. No harm in celebrating success.  

I know this all sounds too simple and too good to be true. But plotting your data so you and others can see it keeps you focused and accountable. Data plotting isn’t right for every problem and every person, but it often really works, without doing anything else. Try it!

(For other tips on self-management, you may profit from the following other commentaries from Aubrey Daniels’s organizations:  

Beyond a String Around the Finger: Creative Self-Management

The Key to Making Resolutions Stick Is Strength in Numbers


Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.