How Important is Progress Tracking for Achieving Goals?
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Studies have consistently shown that people that set goals achieve more than those that do not. In particular, people that set specific (or basically SMART goals), challenging goals achieved at a higher level than people that set easy goals, "do your best goals" or nonspecific goals, and no goals at all. In fact, studies show that setting goals actually alters the structure of your brain. But what are some other factors that affect whether or not people achieve their goals? I explore some of the major factors in this article, and we considered many of these factors when we designed OnTrac.
In a study published by Benjamin Harkin in 2016, he and his colleagues analyzed 138 studies on goal setting that covered a total of 19,951 participants. Analysis of these studies yielded some interesting insights. For one, people that monitored progress toward their goals achieved their goals at a higher level. In fact, they found that the more often that someone monitored their progress, the better they performed. We do caution against measuring progress too frequently, especially for goals that may take longer to see results on as that may lead to a loss of motivation. Alternatively, you could more frequently measure things that can lead to the outcome you're looking for.
Using Harkin's example, focusing on eating a healthy amount of calories or exercising a certain number of times a week might be more effective earlier on because those are outcomes where you can see progress on earlier verses it may take some time to see a change in weight loss. Ultimately, they found that monitoring the progress of the goal may be just as important as setting the goal itself as far as goal achievement.
In addition, they also found that what you tracked was crucial and was directly tied to the result. The example that Harkins gives is that if you want to change your diet, you should track what you eat. However, if you want to lose weight, you should monitor your weight. Ultimately, in this example, for the reasons I mentioned above, I'm a strong believer that it is probably most effective to track both your eating habits and your weight, as ultimately, it is your eating habits and exercise habits that lead to weight loss.
The study also found that when the results of the monitoring were reported in public, people achieved those goals at a higher rate. For example, Harkin found that doing weigh-ins in front of entire weight loss groups lead members to achieve their weight loss goals more often.
In further analysis of these studies, Harkins ultimately found that goal progress monitoring by itself was not enough. The research group found that goal monitoring was ultimately most effective and had a greater impact on goal outcomes when performed in conjunction with other interventions such as goal setting, action planning, and immediate feedback.
On the flip side, what are the impacts of not tracking or monitoring progress?. One fitness expert observed some of the negative impacts of not tracking in some of her clients:
Not noticing the long-term impact of losses/gains as they occur very slowly over time
Failure to understand if something is working or not working to make adjustments
Loss of motivation due to lack of "small milestone" wins
There are a ton of valuable insights from these studies and there is lot to unpack. So let's just summarize some of the key findings of the analysis of these studies on goal outcomes:
Setting the goal is the most important first step
You want to make sure you sent challenging SMART Goals
Carefully choose what your most important outcome(s) and determine how you will monitor them
Create an action plan to achieve that outcome(s)
Monitor progress consistently
If possible, share your results with accountability partners (we have a feature within OnTrac that allows you to invite what we call Accountabilibuddies to share your progress with)
Set yourself up for small wins by creating smaller milestones
Make adjustments to your plan as necessary
We hope you find these insights helpful during your journey to becoming the best version of yourself. Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to us if you have any questions or if there is a specific topic you would like us to blog about.
Edwin A. Locke, G. P. (1985). The Application of Goal Setting in Sport. Human Kinetics , 205-222.
Harkin, Benjamin, Thomas L. Webb, Betty P. I. Chang, Andrew Prestwich, Mark Conner, Ian Kellar, Yael Benn, and Paschal Sheeran. “Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence.”Psychological Bulletin142.2 (2016): 198-229. Web. May 2017.