Track and Measure
Setting a goal is essentially saying, “I’m here at A and I want to get to B”. In order to carry yourself from A to B, you need to modify your behavior. Modifying your behavior the right way the very first time is very hard to do. Doing it the wrong way is often seen as “failure”. It’s not failure though. It’s experimentation that yields data. You then use that data to inform the direction of your next experiment to push the evolution of your behavior towards the achievement of that goal in an iterative, Darwinian fashion.
The quality of that data will inform the quality of your decision making, which directly impacts the time it takes to achieve the behavioral evolution you’re seeking. You can dilly dally and freestyle your physical activities with no established routine and that will get you results. But with a slight modification towards established, repeatable, measurable routine, your results will significantly improve due to your ability to make data-driven decisions regarding your behavioral modifications. You become more efficient, extracting even more value out of your hours. Your ROI significantly improves.
Would you rather freestyle towards your goal over the course of six months, or eat the fixed cost of defining a measurable routine that gets you there in four months?
Deciding what to track and how to track is a matter of personal preference. I find that dedicated fitness tracking apps are a bit too pigeonholed for my liking. My routine evolves regularly and I don’t like how much time it takes to figure out how to customize odds and ends within a cookie-cutter sort of interface. I use Google Sheets in the name of flexibility. My setup looks like this:
I’m currently on a three-day split. This means that my entire routine is split up among three days. If I work out six days per week, I’ll hit this routine exactly twice per week. If I hit it seven days a week, it means I’ll hit this routine two and a third times per week. I started out with a five-day split, then I tried a one-day split (full-body every day), and now I’m on a three-day split. If your goal is to get chiseled, you may do a one-day split, full-body routine with heavy cardio included. What you do and how you split it should be based on your own personal experimentation and preferences.
The data within the cells represents how much I did and how difficult it was. This lets me gradually increase difficulty (and overall strength/fitness) as I go based on performance from previous sessions. My particular syntax (catered to freeweights) is SETSxREPSxWEIGHT (DIFFICULTY). This means if I do six sets of eight repetitions at 225lbs on flat bench and have a hard time, I’ll write 6x8x225 (h). I’ll then know not to increase the weight next time. By using Google Sheets instead of an app, you can easily add custom little notes in as well. For example, I might experience some joint pain from a small injury and want to note that. That may look like 6x8x225 (h, joint pain, reduce weight). Whether you’re lifting, attending classes, focusing on cardio, or mixing it up — tracking your “work done” vs “difficulty” will give you the signals you need to push harder over time. It’s also psychologically rewarding to be able to easily look back on your growth.
Let’s walk through a detailed example. Say I’m on Day One: Push from the above sheet.
The way I use this is as follows:
- Warm up.
- Head over to flat bench. Input my target based on previous session’s results. It looks like last time, I did 6x12x215 with very hard difficulty, so I’ll maintain the weight. I’ll write 6x12x215.
- Do twelve reps at 215. Write 6x12x215 1. Take a breather. Repeat. Write 6x12x215 2. I track 1 > 2 > … > 6 so I don’t lose count in case someone needs a spot or comes by to chat.
- Once I get to six sets, assess how difficult it was. If I needed a spot or felt like I could barely do it, I write (vh) or (h). If it was moderately difficult, I’ll do (mh) — medium hard. If it wasn’t easy or hard, I’ll write (m). Usually this means next time, I’ll increase difficulty by a small amount. If it was easy, I’ll write (e). This means I’ll increase by a larger amount. And you can always increase on the spot as well — as long as you’re tracking.
I use this system for weightlifting and boxing. You can use it for virtually anything. If you want to measure the time it takes to complete a cardio routine, you can do that too. The aggregate principle here is that tracking leads to measuring leads to adjusting leads to rapid growth.
A note on over-optimization: While many people go even further with their measurements (especially when it comes to diet), you should constantly be assessing your ROI. Taking an extra 5% of time per day to work within a precise, measurable routine might yield 100% improvement from an “approximately ideal”, dilly-dally-freestyle routine. But taking an extra 10% of time per day to measure the nutritional value of every bite you eat may only yield a 5% improvement from an “approximately ideal” diet that you don’t track. Be mindful of your investments.