James Clear writes about using behavioral science to master your habits and improve your health. His free guide, Transform Your Habits, has been downloaded more than 80,000 times. This post originally appeared on his blog.
We often measure our progress by looking forward. We set goals. We plan milestones for our progress. Basically, we try to predict the future to some degree.
We do this in business, in health, and in life at large.
- Can we increase our quarterly earnings by 20 percent?
- Can I lose 20 pounds in the next 3 months?
- Will I be married by 30?
These are all measurements that face forward. We look into the future and try to guess when we will get somewhere.
There is an opposite and, I think, more useful approach: measure backward, not forward.
Here’s what I mean…
Measuring backward vs. Measuring forward
Each week, I sit down at my computer and fill out a little spreadsheet to track the essential metrics in my business. Traffic, email subscribers, revenue, expenses, and so on. I have the process down pretty well by now, so it only takes about 15 minutes.
In those 15 minutes, however, I get very clear feedback on whether or not I’m making progress in the areas that matter to me. I can tell which direction things are moving. And, if the numbers in one area are moving the wrong way, I can make adjustments the following week.
Basically, I measure backward (What happened in my business this week?) and use that backward measurement as a way to guide my actions for the next week.
I use a similar strategy in the gym. I lift every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When I show up at the gym, I open my notebook and look at the weights I lifted during my last workout or two. Then, I plan my workout by slightly increasing the sets, reps, or weight from where they were last week. I go for tiny increases, of course. I’m interested in one percent gains.
In the gym, just like in my business, I measure backward and use that measurement to determine my next move. I am constantly looking to improve, but I base my choices on what has recently happened, not on what I hope will happen in the future.
The chains of habit
The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
When it comes to building good habits and breaking bad habits, one of our greatest struggles is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing. The more automatic a behavior becomes, the less likely we are to notice it. This helps to explain how the consequences of bad habits can sneak up on us.
By the time the repercussions of our actions are noticeable, we have already become hooked on a new pattern of behavior.
However, measuring backward can call attention to these invisible patterns by making you aware of what you are actually doing. Measuring backward forces you to take notice of your recent actions. You can’t live in a fairly tale world of hopes and dreams. You have to look at the feedback of what has recently happened in your life and then base your decisions and improvements on those pieces of data.
The good news is that you can now base your decisions off of what you’re actually doing, not off of what you project your future self to be doing.
The importance of short-term feedback
The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback.
—Seth Godin 
There is one caveat to this strategy: when you measure backward, your data needs to come from the recent past.
If I used data from two years ago to make business decisions, my choices would be off. The same is true for lifting weights or other areas of improvement. I don’t want to base my actions on what I achieved a long time ago, but on what I have achieved recently.
In other words, I want short-term feedback, not long-term feedback. The shorter, the better.
Measuring for happiness
There is an additional benefit to this strategy as well. When you measure backward, you get to enjoy the progress you are making right now rather than yearn for a different life in the future.
You don’t have to put happiness off until you reach a future milestone or goal. Happiness is no longer a finish line out there in the future. You are finding ways to improve right now and focusing on how you can immediately improve over your past self is more satisfying that comparing your current state to where you hope you’ll be some day.
The idea in practice
Nearly every improvement we wish to make in our lives requires some type of behavior change. If you want different results, you have to do something differently.
The tough question to answer is what should we do differently to get the results we want?
We often respond by focusing on an outcome and setting a goal for ourselves. Goals are good and having a sense of direction for where you want to go is critical. But when it comes to determining the improvements we can make right now, measuring backward is the way to go. Let recent results drive your future actions.
Weight Loss: Measure your calorie intake. Did you eat 3,500 calories per day last week? Focus on averaging 3,400 per day this week.
Strength Training: Oh, you squatted 250 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps last week? Give 255 pounds a try this week.
Relationships: How many new people did you meet last week? Zero? Focus on introducing yourself to one new person this week.
Entrepreneurship: You only landed two clients last week while your average is five? It sounds like you should be focused on making more sales calls this week.
Measure backward and then get a little bit better. What did you do last week? How can you improve by just a little bit this week?