Tracking Willpower and Self-Control: Updated with Charts

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how to measure and track willpower self-restraint and self-control(This is an updated version of previous post about tracking willpower, with interactive charts). Winslow Strong of Biohack Yourself (check out his awesome blog, by the way!) recently posted a great question on Quantified Self Facebook page, asking about ways to quantify restraint. This is when I remembered about my attempt to track willpower in March that was partially inspired by our conversation with Hiren Patel of Becoming the Best (another awesome blog!).  My method for tracking willpower (self-restraint/self-control) was rather simple and straightforward.

Instead of measuring some subjective “willpower” construct, I decided to operationalize it by tracking how often I was “tempted” to break certain routines, and how many time I would succumb to those temptations. I decided to focus on the following routines:

  • Diet: eating healthy
  • Fitness: going to the gym, biking, or walking during lunch (whichever was scheduled for that day)
  • Finance: restraining from unnecessary expenses
  • Learning: sticking to my evening Rosetta Spanish and programming lessons

To track temptations and failures, I set up the following trackers in my rTracker log (you can also use Track-and-Share app) for all three dayparts. The rest was easy: at the end of every morning, afternoon, and evening, I would check off the appropriate boxes if I was tempted with breaking the routine and if I broke it:

how to quantify willpower

If I sum up all the temptations and failures for every day, this is how my internal struggles in March would look like (blue bars represent number of temptations on that day, red bars – number of failures):

One way to quantify the “restraint” or “willpower” is to compute ratio of total number of failures to total number of temptations, subtract it from 1 and convert to percentage. For example, 0 failures would translate to 100% willpower. The 2 failures out of 4 temptations would translate to 50% of willpower; and total succumbence to temptations would result in willpower of 0%:

Perhaps, including more routines (going to bed on time, brushing teeth, etc.) could further improve this metrics. Overall, I believe this approach has a good potential. What do you think?

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2 Responses to Tracking Willpower and Self-Control: Updated with Charts

  1. Milo Page says:

    I love what you’re doing here! I’m just getting into data analytics (I’m graduating in a few months with an undergraduate degree in stats and math and have applied to graduate programs in statistics) and I also have had significant interest and limited success in developing personal metrics to track/quantify and increase my experience of joy, peace, happiness, etc.

    With the above data you shared, the most difficult part seems to be determining what influences your day-to-day willpower, but I like how you’ve things out. I imagine what would be next is simultaneously tracking other factors such as how well you slept, levels of stress, etc. It could even be quantifying the amount you experienced anticipation throughout the day both from excitement and/or concern, since at least for me, my perception of the future can influence whether I succumb to temptations in the moment.

    One of the things that I’ve found most difficult in quantifying these things is that so far what works for me seems to always be changing, so what worked last month might not work this month. Also, I have to develop metrics that aren’t so subjective that as I begin to consistently experience more joy it erroneously gets tracked as less since I have increased potential and have set a higher bar.

    Even with your tracking above, there are always more and more subtleties, such as when you walk at lunch, what if you walk a little slower or shave off a few minutes because you didn’t feel like pressing harder. Is that succumbing to temptation even though you did still walk at lunch? It certainly doesn’t seem like a failure. In my experience, the longer I track these things, the more I start being sensitive to these smaller deviations. So after a few months of tracking something like you did here, I might consider that shaving off a few minutes is actually a failure.

    I’m interested in any responses you have. I think you’ve taken on a very difficult but extraordinarily interesting and beneficial challenge.


  2. Measured Me says:

    hi Milo,

    I agree, tracking some variable will inevitably lead to changes and biases. I have not found any ways yet to correct for that. After some consideration, I decided to focus on quantifying QUALITY of my everyday life using a limited set of indicators that are not that easily affected by the measurement itself: health, physical energy, intensity and positivity of emotions, mental alertness and cognitive functioning, and happiness and life satisfaction. Check out my lifestream:

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