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Use Self-Monitoring to Change Your Life

Would you like to:

  • Stop losing your temper with your children?
  • Get yourself to the gym more often?
  • Eat less sugar?
  • Use fewer swear words?
  • Play with your kids more?
  • Spend less time alone?
  • Go to bed earlier every night?

You can do any of these, and much more. All with the help of self-monitoring!

What is Self-Monitoring?

Self-monitoring is a way to build your awareness of a particular behavior in your life, so that you can consciously choose to change it. You can do it on your own at home, at work, or on a business trip. It’s basically self-awareness on steroids, and it has multiple benefits. I use self-monitoring myself, and I use it with my patients. It’s a way to shape your own life. It works.

What is it Useful For?

Self-monitoring is a way to increase a behavior (or even a feeling) that you want more of in your life, or to decrease a behavior or feeling that you want less of in your life.

How Does it Work?

Self-monitoring increases your awareness of a problem behavior or a desired behavior. It allows you to learn more about the exact thing you want to change, (meaning that you get a baseline measure of it) before you begin trying to change it. It gives you answers that are valuable to you. How often does this behavior happen? When does it happen? Are there certain feelings associated with it? All of this gives you valuable information about how to go about changing it. Also, it helps you know exactly how much you’re increasing or decreasing your behavior. In addition, having all of this information helps to motivate you.

How Do You Do It?

  1. Choose a specific behavior or feeling you want to increase or decrease.
  2. Create a self-monitoring sheet for that behavior. Every self-monitoring sheet should include the topics Time/Day; the Behavior itself; the Situation; what you are Feeling at the time. Always try, if possible, to include a column for what you are feeling when the behavior happens.
  3. Start paying attention. For one week pay full attention to each time you engage in the behavior. Do your best to record every episode on the Self-Monitoring Sheet. This will establish your baseline.
  4. At the end of Week 1, look back over your baseline recording. Do you see any particular patterns? When does the behavior happen? What is going on for you at those times? Are you having a particular feeling that’s interfering? Are there certain people around you who may be influencing the behavior or the feeling that drives it?
  5. Create a new sheet for your next week. Change the sheet if you learned some helpful info from your baseline recording that might be helpful to track.
  6. For the next week, use your new information to consciously focus on changing your target behavior. Keep recording instances of the behavior, as this makes it very clear whether you are changing your behavior from the baseline.
  7. If the change is smaller than you would like, or even none or a back-slide, never blame yourself. Every week is a new week, so just keep trying.

A Real Life Example – Alex

Alex requested an appointment with me because he was concerned about his treatment of his two daughters. At ages 9 and 11, they were both proving to be very challenging.

“They don’t do their homework or chores unless I threaten them,” he said. “I have to be on them constantly. I end up snapping at them, and it’s not okay.”

I sent Alex home with a self-monitoring sheet to track his “snaps” at his daughters. I wanted us to get a baseline measure of the frequency, and also more information about the situations that cause him to snap. Here are the headings on Alex’s sheet:

Date/Time      Situation       Feeling

I asked Alex to record “Feeling” because the behavior he wanted to decrease was clearly an emotional one, and I wanted him to become more aware of how a feeling was driving the behavior.

Alex returned one week later with a full week’s recordings. From it we gathered loads of helpful data. For example, we learned that the feelings underlying his yelling were usually “helplessness and frustration.”

We also learned that he typically snapped around once or twice per day, almost always in the morning, right before school or in the afternoon, soon after the girls returned from school. And almost always when there was a rush to get somewhere; a time crunch.

As we reviewed Alex’s sheet and talked about it, Alex realized that both daughters, but especially his younger one, were very slow at preparing to go somewhere. They waited until time to walk out the door before beginning to look for their lost shoes, for example.

Together, we brainstormed some strategies to help him organize his daughters earlier. But even more helpful was Alex’s realization that there was indeed a problem that was bothering him (the girls’ foot-dragging under time pressure); that he was feeling frustrated and helpless in response, and that the snapping behavior was an expression of that.

Going forward, in addition to monitoring his yelling behavior, Alex mostly focused his self-monitoring on his feeling of helplessness / frustration. Since the feeling preceded, and actually caused, the action, his increased awareness of that feeling allowed him to manage it before it caused him to snap at his daughters.

Over the next month, Alex greatly reduced his yelling. His daughters responded by cooperating more with his new efforts to organize them. Alex felt less helpless and less frustrated. A downward spiral was replaced by an upward one. It was a great success.

This example may be completely different from yours. Not every behavior is driven by emotion as much or as clearly as Alex’s. But the power of awareness + data + conscious effort offers you tremendous power to change your habits and yourself.

Emotional Neglect in childhood can cause problems with self-awareness and self-discipline in adulthood. To find out if you grew up with it, take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

Use Self-Monitoring to Change Your Life

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the bestselling books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationship. She has appeared on CBS News, New England Cable News, and NPR about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune and CNBC. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in the Boston area, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. To read more about Dr. Webb, her books and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com.

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). Use Self-Monitoring to Change Your Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 17, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2017/04/use-self-monitoring-to-change-your-life/


Last updated: 8 Apr 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Apr 2017
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.