Track or you will fail


I’ve been reading Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Body” recently. Perhaps I’ve been caught up in the New Year’s wave of health resolutions (though it may just be a coincidence, as I’m a year-round gym-goer) but I’ve recently thought that it couldn’t hurt to revisit some of my health goals.

Would you like a potion with your fruit? Oh wait, you can't eat fruit. Well, have a potion.
Would you like a potion with your fruit? Oh wait, you can’t eat fruit. Well, have a potion.

Anyway, this isn’t a review of the book, as I’m probably not the best target audience for much of it. But even though I find some of what he advocates somewhere between amusing and horrifying, we start out at the exact same place: the importance of tracking what you’re trying to accomplish.

Where I cajole you (again) into tracking your expenses

I suggest everyone track what they spend. Every day. Not joking. Write it down. All of it. Throw it in a spreadsheet (my preference) or use a physical notebook. But write it down somewhere.

Why would I suggest this? It’s not a perverse need to inflict pain (though judging from the responses I get it sure seems that way to most people). I suggest it because, among much else, it forces you to confront what you’re spending money on. It puts a giant mirror in front of you, metaphorically, and forces you to look at yourself.

In the 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss, when talking about making body changes, makes this literal. He recommends starting out by taking full-body “before” shots:

“Take digital photos of yourself from the front, back, and side. Wear either underwear or a bathing suit…Put the least flattering “before” photo somewhere you will see it often: the refrigerator, bathroom mirror, dog’s foreheads, etc.”

I’m not going to lie; this fills me with dread to the core of my fast-carb heart. And that’s precisely why I know that it’s the right thing to do. Because the mirror, figurative or literal, keeps you from being able to avoid yourself and your habits. The mirror can’t lie.

That’s why I understand people’s reluctance to keep track of their finances. Because the mirror doesn’t lie, it can uncover some uncomfortable truths about what we do. Avoidance is a natural reaction. But it’s also not going to do you any good, and quite the reverse. Don’t fear what the mirror has to say to you.

Weight loss through spreadsheets

The “mirror” can be a spreadsheet.

There’s story in the book regarding a guy who wanted to “experiment with laziness”. He wanted to lose weight, but instead of actually changing his behavior, he instead just decided to obsessively weigh himself. As he put it, “‘I wanted to see what effect being precisely aware of my weight would have on my weight.'”

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The result was that he lost 28 pounds in six months.

Now, there’s more to the story, and so many independent variables that it’s impossible to draw any sweeping conclusions from this, save for a general one: knowing where you are gives you more ability to direct yourself to where you want to go.

Or as Tim Ferris puts it:

“Awareness, even at a subconscious level, beats fancy checklists without it. Track or you will fail.”

Money is easier to track

There are plenty of parallels between getting your health/diet in order and getting your finances in order. Dave Ramsey’s classic on the subject of money is called “The Total Money Makeover” and uses health metaphors throughout the book. This is no coincidence.

Luckily for us, there is one advantage that us finance trackers have over the health trackers: it’s much easier to track spending than it is to track your food intake.

At the coffeeshop where I’m writing this right now, I just ate a veggie bagel with hummus with a side of kale salad and some tortilla chips. I have absolutely no idea how many calories were in the meal, and wouldn’t even know how to calculate it. Furthermore, as calories are a kind of stupid measurement anyway, I couldn’t even properly estimate the nutrient content of the meal. How much protein? How much fat?

And yet, I can tell you with certainty how much it cost: $6.25.

So when I get home tonight, I will fire up my spreadsheet, enter “6” in the field for today’s date under the column of “Food Fun” (my catch-all column for restaurants and other non-grocery items) and in the notes section I’ll write a brief indicator of where I was (as I personally just like to know). It will take longer for the computer to turn on than it will to enter the info.

(Pro tip: For heaven’s sake, forget about cents. Round to the nearest useful digit, which in America is always the dollar.)

And why will I do this, over and over, every day for the rest of my life? Because by tracking, I will be more aware of what I’m doing, better able to plan, and it is the equivalent to giving myself a raise. And all for maybe an hour’s worth of work over the course of a month. I’m staying on top of my finances because there’s a lot I want to accomplish, and I intend to make my finances an ally, not an adversary.

Track or you will fail.

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And as for that mirror suggestion? I’m still working myself up to it.

But enough about me: What do you track in your life?


  1. mpinard

    Important point about awareness changing one’s behavior. As for the mirror… I can see that for ‘other people’ but can’t seem to do it myself…I can only track so many things before my head explodes! Srsly.

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