Competitive Measurement - The Key to Self Discipline

Humans are highly evolved to build habits, and scientists have shown that the pattern for creating habits is almost 100% a result of the cue and the reward.

Feb 26, 2019

In 1961, Jean Nidetch weighed 214 pounds and was struggling with losing weight. She tried fasting, eating nothing but eggs and grapefruit, mixing oil and evaporated milk and drinking it three times a day. She’d drop pounds and then gain it back, often more.

Of course, Jean realized that the ultimate problem wasn't the food it was her lack of self-discipline. Knowing this, she resolved to solve her weight issue once and for all.

She joined a free 10-week weight-loss program put on by an obesity clinic. The program was called the "Prudent Diet" and relied on a strict multi-disciplinary diet, in an almost fascist style. While she lost 20 lbs, she knew it wasn't sustainable.

So, Jean started a weekly meeting with friends to go over the aspects of the "prudent diet" along with what became an amazing innovation: weekly weight measurement and discussion about the results.

This idea, what I call "competitive measurement" became the key insight to Jean's company Weight Watchers, which went public only two years later.

Why did this work so well for Jean and her friends? The answer lies in psychology...

Why Measurement Means Results

What is it about measurement that makes it so powerful?

The answer lies in way your brain works. Humans are highly evolved to build habits, and scientists have shown that the pattern for creating habits is almost 100% a result of the cue and the reward.

With weight, the positive rewards are far from immediate while the pains of hunger are an unrelenting daily pressure. Thats why your brain does a poor job of connecting the habit of dieting with the reward of looking (and feeling) good. Your animal brain just asks, why are you making me hungry??

Now, introduce competitive measurement. When you measure the positive behaviors you are looking for, it then becomes easy to put these performance of these behaviors on a chart. For example, if you'd like to write every day, you would simply put the words/page on a daily chart and graph it.

This chart then becomes a form of feedback and reward; which is much better than the alternative, which is nothing.

Habit, Competition and Measurement
Habit, Competition and Measurement

Your Competitive Psychology and Discipline

While measurement alone can work wonders, adding the element of competition puts things into overdrive. Adding this element takes the "intrinsic" motive of just wanting to do better and adds the necessary "extrinsic" element that forces you to follow up. People don't want to "lose."

It's well known that Apple figured this out and competitive fitness is actually the key feature implemented into the fitness focused Apple Watch.

Conclusion: Tools for Measuring Your Life

If you'd like the get better, the trick is to get started measuring your behavior. I personally use Google Sheets and some custom templates I've built to do this.

Tools like and Zapier can insert rows into my worksheets. Thing like my computer productivity with (RescueTime), running performance (Strava), etc. go in there and then I chart them and use Google Apps to email my charts daily.

In coming articles, I'll add more specifics about the nuts and bolts of my quantitive self (QS) tools and techniques.