I've been trying to make myself a better writer — and a better human being — as part of the growing Quantified Self movement.
When I was researching the mysterious process of how change happens for my book How to Change the World, I compared the broad, sweeping theories of political scientists such as Gene Sharp, the Boston-based advocate of nonviolent struggle, with the insights of the self-help industry. In both cases, change starts with observation — noticing what needs to change — followed by a clear declaration of that observation.
In the Quantified Self movement, substantially comprised of nerdy types, we use technology to get the measure of ourselves. Specifically, I use apps such as Lift, on my iPhone, enabling me to monitor progress by awarding myself a big green tick every time I complete one of the tasks that I want to turn into habit.
Lift offers various suggestions of habits you might like to consolidate, many of them already being actively pursued by other Lift users globally. When I joined up, I selected habits from a list of popular ones: drink more water (50,000+ participants). Easy ones: take multivitamin (19,000+ participants). And I made up some of my own, only to discover that others were doing these too.
At the end of each day, I tick the habits I've done ("Call Mom/Dad") and sometimes add a note giving more detail. My screen might refresh with details of another person, sometimes on the other side of the world, who has just ticked the same item, and if it feels right I might give them a "prop" (like a Facebook "like").
Now, I don't know who the people are who give me the occasional prop, but the very fact that they're able to see what I'm doing makes me feel more committed than I was with the other apps. This quality of relationship, of sharing, is hugely important when we are trying to make change of any kind.
But here's another thing: the very act of signing up to a particular habit makes it more difficult to overlook the step that I want to happen. That, essentially, is the power of a declaration that I mentioned above.
For instance, after giving myself a tick recently for calling my parents, I noticed the next item on my daily Lift list: meditation. Having noticed it, I immediately slipped off my chair and sat in the lotus position on the kitchen floor, shut my eyes, and did a spot of zazen. Afterwards, I gave myself a big green tick, and then my wife appeared, and asked me to help her with something I'd not been looking forward to doing.
Surprisingly, I found I was able to help without the slightest flicker of irritation, and without once looking at my watch to see when the torture might end. In short: I was happy. Was this really because of the meditation? I think so.
Monitoring yourself, whether on Lift or in a journal or even in old-fashioned prayer, is about creating change through beneficial everyday habits.
We need those habits. After all, cleanliness is a state to aspire to, but having achieved it, even the most self-satisfied people accept that they will at some point in the near future need to bathe or shower again. Speaking for myself, I have no difficulty remembering to shower every day — but if meditation is helpful, and I want to do it more, I shall continue for now to log it on my iPhone.
More from John-Paul Flintoff: