Stepping in the Cake

How to Use the Power of Tracking to Form New Habits

1968 Pontiac Le Mans: evidence scene

Winter 1971.

Grand Blanc, Michigan.


A young family of four is dressed and on their way to church. The mother sits in the front seat holding an infant in her arms. No seat belts. No car seat.

The enormous driver’s side door of an April Gold 1968 Pontiac Le Mans coupe rests open, the engine running, the car being warmed up, cold exhaust rising into the sky.

The father makes his way to the “approach” of the gravel driveway, out near the dirt road. He is retrieving the rolled up newspaper, The Flint Journal, which had been flung, as usual, out the open window of a speeding pickup truck. It’s the same throughout the entire neighborhood; rolled up papers looking like fire starter logs, lying every-which-way in driveway approaches, but always perfectly resting where intended. Never in the ditch or yard, (how did the delivery driver do that at thirty miles an hour?)

We zoom in closer now, seeing a boy of four years in the back seat. He’s in trouble for something. Feeling sorry. The punishment still fresh in his mind. And on his bottom. But he’s still hyper, bouncing around.

He is four, after all.

On the floorboard in the back (near the boy) rests a chocolate Texas sheet cake covered neatly in foil. The boy has been warned. Threats have been issued. The cake is for the pot luck after church. Don’t step in it you little Prut. Understand? You’d better start listening and behave!

Then horror of horrors as the boy chances to look down at the silver rectangle of a cake. Spooky music starts, everything switches to slow motion. There, in the middle of the tinfoil (the boy can hardly believe it), is a perfect (and deep) impression of a child’s dress shoe, the heel part deeper than the front, the whole footprint in broad relief. Like a dinosaur print in clay at a museum.

Pulse rising, frantic now, the boy turns to look out the back window of the car at the father, who now is returning from retrieving the paper. Lumbering steps in slow motion. The rolled up newspaper appearing as a club at the end of his outstretched arm. The father’s breath white in the cold like fire from a dragon.

This can’t be. No way. Not me, thinks the boy. I didn’t do that! I’ve been framed. It’s a conspiracy! And me being already in trouble, they’ll never believe me! What to do . . . what to do?

Examine the evidence, he thinks. Verify that it’s not me. That’ll prove my innocence, he reasons.

And so, slowly and deliberately, as not to tamper with the evidence, he lowers his foot into the impression in the cake . . . just to check . . . that it wasn’t his that did it . . . to verify . . . slowly now . . . carefully . . .

And it was at that exact moment when she saw. The mother. Eyes in the back of her head, that one. And so slow and deliberately done! You little x(#&^@$! How could you?! Why!? What were you thinking?

And that’s where my memory ends.

A fun family story. Retold throughout the years. From my vantage point, of course. All of it true. Even the no seat belts or car seat (perhaps the scariest part).

And one more detail: Oreo cookies hastily bought and sheepishly presented. Well, you couldn’t go in with nothing! said the mother.

Q: Cute Story, Chris, But What’s That Got to Do With Your Three Readers?

A: The point is that we like to ignore evidence. And I’ll bet all four of us can think of times when we were confronted with facts about ourselves we found shockingly hard to fathom.

What was it I thought to myself that day as a boy? This can’t be! No way! Not me!

The evidence that we think we’re ignoring is usually as plain as a footprint in foil to everyone else. We may be able to hide some of the facts of our personal finances, but not really. We only think we’re hiding our physique under baggy clothes and untucked shirts. And our relationships? Don’t fool yourself. A bad marriage or trouble with our children shows up in public like a teenager’s nose pimple. Our stuff is on display for the whole world to see, whether we face up to it or not.

(Cue the Leonard Cohen song, Everybody Knows . . . . )

So if the scoreboard of our lives is obvious to others, why do we go through so much trouble to hide it from ourselves? Why do we do such mental gymnastics to ignore the evidence?

The answer is simple: because we don’t like what the scoreboard says.

While it is not true that ignorance is bliss, at least ignorance is better than the harsh reality of reality.

So we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and let years pass without addressing the issue, hoping somehow, like a toddler in a back seat, that nobody will notice the footprint in the cake.

Even Worse, We Tend to Manufacture Flattering “Evidence” Instead!

In 1999, at Cornell University, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published an illuminating study in which they demonstrated the degree to which people will deceive themselves. In the Abstract of their paper (partially given below) they wrote:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.”

So despite evidence to the contrary, most people think they are above average (a statistical impossibility). Even more telling, as the authors indicate further in their paper, once shown the distribution of test scores, participants tended to subsequently raise their estimation of their performance relative to their peers! It’s as if people think they are great until shown the data for how others perform, then they think, “You know, come to think of it, I’m even better than I originally thought!” and they raise their already self-deceived estimation of their ability!

The Opposite, Then, Is The Answer

So if the truth of the fruit we bear in our lives is so uncomfortable for us, and if we so readily deceive ourselves about it (thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips,” when quite often instead we’re just the bag!) then it stands to reason that, if confronted, the truth should have tremendous power. And that is entirely the case.

This is why coaches in any field will always teach the concept of tracking the actual data.

If you’re a runner, track your daily miles logged. If you’re a salesperson, track your daily sales calls. If you’re a . . . You get the idea.

Tracking, in fact, is practically a silver bullet for fixing what ails you.

This is because it presents the facts to us in bold relief, without allowing us any escape from the hard edge of reality. And, alas, it is only once we have faced up to the brutal truth of a situation that we can then be convinced to take action to fix it. Otherwise, being stubborn buggers, we will continue to cruise along in our perpetual disregard of the evidence.

Chris Brady

Take finances, for example. In our Financial Fitness program, we teach people to track every little thing they spend money on in a month, and we provide mobile tools to facilitate doing so. At first it may seem like a waste of time, or at the very minimum, a large inconvenience. But without fail, for those who follow through with the exercise, tracking proves to reveal to them evidence of habits they didn’t realize they had. Or, more often than not, the extent to which those habits are doing damage to their finances, especially over time. “I know I spend a lot on coffee, but I had no idea I was spending that much per month!” is a common example reaction.

But Wait, There’s More! Tracking Actually Forces Better Behavior

Being disciplined in tracking everything you eat for a month, for instance, will not only shed light on the true facts of your nutrition (or lack thereof). It will also compel you to make better choices in the moment. How? Because as you reach for that bag of chips or cookie, it will pop into your mind that you will next have to write it down, messing with your scoreboard. Often times this alone is enough to cause one to pass on the poor choice.

Start Small

As with most things, the best way to initiate this new technique into your life is to start small. By that I mean to pick just one area and begin there. Commit to doing it for only one day. That’s right. Just one day. Then, at the beginning of the next day, commit to doing it for just one more day. Wash and repeat.

It seems impossible to believe, but this kind of super-baby-step approach will actually work. It keeps the intimidation factor of starting something new to a minimum, and “tricks” your mind into actually doing it.

Remember: do this in only one area of your life at first. Allow it to work. Learn from the data. Notice how it improves your behavior and leads to a better habit. Feel the difference in living life by looking at the data instead of cruising along blindly in a daze of self-deception. Once this process infiltrates your life and actually works in one category, you’ll then be capable of applying it in others. So start with just one, and actually do it.

Process, Not Product

Here’s another thing: track activity, not the results of that activity. For instance, it’s one thing to weigh yourself every day (product), but it’s much more instructive to track your daily intake of calories (process). If you do a good enough job of tracking the process, the product will take care of itself.

Only Till Habits Form

This may sound like a very yucky way to live. Who wants to write down everything they spend? or eat? How droll, you may think, and you’d be right! Nobody wants to live with someone so self-focused, so preoccupied. But the good news is that you only need to track something for a short time in order to compile a compelling case of evidence.

It won’t take long for the actual truth to convince you of the truth.

There will be nowhere to hide.

There will be nowhere to run.

The evidence will speak for itself!

Then, once new habits form, the tedious tracking isn’t necessary anymore. The new habit will run on auto pilot, producing the results you want. Of course, you can always dust it off and bring it back out again if you start backsliding into our old ways.

So, changing your bad habits into good ones won’t exactly be a piece of cake, but with this data-based approach, it will be something you can more readily step into.

Just don’t let your mom see.

(Join Chris at his Facebook fan page RascalNation)

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