Stop being an ostrich! The benefits of helping people to monitor their progress

By Thomas L. Webb, Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield, the UK

How are you getting on with your goal to reduce the amount of sugar that you eat and lose 10kg? Chances are that you don’t really know – or even want to know. In situations like these, people tend to behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand, intentionally avoiding or rejecting information that would help them to monitor their goal progress. Research on this “ostrich problem” suggests that people often do not keep track of their progress (e.g., step on weighing scales, read the packets of food that they buy), in part, because doing so can make them feel bad about themselves – e.g., they realise that they weigh more than hoped and that they still consume too much sugar. However, theory and evidence suggest that keeping track of progress helps people to identify discrepancies between their current and desired states that warrant action. The implication is that avoiding monitoring makes it difficult to identify the need to act and the most appropriate way to do so. The ostrich problem therefore represents an opportunity for healthcare professionals (and others) to help people to monitor their progress and capitalise on the benefits of so doing. Perhaps not surprisingly then, we found good evidence that prompting people to monitor their progress helps people to achieve goals across a range of domains.

Monitoring involves taking stock of the current situation (e.g., how much sugar has been consumed that day, when, and where) and comparing this to some goal or reference value (e.g., a maximum of 6 teaspoons of sugar per day). This can be done in a diary or simply on a piece of paper, but there are also now digital tools available that can help people to monitor their progress – indeed, people are even starting to talk about a movement called “the quantified self”. For example, our phones automatically record how many steps we have taken, our watches tell us how long and how well we have slept, and people can use apps to scan the barcodes on food packaging to find out their nutritional properties. Many of these devices even ask us to set a goal and then compare our progress toward this goal.

Using these tools to monitor progress can help people to identify when and how best to take action. For example, scanning the barcodes on food packaging could help a person who is trying to reduce their sugar consumption to realise how much sugar is in a glass of orange juice or a bowl of cornflakes, and help them identify (and switch to) lower-sugar alternatives. Monitoring can therefore form the basis of interventions designed to help people to achieve a range of health goals. Furthermore, there is evidence that monitoring is even more effective if it is combined with techniques that help people to set appropriate goals against which to monitor progress and take the action if and when monitoring identifies that it is needed (e.g., if-then planning). 

Given that people may be defensive about the information that they receive (e.g., suggest that the information does not reflect their typical behaviour, or that the monitoring device must be inaccurate), psychological techniques like self-affirmation (encouraging people to affirm valued aspects of themselves) may also help people to accurately appraise the information and its implications.

Practical recommendations 

Monitoring progress often simply involves identifying a method for monitoring behaviour and/or outcomes (e.g., an app or diary) and committing to using it. However, as described above, people often bury their heads in the sand and do not monitor their progress. You may therefore be able to:

  • Help people identify what to monitor. For example, if they are trying to lose weight, consider whether it would be best to monitor behaviours like physical activity, or dietary intake; outcomes like weight or waist circumference; or a combination of both? Our research suggests that people should be encouraged to monitor whatever it is that they most want to change: be it outcomes, behaviours or both. 
  • Help people objectively reflect on the information obtained through monitoring. Evidence suggests that self-affirmation strategies may prevent people from becoming defensive about the information that they receive. If you suspect that an individual might react defensively to their monitored behaviour or outcomes, then encouraging them to affirm valued aspects of the self (e.g., that they are a kind and considerate person) before monitoring their progress may help them to accept the information
  • Support people in making the changes that monitoring suggests might be needed. Identifying the need to act and being motivated to do so are only the first steps in making a change. As people may need help to translate their good intentions into action, prompt them to form if-then plans that specify when, where, and how they will act. For example, someone who identifies that they are eating too much sugar might form the plan “If I am having breakfast, then I will have porridge oats, rather than cornflakes”.