The Devil is in the Details: Self-Monitoring

The Devil is in the Details: Self-Monitoring

checkoffOur daily actions, routines, and habits create the breadth of our lives. Making a significant change in our lives starts by making a behavioral change in ourselves. To start we must first identify our goal. Do you want to learn to speak Spanish? Would you like to improve your relationship with your spouse? Or would you like to improve your ability to manage conflicts with your mother? Although the goals may vary significantly, they can be met once you identify your goal, develop operational targets, develop a habit of self-monitoring, and commitment to change.

Once you have a defined your primary goal you need a plan of attack. Determining what behaviors you will need to increase and decrease to meet your primary goal is called targeting. When an individual utilizes an observable definition of their targets it increases their ability to monitor their progress accurately. Let’s take learning Spanish for example. You have been thinking and talking about learning Spanish for years. You occasionally watching Spanish films with the subtitles on and listen to Mariachi music while cooking, half-heartedly hoping that you will pick it up. However, this approach has not been effective. It is a loosely defined goal and one you have not fully committed to work on achieving. First, you need to define your primary goal, which may be “To learn conversational Spanish within the next 6 months.” Next you need to develop a plan of attack, or specific targets. You may commit to listening to audio Spanish lessons for 30 minutes a day and having a weekly conversation with your bilingual buddy, lasting 15-20 minutes. These are goals that can be observed and monitored. There is no wiggle room in tracking these targets, which decreases the likelihood that an individual will inaccurately monitor their behaviors.

These first few steps are important, and often where people stop, unfortunately. For people to succeed at making significant behavioral changes in their lives, it is important to monitor how consistently they complete their target behaviors. Our memories are fallible. We get distracted. We fall into previously established habits without realizing it. And we do all of these things at even higher rates when we are tired, stressed, or hungry. As a result, we inaccurately report how consistently we engage in our target behaviors, which undermines our ability to meet our goals. Self-monitoring increases our attention to our goals, helps us be more accurate reporters, increases our self-awareness of our behavioral patterns, and increases how frequently we adhere to our established goals. Studies have found that even monitoring a behavior without the intention of changing it, such as tracking your daily food intake without committing to changing your eating patterns, increases awareness and subsequently triggers more adaptive behavioral changes, such as healthier eating.

Self-monitoring is an evidence based intervention which is effective at increasing behavioral and attentional control in students, at decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms, and at increasing compliance with medical and nutritional recommendations. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, self-monitoring is a critical tool utilized to track client’s primary treatment targets, which often include suicidal urges/actions, self-harm urges/actions, emotions, substance use, and skill application/practice. Consistent use of the standard diary card form facilitates daily monitoring of treatment targets, which increases self-awareness, frequency of skill use, and accuracy in reporting with treatment providers.

It is important to prioritize longevity of commitment. Goals and plans are developed when we are feeling inspired or optimistic. When everything feels possible. During that moment it is easy to recall the reasons we are committing to our plan. You want to learn Spanish because it will make you more marketable professionally, you anticipate a sense of pride at accomplishing a goal, and you would like to travel to Barcelona and speak to locals in their native tongue. Or you want to improve your relationship with your spouse because you love them, you want to create a more loving and stable environment for your children, and you want to be happier in your marriage. However, at some point you will be tired and hungry. You will eventually have a stressful day at work and you may have serious personal challenges arise. Those are the moments that your commitment to your goal will waiver. It is important to remember what motivated your initial goal, so that you are able to remind yourself once you are more emotionally reactive. Record your motives for change and review them when you complete your daily self-monitoring, to increase you commitment during period of exhaustion and moments when you are more emotional and less reasonable.

Self-monitoring must be an active process to be effective. For example, imagine you have been monitoring your frequency of engaging in your target behavior, such as “Going on weekly dates, outside of your home, which last for 3 hours or more, with your spouse”, for the past two weeks. You are consistently meeting your goal 75% of the time. Perhaps you don’t feel that you are making the progress you anticipated or you feel you have “plateaued” and are feeling stuck. Time to troubleshoot. Perhaps on 25% of your scheduled date nights you come home late from work, are tired, and turn on the television to “zone out” when you walk in the door. This act undermine your goal because the amount of emotional inertia required for you to turn off the television, get dressed, and leave the house feels unsurmountable when you are exhausted. Once you realize this you revise your plan and commit to both 1) going on weekly dates, outside of your home, which last for 3 hours or more, with your spouse and 2) not watching television prior to your date on the evenings you have a date planned. This additional target may significantly boost your rate of success. And if it doesn’t – continue troubleshooting!

Making long-lasting changes requires both flexibility and complete commitment. If you work until 8 pm, are exhausted, and are having urges to cancel your date to “zone out”, being flexible may entail going for drinks with your spouse for an hour or completing 15 minutes of your Spanish lesson. It will help you maintain your commitment and prevent you from engaging in an “all-or-nothing” approach. Enduring and complete commitment to your goal is equally critical. When you “fall off the wagon” acknowledge it. You are human and will behave as a human. Avoid judging yourself and recommit to your goal as quickly as possible. Skipping one Spanish lesson or date is a single decision and does not need to impact your next decision. You may feel guilty or ashamed of yourself for not meeting your goal. Acknowledge your feelings. Experience them. And then let them go and move towards your next opportunity for success.

To create effective behavioral changes in yourself through self-monitoring:

  • Identify your primary goal and operationally define it.
  • Define the target behaviors you will need to increase and/or decrease to meet your goal. Remember to set observable targets.
  • Use daily self-monitoring to track your consistency of engaging in your targeted behaviors.
  • Record your motives for change and review them consistently to maintain commitment.
  • Troubleshoot any obstacles. What leads you to engage in a behavior you were trying to decrease? What triggered your avoidance of a behavior you were working to increase? Revise your plan to increase accurate targeting.
  • Long-lasting changes requires both flexibility and enduring commitment to your goal. Commit fully, be flexible to avoid engaging in an all-or-nothing approach, and be accepting of your fallibility.

Change is hard and it can be achieved. To monitor your emotional and behavioral patterns I recommend the DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach ( It is a comprehensive self-monitoring app that graphs data overtime, increasing the ease of both troubleshooting and tracking progress. And we know that being able to observe even small steps towards your long-term goal increase the probability that you will maintain your momentum and eventually meet your goal.


Holly A. Hart, Psy.D.

Clinical Psychologist