Data is Your Friend


Data is Your Friend: Why Data Nerds Meet Their Goals

Ever find yourself caught in an annoying habit? Biting your nails, procrastination, distractability, speeding, smoking, excessive shopping… you name it.  There is a simple way to tackle a challenging behavior: look for patterns. How do you find patterns? Data collection. Often experts give advice on making a goal and then “just work hard” toward that goal when striving for behavior change. The problem with that model is that we often don’t consider the “why” of what we do. Without the “why” we cannot properly swap out a negative behavior pattern for a better one.

I know what you’re thinking. I am BUSY, data collection is not in my vocabulary. Truly, data is part of our daily lives whether we realize it or not. We are surrounded by data collection and data analysis: text alerts, Facebook,  Instagram, twitter, a bank statement, the list goes on.

Collecting your own data to figure out why you do something and setting replacement behavior goals is a real, research-based strategy. Guess what? This can be a very helpful tool to use if you’re responsible for a tiny human and you have to work on tackling some challenging behaviors that someone else in your life exhibits.

The simplest data collection uses tools you always (or usually) have on you: a phone. Do you own a smartphone? We are  lucky to have these advances that make it so easy to collect data. Even if the smartphone is not your thing, you can use good-old-fashioned-paper and pencil. Here are some basic steps to get started with your own data-driven decision making:

Step 1- Define the behavior- Make sure you know what you’re looking for. This could be one sentence clarifying what you are looking to collect data on in the simplest, but most descriptive way possible. This will improve your accuracy and help you focus on the original specific behavior (Rome wasn’t built in a day- don’t try to take everything at once).

Try This- pick up my phone, browse social media for what is supposed to be a quick check in, find myself checking 7 different apps and 30 minutes have passed

Not This- Distracted

Not This- Addicted to my phone

Not This- Social media junkie


Step 2- Watch and wait- I’m sure your waiting will involve a little more than sitting and twiddling your thumbs, but really this is when you will just go about your daily life. Don’t try to provoke the behavior and don’t try to adjust your response to lessen the behavior. Do what you normally would do to elicit accurate data.

Step 3- Record- When the behavior happens, hopefully your trusty data collection method is ready to go. Whether it’s post-its or Siri, have these available to you at all times throughout the day. Use tally marks or simple timestamps.

Try This- 8:10-8:25am; 9:15-9:25am; 6:30-6:55pm

Not This- yesterday all morning

Not This- morning- 4 times

Not This- after lunch


Step 4- Analyze- After 3-5 days, or 3-5 instances of the behavior (whichever comes first), you can start looking for patterns in the data. Here are some common patterns:

Time of day- Think broader than 9am vs. 3pm. Morning, noon, afternoon.

People present- This happens more when friends are around or less when my husband is around.

Location- This happens more at work than at home.

Situational- This happens more when transitioning or when waiting.

Setting events (life events happening before the behavior)- This happens more when I haven’t slept well the night before.


Step 5- Hypothesize or Draw a Conclusion- Make a statement describing the “why” of a negative behavior happens based on the patterns you are seeing. Make it as specific as possible. No patterns? Go back to Step 3 (Record more data) or have another person look at your data- sometimes having an outside perspective can be extremely helpful.

Try this- I often check social media when I am waiting or transitioning between activities and what I intend to last 5 minutes usually is drawn out into 14-18 minutes on average, thus making me late and distracted when it comes to the next task I need to do.

Not this- I get distracted when I am bored.

Not this- I am on social media because I like looking to keep up with what is going on in the world.


Step 6- Set a REPLACEMENT BEHAVIOR goal- Decide what you’d like to do instead of the behavior and make a goal.

Try this- I will carry a book or small notebook in my workbag during the day and take that with me to transition so I don’t need to check my phone, instead I can take the time to journal or read which is what I have been wanting to do more of anyway. If I have a longer transition or wait time, I will set a timer on my phone for 5  minutes before hopping on social media so I don’t get sucked in and waste time. Because I usually have 20-30 minutes of undivided time at night after my kids go to bed, I will wait to check social media then because it will allow me to not feel guilty about 5 minutes turning into 20 minutes.

Not this- I will check social media less. (no replacement behavior identified- what are you going to do instead?)

Not this- I will never check my phone until night time (not realistic.)

Step 7- Collect more data- Why? Because how else will you see change? When you can continue the efforts to collect data using the simple methods you identified earlier, you will not only hold yourself accountable to making change, you will be able to see change when you compare your post-goal data to your pre-goal (baseline) data. What even helps with this further is to bring a friend or professional along for the ride. When looking to break a negative behavior pattern that may have taken years to create, it is very helpful to have someone to offer support for the journey.

Written by: Josi Garcia is the Co-Founder of ZimZum Consulting Collaboration. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, holds a Masters degree in Special Education, and has experience working with schools and families supporting individuals with special needs.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash