The Power of One (and Zero)

October 19, 2016

About two years ago, my girlfriend and I were looking for a little extra motivation to get us in the gym or out running more often. We both somewhat regularly worked out but it was often a slog and we’d go through peaks and valleys of activity.

So we decided to set up a simple spreadsheet in the cloud and track our progress. Initially I was thinking of trying to keep track of what specific exercises we did, how many sets, reps, etc. but it was difficult to set up a spreadsheet to track all the possible exercises we would do. Also, there were some days we didn’t feel like pushing ourselves too hard so constantly feeling pressured to beat our previous efforts seemed stressful.

In the end, the spreadsheet just looked like this:

Date Alex 10 Description Lauren 10 Description
2016-09-23 1 Ran 5mi! 1 Ran 5mi w/ A!
2016-09-24 0 :( 1 Pilates
2016-09-25 1 Gym, upper body 0 :(

The date, a binary column for whether we worked out or not, and an optional note to say what you did.

500 days later, we’re still going strong. We’ve filled it out every single day. Not always on the same day, I admit, sometimes we’ll go a few days or more without marking a zero or a one but inevitably we’ll remember and backfill the unmarked days.

Why This Works

I think there are a few reasons we’ve been able to keep this up for so long.


The simplicity of tracking makes it near painless. All you need to do is mark a zero or one. We even started allowing for the occassional 0.5 if you had an in-betweener (a very long walk let’s say).

It’s easy to do on a daily basis but I think more importantly, it’s easy to catch up on if you fall behind. Simple and straightforward is key.

Visibility / Accessibility

Since we did it in Google Spreadsheets, it was almost always accessible. We also would just leave it open in a Chrome tab (you could even pin it) so every time you were on the computer, you couldn’t help but noticing it.

No alarms, no automated reminders; it was just often visible and easily accessible.

A Little Competition / Accountability

We were our own reminder system. When one of us was falling off the wagon, the other would gently nudge the other, sometimes as passively as just leaving a tagged comment in the sheet.

Once you start, and especially once you’ve kept it up for some weeks, you don’t NOT want to fill it out. And I think it’s just the right amount of guilt you feel when you have to mark that zero. The second zero is a little tougher. The third in a row and you have all the motivation you need to strap on those running shoes.

But really, doing it together is what makes it fun. You want to challenge each other and you also don’t want to let the other down. So you keep going and make it part of your every day habits.

No Major Life Changes

Lastly, I think it’s been possible for us to keep this going for so long because we haven’t had any big life upsets. No big moves, no babies, no tragedies and we’ve been healthy (which I’m very grateful for).

If you’re looking to make a change, to pick up a new skill, or just want to support an activity you’re already doing, consider starting a similar system. It’s fun, it’s easy and if you’re a nerd, you even get the benefit of having some cool data to play with after you’ve done it awhile (post on that coming soon). Let me know how it goes.

Alex Scott If you're a nerd, I'm a nerd.
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