Family Health Guy

In which Sean talks about HealthVault and other cool ideas in Personal Health

Broken Windows and Broken Scales

Broken Windows and Broken Scales

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"Broken Windows" theory says, in a nutshell, that letting little things go can lead to big problems:

[I]f a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken...one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. [James Wilson & George Kelling, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982]

This idea was all the rage in the mid-80s, and led authorities in New York and other cities to institute wide-ranging "cleanup" programs and crack down on minor infringements like subway fare-dodging. There is a ton of debate as to whether the subsequent drops in crime rates could really be attributed to these efforts - but it seems clear to me that there's something in there that makes sense.

As it happens, I was reminded just how universal "broken windows" really is a few weeks ago. As my three loyal readers may remember, early last year I embarked on a quest to lose twenty-five pounds. By counting calories, sticking to an exercise program and tracking my progress with HealthVault, I was able to achieve my goal in June. All through the rest of 2008 and into the first part of this year, I kept track of my weight, and pretty easily stayed in my target band of 160-165 lbs.

Then my scale broke.

This did not seem like a big deal. My weight had been stable for almost a year, and I knew what I could eat and what I couldn't. I was still running regularly, so I just didn't worry about replacing the scale.

I think you can guess where this is going.

Without that little digital reminder every morning, little by little my broken windows started adding up. Didn't have diet soda in the house --- one regular Coke won't hurt. Don't have a treadmill in the hotel --- I'd really rather not run outside in the drizzle, just this once. Hungry on the plane --- need to eat, guess that hamburger is my only option. And thus it begins --- once I got used to having one cookie with lunch, having two didn't seem like much of a change....

Fast forward three months, when my wife decided she wanted to lose a bit of weight, so she got a new scale. Holy crap! I had popped up to almost 169 lbs. Well, if I'm really being honest it wasn't so much "holy crap" --- I knew that I was gaining, I just was able to effectively ignore it because I wasn't measuring on a regular basis.

So what happened? I started weighing myself again, every morning, before I got into the shower. I didn't really make any systemic changes in my behavior; I just started noticing what I weighed and how much I was exercising. Six weeks later, and I'm back in business --- just broke the 165 lbs mark again. Woo hoo!

It continues to amaze me how I have to relearn the same lesson over and over. Measure, measure, measure - and don't let it start slipping, because those broken windows add up fast. Maybe this time I'll beat the Vegas odds and it will stick with me.

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  • That's exactly what happens with weight loss. I had a very similiar thing happen to me a few years ago - progress based on watching the metrics, then lost the metrics and lost some of the progress.

    I'm currently on a get-back-into-shape kick, and I've been trying to create accurate measurements of my overall activity level. I've been beta testing a FitBit for the last two months, and I've been amazed at the micro-level changes in behavior it's caused. When I get home at night and see that I've only gone 8,000 steps, my default behavior is now to go on a long walk rather than to drop myself back in front of the computer. Perhaps software people like us are extra sensitive to metrics, but I'll take what works...

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