I’m going to admit right off the top here that this week’s sacred practice discussion isn’t actually about a sacred practice at all. Instead it’s about a practice that can help us be more intentional about the goals we have in every area of our life, including our sacred practices. This week, I’m going to discuss the discipline of monitoring, with a specific lens of applying it to the spiritual life.
Monitoring in one form or another is probably as old as humanity itself. The principle is pretty simple: if you want to do something, keep track of how often you do it (or how much of it you do). It’s something I’ve done subconsciously most of my life. But a few years ago, after encountering the writing of Gretchen Rubin on habits and happiness, I decided to implement it in a more intentional way over many areas of my life, including my spiritual life.
The fundamental truth behind the discipline of monitoring is that “we manage what we monitor.” If we aren’t paying attention to how we’re spending our time, what we’re eating, or how much exercise we’re getting, it’s hard to manage it. And so, as a rule, we underestimate how much we eat, overestimate how much we walk, and have absolutely no idea how much time we spend watching Netflix or playing on our phones. When we’re intentional about monitoring what we do — by, say, keeping a food journal or wearing a pedometer — we can’t fool ourselves anymore. In this way, if we’re committed to taking it seriously, monitoring is an act of radical honesty with ourselves.
The benefit of this is that, because we manage what we monitor, the very act of tracking what we do can cause us to do more of what we want to do and less of what we don’t want to do, without even trying. Monitoring “doesn’t require change,” as Rubin points out, “but it often leads to change.” Again, she says, “Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control.”
What is it?
- Set clear intentions for what you want to track. Like any sort of goal, the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) can be helpful. Something like “I want to pray more” is difficult to monitor; but something like “I want to pray the morning office every morning before work” can be easily monitored.
- Keep track of how often you do it.
- If you carry on with monitoring, take notice of your progress over time, and give thanks for it.
As I mentioned at the start of the post, this week’s practice is a departure from the normal conceit of these sacred practices posts. I’ve been monitoring the goals I have for my spiritual life for a few years now and definitely have found it transformative. Praying the morning office, for example, used to be something I wanted to do but struggled to do regularly. Since I began tracking it, it’s slowly become a more basic part of my normal routine. More generally in my life, monitoring has helped me immensely reach goals for reading, eating, exercise, charitable giving, and all sorts of other things. So, I can honestly say, it works for me!
You may be asking yourselves why I decided to explore a strategy like monitoring as part of this “sacred practices” series. And I fully admit it doesn’t quite belong. But at the same time, monitoring strikes me as being deeply spiritual. It touches on two connected themes that come up time and time again with sacred practices: attention and intention. If we have a desire to engage with our spirituality, monitoring is a helpful way of paying attention to whether we are putting that intention of our hearts into action. In this way, monitoring can function a bit like an examination of conscience, which is a tried and true sacred practice that examines our lives against our values.
Some may also object to treating our sacred practices as habits and routines to be measured and improved upon like those in other areas of our life. And I understand where that’s coming form. It isn’t very romantic or alluring to treat prayer as a routine like brushing your teeth or scrubbing the toilet. I’d love to be the kind of person who wakes up deeply yearning to dive into the prayers and Scriptures as a matter of course, or who is so unattached to my resources that I give generously to charities without thinking about it. But the truth is I’m not that that kind of person. I am however, the kind of person who knows it is good to spend time in the Scriptures and that my days are better when I ground them in the prayers. And I am the kind of person who knows it is good to be generous with my money and to remind myself to be less attached to the numbers on my bank statement and that the money I earn can do more in the hands of of a trusted charity than it can in my savings account. And so as unglamourous as it may be, monitoring helps me act on my deeper values. Here we come back yet again to intention and attention: Does how I use my time, talent, and treasure reflect my deepest values? Really, it’s about character. Character isn’t defined by what we do when we’re at our best, but by what we do when we’re not — when we’re tired and put-upon, hangry or horny. Monitoring reminds me of what I really want my life to look like in the moments when I don’t want it or don’t care. And so, by holding a mirror up to my values and beliefs, monitoring is, ultimately, a profoundly spiritual act.