Halfway to the Goal: the Straight-Line Progress Tracker

house_of_unoHey, Happy New Year, by the way.

From our vantage point here at the top of 2013, it’s pretty neat to look out over the year ahead and imagine what changes it might bring. Many of us use the January as a time to plan some life improvements, which is a healthy thing to do. But many New Year’s resolutions fizzle out after a few weeks or months, to be forgotten in the din of everyday life until the next January rolls around.

Why does this happen to everyone, including Mr. Money Mustache? It’s probably because most of the changes we want in life are based on changes to our habits. Whether you are are hoping to become a permanently healthy athlete, an influential corporate superstar, or an ass-kicking Mustachian with full control of your finances, the realization of lifestyle dreams usually boils down to little things you do every day, day after day, the results of which build up over time to create surprisingly large changes. Five bucks a day compounds into $26,000 every ten years, and decades roll into additional decades. An extra beer’s worth of calories per day can add up to 18 pounds of surplus bodyfat per year. A few minutes of job-hunting per week can trigger lifelong changes in career (hopefully for the better).

In other words, life results depend on habits, and habits can be extremely hard to change.  On the bright side, positive habits can also stick around with equal tenacity once they are established, which is like grafting a rocket booster onto your butt that adds forward thrust to your lifestyle even when you are not thinking about it.

For example, once you get into the habit of conscious spending, you’ll never want to waste money again. During our recent trip, Mrs. Money Mustache returned from a trip to the overpriced Hawaiian Safeway store across the street, reporting to me that she didn’t get toothpaste because it was all between $7 and $9 per tube. As she described the scene, I joined her in outrage and we both fired a few obscenities in the general direction of Safeway. It was just habit for us, since we practice Grocery Shopping with your Middle Finger. Eventually we remembered that even a $9.00 expense would have absolutely no effect on our financial situation, and we laughed at ourselves for creating such drama. But the habit was already in place, so it was automatic. (Epilogue: I found some toothpaste had gone “on sale” for $1.99 at the same store when I stopped by later that day). A millionaire is made ten bucks at a time, after all.

Similarly, dedicated readers might remember that I’m on a quest to gain 20 pounds by March 21st. Things like that don’t happen by buying a magic diet and exercise program, they only happen by changing habits. I needed to replace some of my strength-losing habits like reading books and typing on this computer too much, with strength-building ones like doing heavy squats and eating nice big meals afterwards. One of the techniques I tried was to create some public pressure for myself with that earlier blog post. And another was to put some unavoidable stuff into my daily routine that would remind me to do the right things every day. As a beginner forming a new habit, I need something simple and convenient.

So I resorted to some classic planning tools: the pencil and a piece of graph paper. Using the grid on the page, I wrote out the days until March 21st along the bottom, and my weight and strength along the left and right sides. I put a dot for my starting point on day 1, another dot for my finishing point in March, and drew a straight line between them. As long as I stay above the straight line as the days pass, I’m on track to reaching the goal. If I fall below, it is a signal to increase the effort. Then I stuck this piece of paper somewhere it could not be missed: right on the fridge door.


It’s ugly, it’s low tech.. and it works for me. By seeing this piece of paper every time I use the fridge, I can keep the fitness project at the front of my mind. And since I have a problem with getting sucked into a distracted la-la land while using computers, using paper and pen lets me make quick updates to the graph and move on.

The results have been good so far. I started the training here in Colorado in November, but was faced with a major test: the 7-week trip to Hawaii that fell right in the middle of the goal period. But because the goal was serious and the line was in place, I knew I could not slack off during that trip and expect to keep up. So I took a few steps, including these:

  • I asked Johnny Aloha if there was a way I could do some weight training during my visit. As luck would have it, he also wanted to gain some strength and was a pretty heavy-duty powerlifter in high school, thus he would be glad to join me in regular workouts.
  • Read the book “Starting Strength” by Mark Ripptoe on the plane ride over. It is an over-the top tome on weightlifting written by a man so passionate on the subject that he can write 60 pages on how to do a squat.
  •  As an active-duty military officer, John also has access to the amazing gym at the nearby marine base, the very same weight room that Barack Obama uses during his Hawaiian vacations. We made several highly productive visits to the gym during my trip.
  • Built a pull-up bar in the back lanai (with the approval of the owners, of course)
  • Set a daily requirement of 25 pullups and 50 pushups for the non-marine-base days (and taped a separate checksheet to the fridge for that too).
  • Set up a little squat/press/deadlift station in their back yard using some old cast iron plumbing pipes and cinder blocks
The triple M cinder block gym. Dress code is flip flops and pajama shorts, membership is $0.

The triple M cinder block gym. Dress code is flip flops and pajama shorts, membership is $0.

The results of all this? So far, so good. I recently crossed 180 lbs in the morning weigh-in, which means I am up 15 pounds. Leg and chest measurements have grown by 1.5 inches, and fortunately the belly has not. On the other hand, my bench press strength is not increasing as quickly as the straight line. It has been stubborn, the weights kept feeling heavy, and I was letting too much time pass between workouts. So I know I need to speed up progress in that department.  After a bit of consulting with some extremely strong dudes, I made these changes upon returning from Hawaii:

  • Increasing the frequency of workouts (each area now gets worked twice per week instead of once)
  • Adding creatine and protein supplements to my diet, to help compensate for the fact that I don’t eat meat as often as most weight-trainers (an MMM reader works at that Swanson company and helped turn me on to their stuff).

Just this week, I easily set a lifetime deadlifting record and a multi-year bench pressing record. So progress has returned. Will I hit all the goals before March 21st? I definitely think it is possible. Heck, even if the challenge were to end right now, I’ve already won – I have worked harder, gained fitness and strength, and learned a whole bunch about the process.

The tricky part of a long-term goal is knowing whether or not you are on track. With a long deadline, it’s easy to fool yourself into complacency and forget about the goal, until it’s too late. Some motivational experts advise you to break it down into smaller goals, which is exactly what the straight-line method does for me: every day a new expectation is set to keep ahead of it. Whether you’re gaining or losing weight, reducing spending or amassing a ‘stash that will make you financially independent in five years, following a line like this is one way to make the progress concrete and measurable.

So Happy habit-building to you too. I’ve just re-read all the comments on the earlier article where readers committed to achieving new things this year. How are you doing with your own projects? Cynthia? Tara? Holly with the Club Med preparations or Nathan with the one-armed pullup?

Since I like the straight-line program so much, I’m starting another one: 100 weekdays to get the Mr. Money Mustache BOOK done, as so far the progress has been minimal. One article a day (minimum), rewriting each of the best 100 posts to fit and flow into a book. First I’ll draw the graph, then I will share the goal when it is formalized. It will be a scary and exciting commitment.

  • Fastbodyblast January 24, 2013, 1:57 pm

    Hi MMM, are you still doing the daily pull-ups and push-ups between big lifting sessions? If so, dropping this will help. That’s a great way to lean up and get the “cut” look but more rest is required to build muscle mass. Just a thought.

  • Tigermoose January 24, 2013, 2:56 pm

    I just started Starting Strength at the beginning of January as well. It’s a blast! I really look forward to going into the gym and busting through a new max. It’s great to focus on your technique and to feel things “click” on a perfect rep.

    I’m going to start power cleans next week, if I can locate my missing SS book.

    I’m not trying to bulk, but to lose a few pounds. It’s working well at this point. Rippetoe says that “fat guys” will find that their waist line shrinks as they substitute muscle for fat. I’m really feeling my body transform. My core feels stronger than its ever felt.

    The forums over at http://www.startingstrength.com are pretty good. Rippetoe is active on the site and his answers are located in a Q&A forum.

    BTW, MMM, I think your feet need to be a little wider on your squat. It also looks like you don’t have the bar low enough on your back. Of course, you are using the cinder blocks and flip flops, so maybe that had something to do with it.

  • CanuckStache January 24, 2013, 2:59 pm

    That shot of the cinder block lift remind me of a photo of one of my uncle’s as a kid. My mom’s family was your typical poor immigrant family to Canada after the Second World War. 8 kids, one income, you know the story. My grandfather was a brick layer, so what he would do when the boys wanted to start doing sports and exercising, is take rebar and cement from work, and pour the cement into buckets then set the rebar in place. Worked great for the young guys, and all of my uncle’s ended up going on to become semi-professional body builders (though they can now afford their own gym memberships :) )

    • partgypsy January 28, 2013, 7:08 am

      The cinderblocks made me laugh and remind me of my hubby. While he used to do regular weightlifting in a gym in his 20’s also used to do circuit training at a boxer’s club, for now and in the past he uses cinderblocks for his maintaince exercises. He uses them for arm curls, sit ups, and deep push ups. He has a stripped down routine that doesn’t require any specialized equipment, all he needs is a 4 x 6 foot area, but keeps him in shape. The only thing he doesn’t have and wants is a pull up bar.

  • Rainerd January 24, 2013, 4:30 pm

    I’m on track. I’ve got an online version of the straight line graph – it is a google spreadsheet for recording my weight – I put in target weights for each week that steadily drop and graph that against my actual weight.

    I’ve exercised every day in 2013 and it was my new year’s resolution to do that for the entire year.

    I’m starting a training plan for an ultramarathon in April (without ever having done a regular marathon) – the kick up in endurance training should be a big boost to weight loss.

  • FinanceInspired January 25, 2013, 9:10 am

    I’ve started walking to work recently and its really helped. Its a 4 mile round trip, so that adds up to 20 miles a week! I’ve dropped a waist size already, and saved around £60 ($100) on subway journeys already!

  • ron January 26, 2013, 8:12 am

    Body type has a real impact on your powerlifting lifts. Your body is built more for deadlifting than bench press. Even if your bp lags your progress tracking, your DL will probably exceed it. Sometimes you don’t win all the battles, but you still win the war.

  • Rob aka Captain and Mrs Slow January 26, 2013, 1:26 pm

    25 chin ups, holy crap batman, I’m still working on doing one! But I can do (almost) 5 proper push-ups


  • Kevin Akey January 27, 2013, 10:02 am

    MMM, you mentioned that you found bench press a more difficult exercise for you so I have a few suggestions (I too found it difficult, although I found curls more difficult). Everyone has a different body and different strengths and weakness (Obvious? … Yes). What is not always obvious is how to experiment and figure out the best method for you.

    There are a few things you can experiment with to make this more comfortable and not necessarily easier, but perhaps safer and a place to start. In order of what I consider importance:

    1. Straight bar bench press varies quite a lot based upon width of your grip. So, I would recommend, pressing just the bar, varying the width of your grip and find the most comfortable hand placement. Then increase the weight to the appropriate “Set” weight, it will likely be less to start than your normal weight but you should see more consistent gains. You can always vary, for muscle shock or targeted muscle focus, by using an inside grip or an outside grip.

    2. Straight bar bench press varies quite a lot based upon bench angle. So, I would recommend, pressing just the bar, vary the bench height by several degrees until you find the most comfortable angle for your back. Then increase the weight to the appropriate “Set” weight. Again, you can and should vary between workouts.

    3. Transition to free weights once you have good fine control of the bar at your max single press. Please note, I am not a fan of the “max single press” which seems to be the adolescent muscle success measure. But, it does work well for a measure of control. You will find that switching to free weights will lower your set weight because you now have to work much more fine muscle control that the bar previously handled for you. But, for me it was definitely worth it. It is a much cleaner workout and helps build those small control muscles which are key to preventing injury when working out :)

    Good luck and, from a long time silent surfer, I have to say I was well along the road of financial frugality without really having a term for it when I was referred to your blog about 4 months ago. You have really helped me with the “fine tuning” of my financial approach and goals as well as helped validate my approach. So, thanks again!

  • Erica / Northwest Edible Life January 28, 2013, 2:42 pm

    Nice work strongman. Whenever I need to go the other direction and shed fat, I chart using a moving average calculation over 3 to 5 days to damp down hydration fluctuations. Drives me nuts when people (let’s be honest, mostly women) freak out about gaining two pounds one day, then are thrilled to have lost 3 pounds two days later. The body doesn’t work like that….a moving average trend line keeps things more accurate over the long term, I’ve found. Might be true in gaining muscle as well.

    • Mike Stankavich January 28, 2013, 2:46 pm

      Erica, the free web charting and goal management tool I mentioned in an earlier comment does both moving average and exponential smoothing. It’s a data nerd’s dream :) http://www.beeminder.com

    • Ladywell January 29, 2013, 4:07 am

      Yeah, hear hear. I use the Hacker’s Diet site, by the guy who founded Autodesk. No-frills engineer’s approach. Love my EMA!

  • Matt January 28, 2013, 6:02 pm

    Congrats on the progress made so far on your weight gain. I love the simplicity of your approach. You can’t go wrong with something as easy as pencil and paper.

    Looking forward to the book – good luck.

  • Igor March 26, 2013, 8:59 am

    Are the results in yet?

  • David B. September 24, 2013, 12:39 pm

    I really need to get an exercise buddy as well and get on the band wagon. Was thinking of doing mostly body weight stuff, but since squats are MAGICAL I may need to make something so I can do squats. I like the idea of the bar and milk crates (I have lots of rocks around here). I worry about squatting without a cage though.

    Also, any progress on the book?

  • MariaSouth December 7, 2013, 11:37 pm

    I’ve read all your posts from the shadows, now registered, went to the forums, and am back with the random article button.

    And this time, I see this article from a completely different perspective. It is not about lifting weigths (something I do not really care), but about how to connect long term goals with immediate actions.

    It made me smile.
    You are a smart guy.

    I am so glad to have found this site.

  • RA July 15, 2014, 10:41 am

    I just started reading this blog a few months ago. MMM , I am so impressed not just by your words and optimism, but by how well those things match up with how you live. I feel like I finally found a blog that aligns the most closely with my desire to be FI, do good for the environment, spend good time with those I love and just be able to feel joy from figuring things out and being creative. This is also the only blog where I feel compelled to read all the comments. So many insightful thoughts here with significantly lower ratio of Complainypants than most comment sections. Thank you so very much for sharing your ideas and journey. Many of the the things you say, I knew deep inside, but the way you articulate them, motivates me to take more action. Now isn’t that the definition of a good teacher?!

  • Vicky Forsyth October 25, 2018, 2:22 am

    Hello, just wondering if the book happened? Think it’s an awesome idea and worried I missed it. If it hadn’t happened maybe there are some interesting lessons learnt/reasons why?

  • Jeff January 31, 2023, 10:03 am

    Any updates on your book? I’m not seeing it on this site? Thanks!


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