“We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are.”— Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes
A million things to do during the day and only so many hours to do them. Each day, we’re faced with thousands of decisions, some small, some big. These decisions, over the coming months and years, determine the courses of our lives.
It’s hard to find what matters in the myriad of options we have. We can only pay attention to so many things before we start cutting corners. Luckily, nature provided us with the ability to learn and form habits. By encountering decisions in stable contexts, we develop automated reactions. This saves our mental power to where it matters.
But, if you’re not deliberate about this process, you risk building wrong habits or missing forming some important ones. It is precisely for these moments that habit trackers were invented.
A habit tracker can have many forms. It can be virtual or physical. In a nutshell, a habit tracker is about visualizing the recurring tasks you want to do during the day. It gives you direction and helps you sustain what you do.
It’s a visual reminder of the person you want to be.
You need a habit tracker if:
- You often forget the small but significant tasks that help you stay motivated, in shape (both mentally and physically), and on top of your game
- you want to implement a new habit into your life
- you want to sustain your existing habits consistently
- you are serious about achieving what you set out to do
- you’re self-disciplined and don’t need anyone to hold you accountable
Luckily, creating a habit tracker is the simplest thing. You need a ruler, pen, A3 sized sheet of paper, and a prominent spot on the wall.
Here’s how mine looks. The habits I’m tracking are on the left side, the corresponding crosses on the right. In green, I track my “whenever” activities (as opposed to dailies above).
A habit tracker is a living thing. This month I added, tentatively, one hour of book reading on the bottom. I also adjusted the meditation entry to include taking a walk or taking a cold shower, as all serve the same purpose.
Principles of Successful Habit Creation
When you’re tracking habits, you need to know how they’re built. Here are the basics. Feel free to skip to the next section if you’re familiar with the principles.
A successful habit tracker pushes you a bit out of your comfort zone but doesn’t stretch you with big hairy goals. That’s a recipe to ditch the whole tracking business in the corner and start watching Netflix instead.
Skewed balance is what you aim for — 60/40. You want to tilt the scales a bit into the uncomfortable so that you push the realm of possibility, but you don’t want to overdo it. That’s why green activities are green — had I put them into the daily habits, I know I wouldn’t do them. And if I did them, I’d do so grudgingly. That’s not how you learn a habit.
And so, push yourself, but just a bit. Increase the load with more ambitious goals as you go.
“If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.” — BJ Fogg, Stanford psychologist
The proper way to establish a new habit is to start small and increase the load in small increments. That way, you’re still establishing a new routine without creating too much disorder in your current daily cycle.
The more disorder new habits cause, the more likely you’re to relapse. The same gym logic applies — start small, and add more weight as you go. You don’t expect to be bench pressing 100kgs (that’s 220 pounds for you guys over the Atlantic).
When establishing a new habit, the main concern is to make it feel good. Speaking from the brain perspective, you want to a squirt of dopamine each time you perform a habit. In other words, you want to make the whole experience pleasurable so that you’re motivated to do it again. Makes sense, right?
But what to do if the habit itself, let’s say flossing, isn’t all that pleasurable on its own? What if there’s no dopamine? Enter rewards. Rewards are the Viagra of habit creation. It’s the small push that is needed to make everything work (not that I know personally…).
A reward can have any form as long as it motivates you to perform the said habit. But there are some caveats. An example. Chocolate is motivating, but rewarding your flossing habit with it would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?
You don’t know how creative you can get when you want to squirm out of your responsibilities.
Knowing the Best Rewards Are Intrinsic
Feelings such as pride of achievement, the joy of overcoming an obstacle, or the feeling of happiness after completing a task are intrinsic rewards. But, you say, those feelings are there anyway when I finish the task! And you are correct. But without you being conscious of them, they aren’t strong enough to create and sustain a habit. That’s why you amplify them by giving them attention.
How does it look in practice?
When you finish a task, pat yourself on the back and tell yourself what a magnificent beast you are for completing it. When you floss like a boss, make sure to amplify those feelings of pride by telling someone. In short, be conscious about the rewarding feelings and, in no time, they’ll become the motivating factor behind your behavior.
“You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.”― James Clear, Atomic Habits
Another necessary ingredient of habit creation are cues. Cues are the triggers of your habits and can be categorized in the following way:
- Preceding event
- Emotional state
- Other people
For example, for my habit of writing for Medium, the cue I setup is sitting down on my kitchen table. Since I don’t use it for anything else but writing, my brain is primed and prepared and shifts into writing modus.
For the habit of conscious eating, my trigger is the internal state of wanting to watch something when I eat. Since I want to change this habit of eating and watching, I’m using it as a trigger. Two birds with one stone.
Meditation is a part of a sequence of events in the morning routine. When I wake up, I drink a glass of water, do 40–50 push-ups, and shower for 5 minutes (3 minutes cold, 2 minutes warm). After I’m done showering, I already see myself walking to my meditation bench and setting up a timer. No thinking involved.
So, make sure there’s a trigger for each and every one of your habits and be conscious about it.
Principles of Successful Habit Tracking
Now that you know how habits work, here are some pointers for habit tracking.
1. Be ultra-specific.
Since you’re going to be doing this particular habit each and every day for at least a month, it pays to dial down exactly what you’re doing.
An example: When I first started tracking my writing habit, I simply wrote down “writing”. The expectation was that I’d write for Medium for at least an hour a day and publish around 2–3 times a week. Silly me. In no time, I started cutting corners. I had a long day today, 10 minutes are fine…or I didn’t sleep well today and worked too much, so writing in my journal counts.
You don’t know how creative you can get when you want to squirm out of your responsibilities.
To prevent this, be ultra-specific. For a writing habit, make sure to spell it out for yourself what exactly will constitute one cross on that particular day.
In the upcoming months, I changed my writing habit to: “Medium writing for an hour or more, tracked via an app”. It happens less and less that I skip a session because the frame around the habit is well-defined.
2. Don’t dilute the cross.
Those little crosses have power. Once you get a couple of them, you get the urge to not break the chain. This is what you want. What you don’t want, however, is to dilute this power by crossing things off frivolously. What do I mean?
A hypothetical scenario (that you’ll totally encounter). You know you won’t make the habit of writing today, but you already have a bitchin’ chain of 10 crosses. What do you do? As much as I’d love to tell you to cut yourself some slack and put the cross there, you’d be shooting yourself in the knee over the long run. Once you start cutting corners, the motivational power those crosses have will evaporate. Exercise tough love on yourself and don’t rationalize your slip-ups. Plan better next time instead.
3. Have the benefit in mind.
It’s easy to lose sight of the true goal when habit tracking. As I mentioned above, those crosses have power. So if you don’t watch yourself, it can happen you’ll start craving the cross and lose sight of the true goal instead. Let me explain.
One of the habits that I track is simple 10 minutes of meditation. Hence, 10 minutes of meditation equals a cross. But what is the true purpose of meditation? For me, it’s being present and mindful. Meditation is just a vessel to achieve that state. In line with this logic, I expanded my habit tracker to include taking a walk or a cold shower in the same entry as all 3 serve the same purpose of mindfulness.
To sum up:
- Be ultra-specific,
- don’t dilute the cross, and
- keep the true purpose in mind.
5 Trackable Areas of Your Life
As I mentioned above, you need to find the right balance between pushing yourself and overshooting. So, when setting up your habits, think hard what you want to track — after all, you’re gonna spend the whole month chasing it.
The chase can be pleasant if you give it enough thought and choose something that’s both feasible and motivating. But it can also quickly become a chore when you choose something that’s not aligned with your values or personality.
With that, let’s look at principles behind what habit to track and the rationale behind it.
1. A side hustle or other meaningful activity
Last year I discovered Medium. In a true Hesitator way (you are a hesitator if you take forever to decide and commit to something), I dipped my toes in by writing a couple of stories without giving it much thought. Sadly, you can’t make it on Medium if you are a Hesitator. You need to become a Committer (you can infer what that means, right?)to make it happen here. You need to churn out content regularly and consistently.
Enter, habit tracking. Habit tracking helped me to commit and achieve more than I’d normally do with my puny willpower. I now write every day and publish way more often than before.
2. Health-related habits
We humans suck at managing our health. If left to our devices, most of us would end up gorging on fast food every day, not brushing our teeth, and having a sleeping schedule based on our Netflix binges.
Enter, habit tracking. Habit tracking helps you to keep track of all the health-related activities that you should be doing every day but that you so often forget.
- Doing sports — stretching, yoga, running, cycling, etc. (just make sure to start small and reward yourself plenty)
- Taking supplements
3. Mental health
If I said that we forget to perform our health habits too often, it’s even worse with the mental ones. Why? Because mental habits are not tangible. You won’t have rotten teeth when you don’t meditate, nor will you feel winded after taking a flight of stairs when you don’t journal. This invisibility of mental habits make them difficult to think about each day.
Enter habit tracking. With habit tracking, you can measure your progress of becoming an enlightened human being.
- Meditation (for guided meditation, try Sam Harris’s app)
- Journaling (here is an excellent article from Benjamin Hardy, PhD)
I’m a horrible human being. If left unsupervised, I would devise a plan to destroy the world and all the people in it. Including my own girlfriend.
I assume you’re not like me, so maybe you don’t have such fundamental problems as I do. But you still might want to keep in touch with your friends or parents more often.
Enter habit tracking. With habit tracking, I’m reminded of the fact that other people, for reasons unknown to me, like or even love me and that I should reciprocate more often than I do.
- Reaching out to old friends you’ve nearly forgotten about but that still gnaw at your soul for not getting back to them (that might be just me)
- Doing a small thing for your partner each day — a kiss, a short backrub, a single pancake (not more)
Insider Tip: Put this down in your habit tracker in the “whenever” section if you don’t want your whole month to feel like a huge networking event.
5. Wind down habits
You are a workaholic and sometimes you need to wind down. You need time and energy to recharge the batteries to be able to work the next day.
Enter habit tracking. With habit tracking, you can feel good about taking your sweet time to relax.
- Smoke a joint
- If millennial, pick up the ukulele
- Write down 3 things you want to accomplish tomorrow
What makes a habit worthy of tracking?
Not all habits are created equal. Some fit snugly into your habit tracker while others scoff at your attempt to cage them on paper. Here are 4 pointers to look out for when deciding whether to pick up a habit to track.
- Can be done every day
- Pushes you a bit yet is manageable
- Improves your (mental) health, wealth, relationships
- Implements elements of play and creativity
For ideas, head over here.
Let me sum up what you’ve learned:
You’ve reached the end. Somewhere in the world, confetti guns pop and the annoying birthday whistle blares in the background.
- Habit tracking is the best thing since sliced bread. It can help you achieve goals and build rocket ships. Use its power wisely.
- You need a habit tracker if you’re forgetful, if you want to squeeze out more of your day, or if you possess enough discipline to be self-accountable and motivated by crosses in a table.
- You know the principles of successful habit creation. The importance of pushing your limits, but just by a little. The importance of rewards and the environment.
- You know the ground rules of habit tracking. Ultra-specificity, keeping the cross pure and sacred, and knowing the purpose behind the habit.
- You know what are some good habits to track.
Before you leave me to the dark recesses of the internet, would you do me a favor? Share your best practices for habit tracking with me. Let me know in the post below what yours are, I’d love to hear them.