Search Instagram or Pinterest for habit trackers, and you’ll see dozens of photos of bullet journal spreads.  The setup is often the same, with the habits listed down one side and the days of the month across the top. I often see habit trackers with more than a dozen habits listed down the side. Unsurprisingly, the consistency rate on these trackers is often spotty, with some tasks only completed a few times over the course of a month.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A habit tracker is a much better way to gauge long-term trends for repeat tasks than writing those tasks in your daily entries. If I want to do more yoga, for instance, using a habit tracker can help me see that I’m averaging 2 days a week, but I want to be averaging 4 or 5 days a week. I make some changes to my routine, and the next month I see that I’m managing 5 days a week. I may do this with the expectation that I’ll never do yoga on 7 days a week as I do other exercise on the other 2 days, but a habit tracker is easier and gives a better overview than writing down ‘do yoga’ 5 times a week.

However, it’s easy to start adding tasks left, right and centre, only to find that you struggle to even remember half of them most days, let alone actually do them. In March I had eleven habits I was tracking, but if you asked me to list them I could only tell you a handful. Some of them were related to certain actions I already do, like paying attention to hunger and satiety signals when I eat, but I’d forget about them so often that I’d look at my tracker later and think, ‘Did I do that? I can’t remember …’

Besides that, these habits were spread out between creative writing, nutrition, personal development, fitness, housework and more. I prioritised so many things that essentially nothing was a priority anymore. When I had less than two hours in the evening between getting home from work and going to karate, I found myself paralysed with indecision because there was no way I was fitting in working on my novel, cooking dinner and cleaning the kitchen.

With all of this in mind, I’ve developed a more intentional method of habit tracking for April that I’m sharing with you now.

Choose your focus

As I mentioned above, I had no priorities in March. I tried to track everything, but that just left me struggling to decide what was most important when I didn’t have time for everything.

In contrast, for April I’m focussing on two things: creative writing and nutrition. That doesn’t mean I’m just going to ignore everything else, but those are the things I’m going to track. If it’s a choice between marking something off in my tracker and accomplishing a different task, the tracker will come first (unless the task is urgent and essential). I already have a solid fitness routine in place, so I’m also going to continue with that, but I’m not going to try and add anything to it at the moment.

This automatically reduces the number of habits I’m tracking. Instead of eleven, I have only six habits for April. This makes it much easier to remember what I’m tracking, and to avoid feeling overwhelmed by trying to find the time for so many tasks.

And that’s an important point. I’ve been using the words ‘habit’ and ‘task’ interchangeably, but of course habits are things we do automatically. I get up in the morning, put some water in the kettle, and flick it on, then go to the loo, all of it without thought. In other words, I have a routine that I perform automatically.

Charles Duhigg breaks down the process of building and breaking habits in this article, and in far greater detail in his book, The Power of Habit, but it’s an often-challenging process of identifying rewards and cues. Habits, in general, are difficult to develop, but easy to maintain, while individual tasks are simpler to do in the first place – you just need to remind yourself to do them – but harder to maintain over a longer period of time, as willpower makes it more challenging to continue on.

If we’re looking at true, automatic habits, then it’s difficult to establish more than maybe one or two of them at once. Especially when it comes to breaking or replacing a habit, it requires a lot of introspection and experimentation, and you will have setbacks.

This leads me into the next step of the process: determining your intended outcome.

Determining your goal

As I mentioned above, habit trackers are great for getting an overview of our repeat tasks, but these are distinct from automatic behaviours we want to adopt. That’s why it’s important to figure out what your intended outcome is from the start.

For me, there are four different possible outcomes. One is to simply observe how often I’m doing something. For instance, I recently started journalling. I don’t feel the need to establish a daily habit at the moment, but I want to keep track of how often I’m doing it, so I have it on my tracker for April. There’s no judgement on the number of times I do it, and no expectation that I hit a minimum number. It’s just there to gather data.

The second intended outcome I often have involves increasing the frequency with which I’m doing something. In my yoga example, the goal is not to do yoga automatically every day. Instead, it’s to increase my average weekly yoga sessions from 2 to 4. This might involve changing my evening routine so I do yoga before bed, or booking a couple of classes a week at the studio to supplement my home practice, or even just having a note in my diary reminding me to do yoga so that I don’t forget it as an option when I’m deciding what to do next.

The third intended outcome is to make a particular behaviour the default, with the expectation that it will happen most, but not all, of the time. For example, in April I’m tracking how often I eat vegetables at both lunch and dinner. I don’t expect this to be 100% compliance. After all, sometimes when I go out to eat I choose chips instead of salad, or I open the fridge and the spinach I’d planned to eat has gone slimy. However, I want this to be something I consciously think about as I meal plan and compose my meals.  

Finally, there are the behaviours that I want to make truly automatic. I grind my teeth at night, so I have a mouthguard to wear when I sleep. But I have a tendency to forget it, or not bother because I’m tired and just dragging myself to bed, so it’s on my tracker for April. In this case, I want to change my current routine from brush my teeth -> go to bed to brush my teeth (cue) -> put in mouthguard (routine) -> go to bed (reward).

Because I’m trying to make this behaviour automatic, it’s actually a more challenging one for me than the others. For the vegetable example, for instance, I can front-load a lot of effort at the start of the month, when my motivation is highest, by adding more vegetable-heavy dishes to my meal planning recipe bank, and even adding a new section for vegetable-based side dishes. Then when the time comes to meal plan, I just need to pick recipes full of veg, or add a few side dishes to my meal plan for the week.

That doesn’t mean it will all be easy, of course. I still might find it hard to motivate myself to roast some asparagus as my lentil curry cooks, but compared to a more automatic habit I’m less likely to forget entirely.

After deciding on the intended outcome for each habit, it’s time to start tracking. A month is a good amount of time for this, partly because it fits in neatly with my monthly Trello boards (or bujo spreads) and partly because it’s long enough to experiment and notice patterns.

Reflect

When it comes to habit tracking, reflection is both an ongoing process throughout the month, and a specific action at the end of the month.

In my yoga example, for instance, I might start off the month by doing yoga in the morning before work. After the first week, however, I start making excuses. On reflection, I might find this is because I’m stiff in the morning, and the poses are so uncomfortable it puts me off it, so I switch to the evening instead. At the end of the month, I check my tracker and see if I accomplished my goal of doing yoga four times a week.

Reflection is really the key to making lasting change. Otherwise we just keep trying the same things over and over and wondering why we keep failing. If, in the example above, I had just re-committed to doing yoga in the morning, I’d probably continue to do it for the first few days every month and then peter out.

A Final Note

Habit tracking can be such a powerful tool, both in terms of the automatic daily habits and the repetitive tasks we want to do more of. By giving an overview of what we’re doing over the course of a month, a habit tracker can help to see patterns in our behaviour, allowing us to make modifications for long-term success.

Photo by Stephanie Renee Cluff on Unsplash

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