Habit Tracker Hacks
I became aware of Habit Trackers early on in my process of designing the JMB Living Journal and right away knew I wanted to include these in the journal despite the fact that I’d not yet researched or attempted to use one. It just seemed to be common sense that this handy little tool had to make making and breaking habits easier. How could having a daily reminder not be helpful?
After a few months of using a habit tracker, I realized that while they are extremely helpful in making progress toward making and breaking a habit, there are a few things you can do to help set yourself up for success in the process. While some of this I’ve discovered through trial and error, research seems to back up many of my conclusions. Herein are five hacks for making the best use of your habit tracker, followed by a couple of unique ways I’m using mine.
1. Keep it Simple
Most habit experts or behavior change researchers recommend that you only attempt to make or break a very small number of habits at the same time, ideally no more than three. James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits suggests focusing on one at a time. Success in creating (or breaking) a habit requires a significant amount of conscious effort, until the point where you have repeated the action enough times that you begin to perform the action without thinking about it. Trying to intently focus on changing too many things at once will likely result in overwhelm and not changing any of the habits at all.
In addition to limiting the number of habits you attempt to work with, you should also limit your desired change/s to a manageable size. Choose to make a change that feels attainable to you and something that you can easily repeat every day. For instance, if you want to start incorporating journaling into your daily routine, begin by deciding to journal five minutes daily. This feels so much more attainable than intending to set aside thirty minutes daily. Which would you more likely achieve? Want to start meditating? Start with a commitment for just five minutes each day. Want to be able to run 2 miles? If you are just beginning, you may want to start with a ½ mile brisk walk daily. You get the drift.
2. Recognize it Takes Time to Make or Break Habits
You may have heard that it takes 21 or 28 days to make/break a habit, but this rule of thumb is misleading. The concept of it taking 21 days for a new habit originated from Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon that observed that it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and be replaced by a new one. The keyword here is minimum. He published his thoughts regarding this phenomenon and other insights on behavior change in 1960. A more recent study by Phillippa Lally first published in 2009 however, indicates that on average it takes about 66 days to form a new habit.
This was good news to me, as though I was seeing progress with the habits I’ve been wanting to change, I hadn’t yet succeeded in making them a habit. I was beginning to find this a little discouraging.
In reality, I just hadn’t repeated the actions enough to make my desired habit automatic. It is worth mentioning here that the habits I have chosen to focus on are actions I want to keep in my life for the long run – being physically strong (strength training) and eating slowly (to fully appreciate and enjoy my meals, as well as help, improve digestion). I don’t desire to be a bodybuilder, but I do want lean muscle mass that will continue to support and allow me to remain physically active as I age.
I chose “fast eating” as I habit I want to break, but in reality, this can just as easily be turned into a habit of slowly and consciously eating. The point about choosing habits that you want long-term is that you begin with a long-term view when seeking to create the habit. In this way, you’ll be more likely to get back on track when you get off course.
3. Be Consistent – Daily Focus
In researching further about what it takes to create and break habits, I found that incorporating them into a routine greatly improves the likelihood of success. I found this out first hand as well. Travel and various obligations last month resulted in my normal routines being mostly thrown out the window. This showed up very clearly in my habit tracker – in fact, I had even jotted down a couple of notes on the tracker to that effect. “Big break in routines this month.” And, “Morning routine really helps my habits.”.
If you use your habit tracker at the same time every day and as a part of a daily routine, you will set yourself up best for success.
4. Use Habit Science and Plan Ahead
Change up your environment to make it easier for you to do your habit and in such a way that you enjoy it as well. This month at the bottom of my habit tracker, I’ve jotted down that I will do my strength training exercises first thing in the morning. I’ve found this to be easiest for me, as otherwise, I need to stop what I am doing at some point during the day to work this in. And the reality of it is, that I’ve found I’m highly unlikely to stop – it requires more discipline and mental effort for me to stop at some point later in the day to take this action than it does to knock it out first thing in the morning.
I also plan to turn on my “Upbeat” playlist on Spotify while I do my “strength training”. I’ve found that this playlist is really helpful in elevating my mood to feeling positive and empowered and will help make the time I spend strength training more enjoyable as well.
Conversely, if you are trying to break a habit, you should try to make it difficult to do the action or to make it unpleasant in some way. I’ve found it difficult to apply this to my desire to stop eating quickly. What I was trying to incorporate for this on past trackers wasn’t really working well. So this month I’m flipping it around and embracing slow eating. I’ve noticed that when I slow down enough to appreciate the smell and taste of my meal, the experience of eating is more enjoyable as well. I’m. hoping this will help me make further process on this habit.
5. Remind Yourself Why You Want to Make/Break this Habit
Tapping into why you want to do something can help give you the motivation to stick with it. You want a new habit to be something that compels you to reach for the desired end result that feels good to you. Simply trying to change a habit because you know you should doesn’t provide a strong dose of motivation to summon the willpower needed to follow through.
I’ve listed 3 reminders at the top of my habit tracker to help keep my “Why I want to create these health habits” as something I notice and think of often.
Before wrapping up this post, I’d like to show you a couple of other creative ways I’m using my habit tracker for gaining personal insight. I like to use colored pencils to fill in my habit tracker and for the last couple of months, I’ve also colored in the number corresponding to the day of the month to track my mood. Above that, I’ve created a little tracking method of using 4 colored dots to signify the quality of my sleep. As you can see on the image of my habit tracker for this month, I’ve created a little color-coded key for this in the top right corner (I found early on that if I didn’t do this, I’d forget what the colors meant.)
For sleep tracking I use the color purple to indicate restful sleep and the color pink to indicate difficulty sleeping. This past week, I’ve rested well, so you notice all purple dots above the numbers for the month. However, in past months if I had trouble falling asleep, I would place one or two pink dots first, depending on how long it took me to fall asleep. Or perhaps the third dot would be pink if I awoke in the middle of the night and didn’t fall back to sleep immediately.
What was interesting about sleep tracking in this way is, that not surprisingly I noticed that on the days I was anxious or stressed, my sleep would suffer as well. While this is not an earth shattering insight, seeing it on paper this way made me take more care to consciously take steps to lower and eliminate stress. For me this has included placing a higher priority of planning my day the evening before and being cognizant to be realistic in my expectations of what I can achieve. It served as a reminder to use my essential oil blends for focus or calm when needed. And it reinforced how important my moments of meditation and my evening “wind down time” is to keeping stress and anxiety at bay.
I’m finding the use of a habit tracker to truly be a very valuable tool for helping to achieve personal change. Let’s recap how to make the most out of this valuable tool:
Take a little time to carefully consider what habit you want to focus on and keep it simple.
Recognize that creating/breaking new habits typically takes at least 66 days – commit to a long-term focus.
Use it daily by incorporating use of your habit tracker into a routine that works for you.
Create a plan for success. (How to make the habit easy & enjoyable or difficult & unpleasant)
Add reminders of your WHY to it so that you’ll see these every day.