It’s an age-old conundrum — every time January 1st rolls around, millions of Americans set New Year’s Resolutions, but by the time February rolls around, one third of us have abandoned every single one. So, if you want to make 2020 the year you finally organize your finances, get in shape or complete any other monumental task, you may want to forget New Year’s Resolutions. Instead of writing down grandiose goals, turn your attention to your daily habits.
What is habit tracking?
Habit tracking — the practice of monitoring the tiny things you do every single day — helps you set small and achievable goals that add up over time to produce huge changes in your life. It’s a powerful tool that will help you establish healthy habits that’ll stick for years to come.
Habits are so important because they are ultimately responsible for any change we make in our life. I’ll never be able to publish a novel if I don’t sit down every day and put words on the page. I’ll never be able to get stronger if I don’t workout every day (or at least a few times a week.) I’ll never be able to be a more mindful and enlightened person if I don’t meditate every morning.
Any huge goal you want to accomplish is virtually insurmountable unless you break it up into bite-sized habits that will, over time, lead you to your final destination.
Why does habit tracking work?
I’ve been habit tracking for a little over a year, and I’ve seen incredible results. I print out a spreadsheet at the start of every week and hang it on my bedroom door. Some examples of my personal daily habits are to do a strength-oriented workout, read 10 pages of an academic book, write 500 words and floss. In the past year I’ve been able to finally do two pullups in a row, learned more about philosophy and global conflicts, had a short story I wrote accepted to read on one of my favorite podcasts and the best part of all is that my dentist no longer pesters me about flossing.
Of course, I’ve had many days this year when I failed to complete my habits, but the way I’ve gone about my habit tracking journey highlights many of the reasons why it’s so effective.
First off, it’s extremely visible. I have to look at my habits every single time I exit my bedroom. Setting up obvious reminders to complete your habits is one of the three key methods that James Clear lays out in the book Atomic Habits, and by staring at my list several times a day, I do just that.
Secondly, by physically checking off the boxes, I create a reward for myself. Making the habit satisfying is another one of Clear’s guidelines, and I can attest that there’s nothing more satisfying than having an entire week of habits checked off perfectly. There’s a reason why companies like Snapchat use the concept of “streaks” to motivate their users to keep using the app.
And thirdly, my habits are easy to complete. I’m never going to sit down and write an entire book, but 500 (or even 50) words is a very digestible task. It doesn’t take too much time or energy, but if I stick with it consistently I’ll have a full length manuscript by the end of the year.
How can you start habit tracking?
You can turn almost any New Year’s Resolution into a daily habit. For example, saving more money can be as easy as skipping Starbucks and making your coffee at home everyday. Investing in self-care can mean meditating or taking a hot bath every night before bed, getting fit is a matter of doing some small exercise every day and you can achieve your yearly goal of reading more by getting through as little as three pages a day.
First, choose one or two mega-goals you’d like to accomplish. Start small — you can always add on more goals to your habit tracker once you’ve gotten used to it.
Then, choose a method to track your habits. You can go old-school like me and print out an Excel spreadsheet with the days as columns and one habit on each row, or you can try out the many mobile applications. Momentum Habit Tracker allows you to export data onto a spreadsheet and integrates seamlessly with your iPhone. If you’re an Android user, Habitica is a cool app that turns your habits into a motivating RPG game.
Don’t let failure discourage you
If you miss a single day, it’s no big deal — researchers have found that a single missed opportunity has a negligible effect on habit formation. Just try to hop back on the habit train the next day.
I’ll also impart a few helpful tips I’ve learned through trial and error. First off, if you find that you’re consistently missing habits, they’re most likely too difficult. You want to set yourself up for success — if you find that you can’t write 1,000 words a day, scale it down to 100, or even just 10.
Similarly, learn to give yourself an occasional break. If you’re going on vacation, maybe ditch the habit of not eating dessert till you get back home. Habit tracking is meant for the long slog, and it’s not helpful to try to be perfect 100% of the time.
Finally, don’t choose habits or New Year’s Resolutions that you don’t enjoy (at least on some level). For years I tried to force myself to lift weights in a strict routine using dumbbells and gym machines, and could never stick with it. Now, I focus on bodyweight movements that are fun and dynamic — pull ups, handstands and other monkey bar tricks — and I’ve consistently done my workouts for an entire year.