Trying to build good, new habits is tough, especially if you are also trying to break bad ones. You can, however, give yourself a big boost by tracking your habits to solidify them into everyday routine.
A few years ago after failing to reach a fitness goal, I realized that I was approaching the situation from the wrong direction. Having a goal is great, but not having a way to get there is a recipe for disaster. This is true of anything we want to achieve in our personal or professional lives. Habits are far more important than goals.
Think about it this way. If you want to raise a successful child would you give them the goal of getting into Yale at age 10 and send them on their way, or would you teach them how to have strong habits and grit?
You can be highly successful without ever setting a goal. Without the right habits, though, you will fail. Goals are about then, habits are how you get there.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. –Aristotle
I’ve tracked my new habits for a while now. I find it’s a great way to solidify them into something I do without thinking. The process of checking off a habit each day and keeping a log of my progress is motivation to keep the habit going strong.
Over time I’ve tracked habits ranging from getting on the bike 6 days a week to practicing guitar 30 minutes a day. Easily the most rewarding thing about tracking a habit is when I get to stop tracking it because the behavior has become automatic.
The Science of Habits
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shares a discovery from MIT researchers: every habit is a simple loop. By being aware of the “Habit Loop” we can take control of the habits in our lives.
Understanding the habit loop is the key to ridding ourselves of bad habits and building good ones. The loop consists of three steps: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
When a cue happens, that triggers a specific routine (or behavior) to get some type of reward.
Hacking the Habit Loop to Change Bad Habits
You feel stressed out from a long day at work (cue), so you make yourself a drink (routine) and get a little relief (reward).
If you want to fix your bad habit, drinking, you have to do the following:
- Follow the Golden Rule of Habit Change – Keep the Cue and Reward; Change the Routine.
You still come home from work stressed out from a long day at work (cue), but instead of fixing a drink you sit down with your wife and play a board game (new routine) and get a little relief (reward).
Obviously, life isn’t always so cut and dry. Charles Duhigg suggests the following steps be followed to find the parts of the Habit Loop in your life so that you can start reprogramming your habits into healthy ones.
Step 1: Identify the Routine
What routine (behavior) do you want to change in your life? Do you want to stop looking at your phone so often? Do you want to quit your caffeine habit? Or limit your time playing video games to get time to work out?
Step 2: Experiment with the Reward
It’s easy to find rewards; a full stomach or getting high, but it takes a little more work to identify what we are really craving when we go after these things. Is there another reward that will satisfy the true craving, but in a positive way?
From there you get to experiment on yourself. Try other routines that lead to different rewards. Do you really want an afternoon diet soda from the vending, or is that an excuse to take a break from work? Would a 5 minute walk outdoors be more fulfilling? The goal is to determine the reward you’re really craving.
Step 3: Identify the Cue
The next step is to identify the cue, what triggers the craving? Research has shown that almost all habit cues fall into one of five categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately preceding action
When you get the urge to get up from your desk and get that diet soda, write what you are doing at the time. Was it a certain time of day? How were you feeling? Maybe you crave diet soda at 3:30 in the afternoon everyday, or maybe it’s when you get bored.
Step 4: Create a Plan
Now that you’ve identified the Cue and Reward, you can start making plans to change your routine. The best way to do this is through implementation intentions, basically an “if-then” phrase. The implementation intention links your cue to a specific action.
Back to our example. You discovered you get the urge for a frosty diet soda at 3:30 pm every day. You also discovered that it wasn’t soda you craved, you just needed a change of scenery. You found that walking to the building courtyard for a few minutes to get some fresh air gave you the same boost. So you came up with the following for your implementation intention:
When I feel worn out at 3:30 pm, I will get up from my desk and walk to the courtyard for 5 minutes.
You have to be committed to implementing your implementation intention. This is your new habit, make it strong. The best way to stay committed is to track your habit.
What Habits Should You Track?
When you choose a new habit to track, consider the following:
Choose a habit you care about doing / not doing regularly. Don’t let outside influences affect your decision, this is about what you want to achieve. If the habit is chosen internally there is a better chance you’ll stick with it and make it routine.
The more often you do your habit, the stronger and more ingrained it will become. Each repetition enforces it as a behavior, eventually making the behavior automatic. Once a behavior is automatic, it’s what we call a habit.
If you’re only doing something once a week, it’s going to take a long time for that behavior to become a habit. To start, try to find a habit you can track every day. At the very least shoot for something you want to do Monday through Friday.
The more you do it, the faster you’ll develop the habit.
If you plan to run 5 miles every day after 10 years of sitting on the couch, you’ll probably fail around mile 1 on day 1. To keep on track your habit has to be achievable, if you put in the effort you can do it. The last thing you need is ability getting in the way when you’re face to face with willpower.
Tracking Your Habits
You’ve picked a good new habit to work on and now you’re ready to keep track of it to adhere yourself to the routing. How do you go about tracking your habits effectively?
It depends on what works for you.
Paper Habit Tracking
Grab a small notebook or daily planner and make a note or hash mark each day to track whether you completed your habit. A page full of marks is a great visual cue to keep things going. In addition, you can make notes about failures, hurdles, and successes.
Habit Tracking Apps for iOS
I’m partial to tracking habits with my phone. I’ve always got it on me and most apps allow you to set reminders so you check in on a daily basis. If you want to try this too, here are four favorite habit tracking apps:
Momentum is a very polished habit tracker that not only looks great, it’s also very functional. It syncs between all your Apple devices (iPhone, Watch, Mac), has a cool trends feature which helps you understand when you are most productive, and lets you add notes for context. Momentum also has a skip function that will let you skip habits (for vacations or sick days) without breaking streaks. The widget for iPhone is cool and useful too.
Habitica is a great option if you’re into gamification. The app turns your habits and your ability to stick with them into a game. You’ll earn gold for your accomplishments which you can use to upgrade your character. There’s a multiplayer mode to up the ante, your inaction hurts your friends.
Productive keeps things simple and covers the basics with a clean and minimal interface. You can input habits, check off completed items daily and see habit history.
STREAKS is a very simple habit tracking app without any fluff. You can track up to 6 daily habits, no more. The interface is very straight forward, you simply hold down a habit to complete for the day and tap it to see the habit’s history.