Why Tracking Habits is the key to Building Habits
There are lots of different tips and tricks out there to help make building new habits easier (just read our blog). What actually works is different for every person, and the same person can find different things effective depending on the habits that they are trying to develop.
But one of the methods that does seem to be consistently effective for many people is habit tracking (which is why we made an app for it).
In today’s article, we are going to look at why tracking habits can be an effective tool in helping you create new habits.
What is Habit Tracking?
Before we get started, let’s be clear on what exactly we mean by habit tracking. On the most basic level, habit tracking is measuring whether or not you did a particular action.
In its simplest form, you can just mark off on a calendar whether you did something, so that you can visually see your ongoing commitment and progress.
Habit tracking is based on the principle that in order for something to become habitual - something that you do as second nature without even thinking about it - you need to do it regularly. By doing something regularly, you put it into the muscle memory of your brain, so that it becomes automatic.
So habit tracking is a strategy best used for things that you want to do regularly, such as exercising, meditating, or saying no to coffee after 4 pm. It is not as useful for more sporadic but regular activities, such as doing your finances every month.
How does Habit Tracking help you develop new habits?
OK, so that is what habit tracking is, but why does it help you to develop new, consistent habits? For most people, it helps them in five main ways.
1. It acts as a reminder
Tracking your habits can be a way of reminding you to do them!
If you have your habit tracking system somewhere highly visual, such as on the door of your fridge, on the mirror in your bathroom, or popping up every time you open your cell phone, it will give you a prompt to remember to do that thing. If you’re up to a habit tracking mobile app with a great reminder system, you might want to check out Habitify.
Seeing the tracker won’t only remind you that you have something to do, but seeing all of those little ticks in the boxes will also remind you that it would be a shame not to do it today.
2. It can keep you honest and accountable
Those empty boxes on a habit tracker also hold you accountable, reminding you of the promise that you made to yourself.
We are often told to tell other people when we are trying to do something new so that they can keep us accountable. But we aren’t all ready to share our secret ambitions, even with our nearest and dearest. A calendar looking at you with a blank space, begging you to fill it, can hold you accountable in a similar way.
Also, we have a tendency to lie to ourselves. I didn’t eat that much today (thinking only about your main meals and not your snacks), or I worked out quite a lot this week (when you have only been to the gym once).
We aren’t consciously lying to ourselves, but scientists have shown that people are very bad at accurately remembering and reporting their own behavior. We often remember things as we expected or wished them to be, and our memory is also highly influenced by our mood in the moment.
A habit tracker puts your behavior in front of you visually in black and white (or a nice color scheme), making it much harder to tell yourself those little white lies that let you off the hook.
3. It provides motivation
When developing a new habit, we often base it on a goal. For example, we build an exercise habit in the hope of losing weight, or we develop a meditation habit in the hope of feeling less stressed.
It is often the progress that we see on our path towards that goal that helps keep us motivated to stay on track.
But, while our new habit should get us to our goal eventually, eventually can be a very long time away. When we aren’t able to physically see our progress, or it is slower than we imagined, it is easy to become discouraged and quit.
Tracking a habit can show you that you are on the right path, even if the pounds aren’t dropping off or you are still biting your nails down in the office.
Seeing an unbroken string of “yes I did that” can provide an alternative visualization of progress, which is more tangible and reliable, while you wait for your real progress to make itself felt.
4. It can help improve your system
When you are developing a new habit, you are looking for a system or approach that will allow you to make certain actions part of your life.
But you may not come across the best way of doing that right away. Perhaps you have chosen the wrong time of day for working out, or the wrong environment for meditating.
Tracking your habits gives you feedback and lets you see patterns. You can see when you are completing your tasks and when you aren’t. This can help you identify what encourages you to follow through on the task, and what barriers are holding you back.
When you identify these patterns, you can start to make tweaks to your approach that help make developing a new habit more successful.
You can find out more about different ways to track your habits and find which one suits you best here.
5. It acts as a reward
Reward is a key part of building habits, as it is the anticipation of the reward that your subconscious expects to receive from completing an action that motivates it to do it.
You can find out more about the role of reward in developing habits here.
Just ticking something off your tracking list can be a reward. This alone gives you a tangible sign that you followed through on a promise that you made to yourself, which sends happy hormones to your brains. This small action can help reinforce that certain activities are associated with reward, and therefore help make them habitual.
Tracking habits can also help you plan other small rewards along the way, as you can easily see when you have completed 20, 50, or 100 days of a commitment.
No, there is no set number of days for forming a habit. It could take two days or 200. You can read more about how long it takes to form a habit here.
A Word of Warning
Often associated with the idea of habit tracking is that you need to do something every day, without breaking the chain. But, while being consistent when building habits is important, the suggestion that missing one day will send you right back to square one is entirely false.
In fact, you are very likely to miss your habit some days: that six hours spent in the emergency room with one of the kids was unpredictable and unavoidable.
So, while you do need to be strict with yourself about building habits, you do need the flexibility to account for the genuinely unexpected (a sale at the local bakery store is not a genuine or unexpected excuse). You also need a way of noting this when you are tracking your habit, because you don’t want to see it as a day on which you failed.
Also, not every habit should be done every day, and doing some things too often can lead to burnout. This is most obvious with exercise habits. Exercising every day is actually bad for you, as it does not give your body time to recuperate, so you can do yourself a serious injury. This can mean not just missing one day at the gym, but potentially weeks.
With some habits, you need to be more realistic, and set them as something that you will do on specific days of the week, or a certain number of days each week. This is still a regular activity that can be tracked and can become habitual.
You can find out more common misunderstandings about habits and how to avoid them here.
If you are ready to start investing in a new habit today, then you need to set up a system for tracking your habit. Don’t know where to start? Let Habitify guide you. We have spent years helping millions of people build habits, so we know what matters most. Join us now!
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