I was 14 when I first went on a diet. I’ve been on one ever since. Thirty years later, I’m still overweight.
I live each day trying to be a better version of me. I dream. I’m hopeless at skiing, but in my mind’s eye, I can see myself flying down a crisp white slope, wind in my hair, and life in my lungs. I can see myself lost in Debussy, my fingers rolling across the soft keys of a baby grand.
The desire for change is there. It’s just that there is a gap between intention and action. I spend more time thinking about the change than actually doing it.
2,500 years ago, some wise old dude made an observation:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.”
As a student of Plato (who was himself a student of Socrates), I figured that he’d earned his chops and knew what he was talking about.
I reasoned that if I was really serious about these empty self-promises, then I needed to follow Socrates’ lead. I simply needed to iterate, to repeat the things that I wanted to see in my life. Maybe then I’d stand a chance of skiing the world in my fifties when the kids have left home.
So, I decided to do an experiment.
At the start of 2020, I decided to see if I could bring about some of the changes I wanted to see in my life.
I’d read a few chapters of Atomic Habits by James Clear and had pondered many an entrepreneur’s success story. The Edison quote about genius and perspiration is pinned to the monitor of my Mac.
Like most procrastinators, I was looking for a quick, easy win and a habit tracker seemed like something even I could commit to. It was logical and made sense. It aligned with my love of lists. Working down an inventory of new habits each day didn’t seem too much of a chore.
However, I’ve got to admit that I was a little skeptical. It seemed just too simple. I half-heartedly committed to giving it a whirl. I was sure it wouldn’t be a drain on my time. And I figured I had nothing to lose.
According to a UCL study conducted in 2009, it can take anything from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, although the median was 66 days. Starting in January 2020, I figured that I’d know around March time if things were working out.
What is a Habit Tracker?
It’s pretty much what it says on the tin. A habit tracker is a simple way of recording if you did a habit. You choose the habits you want to build in the belief that they will improve some aspect of your life. The end goal is that these actions will become normalized and automatic, like brushing your teeth. Like training wheels on a bicycle, you aspire to the day when you don’t need to track them anymore.
Set out like a retro school register, you can use an app or a paper version. I went for the latter. There is something about recording by hand that appeals to the creative in me. Plus, I’m a sucker for quality stationery (tell me a teacher that isn’t), and this gave me a good excuse to invest in a nice new journal with a heavyweight gsm.
In the end, I opted for the Clear Habit Journal from Baron Fig. It wasn’t cheap, and I got stung for shipping and import taxes which made my eyes water a little. However, written by James Clear himself, it ticked all the boxes. You can actually get a free copy of his habit tracker template HERE.
Getting started was a little daunting. My dreams are big. How the hell was I going to crowbar skiing at Whistler into the tiny white squares? Clear himself recommends not biting off more than you can chew. Instead, focus on a few important things each month and track these.
I decided to group my desired habits into health and business. As a somewhat reformed workaholic, my health has often played second fiddle to my career. I went for nine health habits and four business habits. In hindsight, this was probably too many.
It was easy to set up once I’d decided what I was going to track. List the habits on the left, circle the month at the top. Record daily. Total at the end of the month. Compare months to see your progress. Bingo.
I also decided to journal daily using the ‘one line per day’ template, which was also in the journal. Let me be clear. I am no Marcus Aurelias or Mark Twain. I’m not known for my lyrical prose. I write too academically and find it embarrassing to read afterward. However, I was prepared to stomach a sentence a day.
After my first month, I was pleasantly surprised. I had made a sizeable dent in establishing the habit of having a habit tracker. I completed every day of both the tracker and the one-line journal.
I was traveling with work, and my black book went everywhere with me. It was super easy to fill out, and I found that I liked reviewing my day each evening. It gave me a sense of achievement and closure. I could feel myself putting one foot in front of the other. I had more purpose and momentum.
By the end of the first month, I had achieved the following:
- Been alcohol-free for the whole month (This was a temporary detox, not a lifestyle change. I am not prepared to give up artisan G & T for anyone.)
- Left my phone downstairs at bedtime every night. This meant I go out of bed earlier and wasted less time scrolling online. (When I was away with work in a hotel room, I plugged it in by the door and not by my bed.)
- I started thinking seriously about how little I slept. I saw for the first time how bad this really was.
- I exercised more than usual.
- I started taking vitamins every day.
- I was starting to establish a more consistent writing habit.
Buoyed, I Carried On.
By the end of February, I had started reading fiction every night before sleep. I was meditating regularly. I was even doing random acts of kindness and not telling a soul. One day I paid for the contents of a stranger’s shopping basket at the supermarket when her card declined. She cried and gave me a hug. I held it together — just — and asked her to pay it forward. I smiled afterward. A lot.
By May, I was closing the rings on my Apple Watch almost daily. I was practicing the piano. By July, I was drinking two liters a day for the first time in my life. By October, I was using it to track a health issue I had. I fed the data back to the grateful hospital consultant. By November, I had a significantly improved sleeping habit.
Now that 2020 has been and gone, I can say with the data in front of me that using a habit tracker has brought about significant positive change in my life.
Quite simply, I am healthier, and I am happier.
It’s not been perfect, and I have fallen off the wagon quite a few times, but there is no doubt in my mind the simple habit tracker has made a massive difference to my life.
Small but Mighty: What I Learned Over the Last Twelve Months
I am not some kind of habit-tracking extremist. I don’t believe that we can solve world peace or the current global pandemic by implementing a habit tracker. However, I do think that if you’re someone looking to build new habits into your life that there are some quite remarkable benefits to using a habit tracker. Here are some of the key things that I have learned over the last twelve months.
Less Really is More
Don’t take on too much. It’s tempting when crafting a new you to be unrealistic and to set yourself up to fail before you’ve even started. I’m a wildly ambitious kind of gal, and you won’t hear me telling you to curb your enthusiasm. However, I will ask you to be realistic. You can’t do it all at once.
It might help to look at the overall picture first and then split your goals into phases. What do you want to achieve first? What will motivate you to carry on?
I found simple habits, like leaving my phone downstairs at bed, a really quick win. The associated benefits of this were astoundingly useful.
The UCL research turned out to be pretty accurate for me. I found that I can embed a habit in about two months. Tracking the habit over three months was about right. At the end of two months, the habit was pretty much automatic. By the end of three months, I had it nailed and earned that daily checkmark without too much thinking.
For example, there were times with drinking two liters a day, where I kept falling off the wagon even though I’d embedded the habit earlier in the year. That’s fine. I’d just add the habit back on my tracker to give it a boost. I found that if I needed to do this, it would only need to go back on for a month or so for a quick recharge.
Some of my new habits are delivered by apps with their own tracking tools. I still tracked the iterations on my habit tracker regardless, as this was the nerve center of my personal change management process.
For example, I now meditate daily using Headspace, and the difference this has made is incredible. I am so much calmer and happier. However, Headspace tracks your ‘run streak.’ If I miss a day, the counter goes back to zero. This kills me, and it doesn’t fit with the self-compassion I show myself. It’s OK to miss a day here and there. Just don’t make a habit of it.
The Book is Called ‘Atomic’ Habits for a Reason
To be successful, you have to break things down into tiny, very specific steps. For example, don’t just write ‘lose weight.’ It’s meaningless. Instead, break this down into a series of achievable steps. For instance, you could start with ‘log food on My Fitness Pal’ or ‘eat 5 a day.’
Track the individual stages, not the overall journey.
Notations are Important
How you note things in your habit tracker is important — especially when you have skipped a habit for a few days. As a teacher, I’m a fan of a simple checkmark. There’s something very satisfying about running down my list at the end of the day and putting in a clear run of neat little ticks.
Not doing a habit should chew at you a little. No one expects you to self-flagellate like that guy on the Da Vinci Code, but you should feel just a minor niggle of something unpleasant.
I tried a range of things here — a cross, a dot, a cross with a circle around it. For me, the best method turned out to be leaving the square blank. There is something terrible about its cold emptiness that really bothers me. When I review my month, if I see a busy page, I am satisfied. If the page has lots of empty boxes, I’m not happy. Filling the boxes with crosses or whatever hides the truth as it makes the month look busier than it was.
Be honest with yourself. Don’t hide the truth.
Track Aspects of Your Life and Reflect on Your Drivers
I found it helpful to group habits by aspects of my life. For example, health, business, hobbies/leisure time. I tend to be a workaholic, and I have a massive achievement driver, which is a little bit ugly at times. Grouping habits enabled me to see where my biases were and how I could consciously shift these to get more balance in my life.
For example, I always note my health habits first. This is the aspect of my life that I have neglected in favor of my career. I try and ensure that I track more health habits than business habits so that this forces me to shift my behavior.
This year I am going to track my leisure time.
Review at The End of the Month
Like any good action planning and change management process, the aspect of review, evaluation, and refinement is crucial. Do this at the end of every month. This allows you to celebrate your achievements and also reframe your failures.
The elegant simplicity of a habit tracker meant that I was able to be clinically strategic in this. I could quickly:
- Decide when something was thoroughly embedded into my life so much so that I could remove it from the tracker (what the scientists call automaticity).
- Evaluate my failures. In the case of repeated failure, I asked myself: Did I really want this new habit enough? Did it need breaking down into even smaller steps? Was it time to simply accept that it wasn’t going to happen and strike it off forever?
- Narrow down my habit list for the following month based on what I had learned in the present month.
Scale with Ambition
To me, this is the real beauty of the habit tracker. Start small — grow big. I found that it was possible to embed some really meaty change in my life.
For example, I started journaling one line a day. I did this successfully for several months and found that, surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed the process.
I then read Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans and read about the art of Morning Pages. I invested in yet another journal (any excuse) and began journaling for between 10 and 50 minutes in the morning about five times per week. That I now do this as a habit is staggering to me. If I had tried this from a standing start, I would never have managed.
I still journal one line a day to help me with a particular project or aspect of my life I want to be held accountable for. However, my morning pages enable me to empty the contents of my head. It’s often a stream of consciousness writing, a kind of warm-up exercise for my brain that declutters and stretches the mental muscles. Sometimes I unearth some fairly startling and profound observations and learning points about myself. Either way, it’s pleasurable.
Two Different Approaches
I use my habit tracker as a monthly tool. I like the short bursts of activity and the rapid turnover this brings. It is, however, possible to use a one-page habit tracker as a yearly tool. Instead of writing the habits in the left-hand column, the months are added here instead. Each page is then used to track one habit. This might have its advantages. Read on.
Some Nuts Are Tough To Crack
While I am impressed by the significant change that using a habit tracker has brought to my life, there is one area that I haven’t fully resolved. Yup. My weight.
I’ve managed to more or less build logging my food into my life using My Fitness Pal, and I now exercise regularly. However, being on the wrong side of 40, this is no longer enough. My body is telling me that I need to go deeper and look at the types of foods that I eat.
There is more at play here. Something deeply psychological, I would guess. I need a bit of coaching to support me through this. I’m going to switch to using an annual tracker for this habit. The monthly tracker didn’t give me the traction that I wanted. It was too easy to keep moving the habit along.
I have logged my weight pretty regularly on My Fitness Pal for the last seven years. When I look back, my heart sinks. I feel a bit ashamed, to be honest. However, then I close the app and forget about it. I figure that with a physical one-page habit journal tracking my weight, it’ll be there for me to see day in, day out. Gulp. I’m dreading it. I figure that’s a good sign because I trust my habit tracking process, and I know that I need to mix things up a little. This habit needs slightly different treatment.
I’ve also decided I’m going to pair this with something like Noom to give me the support I need. I’ll report back in 12 months.
When I reflect on this failed habit, I still feel a sense of achievement. I’m learning more about myself, and this is progress. I’m getting closer to understanding the issue. I’ve made it my mission to crack it in 2021.
You Will Fall Off the Wagon
I did. Several times. The trick is to climb back on as fast as you can. For example, during the first two weeks of lockdown here in the UK, all habit tracking went out the window. Other times it just fizzled out because I was busy getting on with life.
The thing to remember here is that you are aiming for consistency, not perfection. You don’t need an impeccable streak. You just need it to be a regular part of your life. Even the UCL study found that missing the odd day does ‘not materially affect the habit formation process.’ Be self-compassionate.
Don’t Burn Too Brightly
Go gently. When you get a taste of success, it’s tempting to go a little overboard. Don’t burn yourself out. Be realistic about not overburdening yourself. You don’t have to do everything all at once.
A Habit Tracker Can Save Your Life. Literally.
I don’t say this lightly.
I use my tracker now to monitor my health and things that I’m concerned about. Make it your business to check your boobs or your balls on the first day of every month and put a healthy little checkmark in the box. Log the size of that mole that worries you. Track your periods if you think your peri-menopausal or planning for a baby.
Make it a ‘thing’ in your life so that it becomes instinctive. Sometimes this stuff can be a little bit scary. Don’t let it be. Just build it in.
The Second Experiment
At the start of 2021, I made it my mission to take this experiment one step further. I decided to stop habit tracking and journaling for three months to see what would happen.
It lasted one month and then I had to go back. It was horrendous. I missed my journaling. I got sloppy. I felt a bit lost and lacked purpose.
I was self-compassionate and ended the experiment early.
Let me start by saying that I am not sponsored by James Clear or Baron Fig. I apologize if this article reads as a product review. It’s merely the tool that I used, and it served me very well. This year I’m devising my own.
I don’t doubt that a habit tracker is not for everyone. However, as a mid-life career changer dealing with some seismic shifts in my life, it has proved to be a friendly and helpful partner in crime.
It’s helped me overcome the overwhelm associated with bringing about the changes that I wanted to see in my life. It has helped me to put one foot in front of the other and just keep on going.
You can look back along the year and reflect on what it tells you about how you live your life. In a broader sense, it can help you reflect on your purpose and what you want to achieve before you shuffle off this mortal coil. You can make a conscious effort to align your habits to your bigger life goals.
For people like me who are starting to feel different about their lives, a habit tracker can be a remarkably simple yet profound helping hand. Stop waiting for the new year. Start now, even if it’s a Tuesday morning, mid-June. It doesn’t matter. Just start.
So, what happened to the skiing and the piano playing? Well, I have my first piano exam next month. Alas, any hope of skiing got pretty much wiped out by the pandemic. However, I have just booked our second trip to BC for December 2021. Fingers crossed normality will have resumed by then.
Clear, J., 2018. Atomic Habits. London: Penguin Random House.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H. and Wardle, J., 2009. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), pp.998–1009.