Why you should track your habits
You’re here because you’re not sure why you should bother tracking your habits, or why you should even work on them in the first place. Let’s talk about that.
What did the first 60 minutes of your morning look like today?
Did you get out of bed, have a tea or a coffee, have something to eat, have a shower, get dressed, brush your teeth?
How much thinking and willpower did those tasks take to complete? Were they difficult or were you on auto-pilot and completed them easily? (Maybe with the exception of getting out of bed.)
Our results come from the behaviours we have and the actions we take. The habits that are ingrained in us control most of our day-to-day behaviours and actions. And as each day is a collection of these actions, and each week is a collection of days, each month is a collection of weeks, and so on – you can see how much of an impact our habits have on our lives and the results we get.
In this post I’m going to talk about why we should care about our habits, and why tracking our habits is a good idea – which is why I created an automated habit tracker spreadsheet that will help you master your habits.
Why care about your habits?
The brain constantly looks for ways to save effort so that it has spare “power” to process other things. When you repeat a series of actions enough times, a habit will be formed and you will need less willpower to complete the actions because it’s an automatic routine. The brain is doing a process called “chunking”, where it joins multiple steps together into one, so that it only has to focus on one thing. It becomes a pattern in your brain, so rather than focusing on each step of the pattern, it can just focus on the pattern as a whole.
There is a 3 part loop which I’m sure some of you have heard of. There is a cue, which triggers your brain to go into automatic mode and follow an existing routine, which then produces a reward that your brain learns to associate with the cue.
For example: Let’s say at 18:00 every evening, after work, you go to the gym and exercise. The cue would be a certain time / after being at work, the routine would be exercising, and the reward would be feeling good after you have worked out. After enough repetitions, your brain will shift from relying on willpower to follow the routine (“it’s 18:00, now I HAVE to go to the gym”) to being able to do it easily because it’s reminded of the reward (“it’s 18:00, now I get to feel good afterwards”).
When you’re first beginning a new habit, it is difficult to form and can take a lot of willpower. And in the early stages, you’re more likely to slip-up and before you know it you’re not being consistent with the behaviour / action anymore. The more you complete this 3 part loop of cue > routine > reward, the stronger the habit becomes… and eventually it will be effortless.
By understanding that our brain works in this way, we can take advantage of habits and use them to improve the results we get.
But what can habits actually do for us?
Imagine you have a goal to lose 10 pounds of weight. How would you do it?
Rather than waking up one day and magically being 10 pounds lighter, it would be the collection of actions we take towards the goal of losing weight. You can breakdown “lose weight” into the daily and weekly actions you would need to take. How many days a week would you want to exercise? How many days a week would you want to eat healthily and within certain macros?
And because we know the most effective way to take action is to take advantage of the “automatic mode” of our brain, we would focus on building these habits that are aligned with our goals.
Why track habits?
Okay, so habits control a lot of our lives, and by understanding how they work we can improve our results. Great. But why bother tracking them? Isn’t that just another habit?
It is another habit, but with the right system in place – not a time consuming one. By spending a few minutes each week, you can greatly improve building all of the other habits you are focusing on.
Tracking habits might feel like “another thing to do”, but there’s a lot of benefits to tracking things you want to improve at. And as habits control the majority of our lives and results, they’re a worthwhile thing to track because they’re so impactful.
How many times have you tried to start doing a new habit, only to have fallen off a few weeks later?
You start with good intentions and focus, and then you miss one day, which leads into another and before you know it has become another thing you “should do” but don’t.
The alternative to this is to track your habits. When you do, you are able to see exactly how you’re doing and remove the subjective sense of how you feel you have been doing. After all, there is no arguing with data!
Let’s look at some graphs that demonstrate the difference tracking and not tracking your habits can have on how successful you are.
It might seem dramatic when you see it on graphs like this, but it really can be that impactful. Both versions have a down period around halfway through the graph, but the difference is how they respond to it.
Tracking your habits provides you with accountability to yourself. You are able to visually see that you’re not performing well, which gives you the motivation to improve. It might not feel good being able to see that you’re not being successful, but it allows you to adjust.
Now we will take a closer look at what happens during the down period when you aren’t tracking your habits.
It is really easy to lie to ourselves, or to not see a situation how it really is. When you miss a few days, it’s easy to “soften the blow” in your mind and tell yourself things like “it’s only a few days, I’ll make up for it next week” or “I wasn’t feeling 100% anyway”. Then we ignore the lack of progress we’re currently making, because we don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of trying to build a habit that is difficult to build, and then you drop all effort as life gets in the way and it is no longer a priority.
You can see this demonstrated in the below image. The red line represents how you feel you’re doing in your mind, and the green line represents what you’re actually doing – and you can see there is a disconnect between the two.
This leads to a quick decline, rather than an adjustment that leads to a positive trajectory.
When you track your habits, there is no “how you feel you’re doing in your mind” to get in the way. There is only the reality of how you’re doing, which you’re able to see through the data you record.
When you track something, that means you care about it and are serious about improving it. A lot of people don’t track things in their personal life, but it is common within businesses. Businesses track things like sales, cash, customer experience, how staff spend their time – and therefore can make adjustments and operate effectively because they have this data.
So why not give yourself the best chance possible building and maintaining your habits, because you know how impactful they are in your life? Think of it like you’re the business owner, and the “future you” who completes the habits is your employee. You’re able to see how they’re doing, and make adjustments where necessary.
Seeing how you have been performing in your habits provides you with accountability. This is because you set out to do something a certain number of times per week, and you can see if you are achieving that. It is checking in with yourself and the targets you set yourself.
When you see your progress (or lack of it), it becomes real because you’re looking at real numbers that reflect your efforts. It’s the reality of how you’ve been doing. This lets you know which areas you’re doing good at, and which areas you’re not. It gives you the real data to base your actions on, which allows you to improve quicker.
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