Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have come across some blog posts telling you that the way to keep your New Year’s resolutions is to create habits (including my own). Let’s say you heed the message: what do you do?
Monitoring leads to awareness and thus improvement
Let’s start with the basics: If you don’t know how much (or how little) you’re engaging in an activity, you don’t know what you need to change. If you want to read more but you don’t know how much you’re currently reading, then it’s very difficult to influence the behavior effectively.
When you start tracking a behavior, you are often surprised in the beginning. I had the goal of reading more academic articles. When I started tracking this, I realized that in the month of November I only read one full article! A single one–and I am a scientist!
Excuses abound: I took vacation in November, then I had to catch up on work and on homework for my course, I was ill… But excuses are not the point. The question is: did it happen or not.
It is normal that some months the desired behavior will happen more than others. The goal is not to perfectly complete all your habits all the time. The point is to monitor how you’re doing and adjust as soon as you notice things aren’t going as you’d like them to.
Tracking allows you to flexibly adjust your actions
You might say, “What’s the point of tracking my habits then? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably turn out alright.” Yes, you probably will, but “alright” may not be what you wished for. If I hadn’t noticed that I only read one article in November, I wouldn’t have changed my behavior in December. Because I knew I was neglecting this area, I was able to compensate for it soon enough, reading three articles in December (even with Christmas, etc.).
If we neglect an area in our life for long enough, it will begin to suffer. For example, an employee’s work performance may begin to drop, a student may fall behind in class, or a relationship may deteriorate.
Fortunately, by simply bringing awareness to the different areas of our life, we can notice when something isn’t going well and adjust our actions in time.
Identify your main areas of life and the core habits
Start by identifying the main areas of your life. Tip: those are reflected in your priorities.
My main areas of life include: Well-being, Health, Partner, Family, Friends, Science, Writing, Learning, Finances, Home, Relaxing, and Purpose.
Then, identify the core habits that support each of those priorities or areas of life. These are the activities that really move you forward in a certain area of life. For example, my core habits for Health are the following:
And my core habits for Learning are the following:
Track your core habits
Once you’ve identified your core habits, you can begin to track them. You can do so on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I personally have one google sheet for daily habits, one for weekly habits, and one for monthly habits. It takes me about two minutes per day (in the evening) to look them over and note the habits I’ve completed.
I’ve actually printed out these google sheets and put them on my coffee table in the living room. These days, I’m experiencing a powerful pull to doing things on paper, so I’m doing this on paper as well. It feels nicer to me, and it’s softer on my eyes than looking at a monitor yet again.
If you prefer to do this on your phone or tablet, there is a myriad of apps available. I used to use HabitHub, and it was great. You can use these tools to geek out on monthly averages and graphs. I thought I’d love that, but in fact I didn’t care about it too much.
Now with my google sheets (on paper!), I calculate the weekly average (once a week) and the monthly average (once a month). At my Monthly Review, I enter the score for each area into a digital spreadsheet, just so it can be saved and easily accessible throughout the rest of the year and beyond. And I’m done.
Each week, I become aware of where I did well and where I didn’t do so well. I no longer have to vaguely answer the question, “Did I take care of my health this week?” but instead I can look at the specific habits I have identified as important for my health and see how I did.
This allows me to rapidly adjust my behavior in the desired direction. Thus, I can avoid more serious issues that I could have seen coming.
Resources about habit tracking and identifying main areas of life
I’ve written more about habits in several blog posts that you can find here.
For more ideas on habit change, I can recommend two great books: