The Benefits I’ve Noticed After 3 Years

In autumn 2019, I received a beautiful diary as a gift. Beyond the allure of a cloth-bound notebook and a fancy pen to go with it, I was drawn into the journal as I am drawn into a good story: passionately, obsessively. It was a habit tracking journal and every single day since I opened the notebook almost three years ago I have tracked my habits.

Why? Well, for one thing, why not? And secondly, because we only get so much time to make a difference, achieve our goals and spend time doing the things we love – and I want to make sure I’m actively working towards those aspirations. It took tracking my habits to understand that I wasn’t working as hard towards my goals as I had thought. It made me realize the discrepancy between what I thought I was spending my time on and what I was actually used it to do. This was a slap in the face, to be honest. But a good kind; more like a loving nudge from a wise elder.

We only get so much time to make a difference, achieve our goals and spend time doing the things we love – and I want to make sure I’m actively working towards those aspirations.

If habit tracking is a new concept to you, here’s a quick overview of how it works:

(For a more comprehensive explanation, click here (for my original article explaining how it has changed my life.)

1. Make a grid

On one axis, write the habits you want to track. When you’re just starting out, it’s about becoming aware of what your current habits are so you can adjust as you wish. List every habit you can think of, including both positive and negative habits. Here’s a general idea of ​​habits you can track:

  • Coach
  • No phone an hour after waking up
  • No phone an hour before bed
  • Reading
  • No social media
  • Walks
  • Studying (insert language or skill you want to learn)
  • Meditating
  • Spending time outside
  • Watching TV
  • Unit-free time with the family

A note about the wording: If you have a habit you want to stop, such as nail biting, you can indicate your habit as No nail biting or no nail biting. I’ll get to how to track it next.

2. Give yourself an X

On the second axis, number the days of the month. At the end of each day, review your list of habits and give yourself an X next to each one you did that day—or didn’t do, depending on how you wrote the habit down. (In the nail-biting example above, you would give yourself an X if you didn’t bite your nails that day.) Or give yourself a tick or a smiley face. You do you.

3. Analyze

At the end of your first month, you will have a good idea of ​​how to spend your non-working time. Use this information to inform the habits you want to track next month. Make adjustments and set goals. Write your goals in the same journal so that every time you log your habits you see what you are striving for and then compare with them at the end of each month to see how you did.

One thing I particularly liked about the journal I have is that there is space to summarize each habit at the end of the month. If you are someone who is motivated by progress (whether good or bad progress), it will be informative for you to add up the number of days you did your habits.

How does this benefit me today? It helps me identify patterns that shed light on how I operate. And only by knowing how I function can I understand how to make changes in my day-to-day.

An example: In March 2020, I went 27 days without eating out (you probably did something similar). I only went four days without social media. In retrospect, it would have been valuable for me to spend fewer days on social media that month, given the kind of information I was consuming. How does this benefit me today? It helps me identify patterns that shed light on how I operate. And only by knowing how I function can I understand how to make changes in my day-to-day.

As I look through my habit journal (I’ve been using the same one since I started at the end of 2019), I notice seasons in my life; the season of being diligent in keeping up with my Italian and the meditation time. I also notice the through lines, the habits that come easy to me and the habits I still struggle with. Looking back is eye-opening in many ways.

Here are some lessons I’ve distilled from looking back and reflecting on my experience tracking my habits:

1. Consistency is a motivator

It’s hard to miss a day of anything when you’re on the streak. If you’ve gone the whole month without missing a day of going for a walk, why miss today? Over time, consistency lends itself to its own kind of accountability.

Another example: I track the days I go without eating meat. When I first started doing this, it was one of the most enlightening habits to track. I thought I rarely ate meat. That couldn’t have been further from the truth! When I started tracking, I ate meat almost every day. I had no idea. (I won’t go into the reasons why I care about my meat consumption here, but I included it because it’s important to me.) Yesterday I had gone all day without eating meat. At dinner my daughter didn’t finish her chicken nuggets and I reached for them almost without thinking. But then I realized it had been a meat-free day so far, and I wouldn’t get my X next to that habit if I ate her nuggets. So I gave them to my husband and that night before bed, I could give myself an X.

2. With separation comes realization

Looking at my first few months of habit tracking, I see some very clear patterns. Some of my habits have gone beyond habit; they are just who I am. I don’t even have to track them anymore because they run in my blood now. I can also see that I struggle today with the same things I struggled with back then: going a day without social media, for example. Or journaling.

When I first started, I journaled about seventy-five percent of the time. Six months later, I was down to thirty percent. A year after tracking I only wrote twice a month. The next month I didn’t journal at all, and three months later I stopped tracking it. Today, a year and a half after I quit, journaling has been replaced by other habits, more health-oriented like getting 10,000 steps every day. But I want to journal more, so next month when I write the habits I want to track, I’ll add it to my list. It’s not going to make me a night reporter, but at least it’ll keep the thought front and center. Who knows, maybe if I journal every day for a month, it will become a habit again.

It wasn’t until I started tracking habits that I felt like I really had a handle on my time – both how fast it goes and how I use it.

I don’t know how long I will continue to track my habits, but I don’t see an end to it right now. Something about it is so satisfying to me – the awareness, perhaps, or the idea that I can make changes, I just need to know where to start. It puts the power in my hands. Although I’ve always been able to control what I do and don’t do (we all have that ability in some way, right?), it wasn’t until I started tracking habits that I felt like I really had a grip on my time – both how fast it goes and how I use it.

In the oft-cited book The writing life, Annie Dillard says that the way we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. I don’t want to spend my life scrolling on my phone and missing out on what matters in this one glorious life I’ve been given. That’s why I track my habits, and that’s why I encourage you to try it too.

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