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Blog // Productivity
January 15, 2021

Habit Tracking In 2021

During 2020, my approach to habit tracking changed and changed again. This year, it’s changed once more. Here’s how I’m habit tracking in 2021.

One of the most popular articles I’ve written is a 2018 post on Marshall Goldsmith’s approach to habit tracking. I explained his system of daily questions and the app I used to implement it. But I don’t use either anymore. In fact, during the tumultuous and unprecedented year of 2020, my approach to habit tracking went through a tumultuous and unprecedented series of revisions. So, it feels like time to explain the changes, why I’ve made them, and some things you might want to consider as you try to track your changes.

My Habit Tracking In 2021

For 2021, I’m committed to tracking 5 habits: sleep, eating, movement, using character strengths, and WOOP. I’ll explain these further in a moment. But for now, it’s worth noting that this is fewer than I’ve normally tracked in the past. Last year, I tracked 8. When I wrote about the Goldsmith system, it was 7. Sometimes, it was more than 10.

Making a long list of habits feels virtuous. But it’s anxiety inducing. And not all habits are equal. I can go two days without playing guitar or reading a book and still be OK. The same isn’t true for two days without good sleep.

So, I’m tracking a small number of important habits – using paper. It’s something I spend a few seconds doing at the end of each day. I use the five little boxes at the top of each page in my Hobonichi Techo. And the graph paper at the back to track the habits on the 25 × 52 graph double spread in the notes section. It’s a very simple setup.

Moving Away From Marshall Goldsmith

Acclaimed business coach Marshall Goldsmith has an interesting approach to habit tracking. Instead of tracking whether you did the habit, he suggests you track your effort. Maybe you didn’t exercise, but you made the time and got your workout gear ready. That’s different to not even trying.

Doing the habit is one thing but building the process and system to sustain the habit is another. Relying on willpower alone isn’t enough.

To implement this, Goldsmith suggests you track your habits by asking positive questions. Not “Did I exercise?” but “Did I try to exercise?” And that you give yourself a score out of ten for your effort. Finally, there are apps to help keep track of the score over time.

There were three things that didn’t work for me though. First, tracking with an app pulled me onto my iOS devices right at the time of day when I needed to start disconnecting. Second, the weightlessness of digital made it too easy to add too many habits.
Third, rating habits became a frustrating and anxiety-inducing process.

I like Goldsmith’s idea that you should focus on your effort more than on your success or failure. You can control your effort; you can’t control your circumstances. And your habits will be better sustained if you embed them in processes and not rely on willpower.

Goldsmith’s approach is born from his work as a management coach. It makes sense for people who have a lot of stakeholders and need to demonstrate their effort to be at their best.

But, if your main focus is personal accountability, then it makes sense to use a simpler approach. It’s too easy to get sucked into pointless questions like: “What does a 7 out of 10 effort look like?” Opt for questions where you can answer yes or no. I tried or I didn’t.

Identifying Master Habits

Some habits are more important than others. We can think of them as master habits. They make other habits more possible.

For example, I like to write every day. And play guitar. But both of those depend on sleeping well. If I don’t sleep well, then I’m not focussed enough in the mornings to write effectively. Or able to manage the day well enough to arrive in the evening chilled out enough to enjoy playing guitar.

There are three habits – sleep, exercise, and eating well – that are like this for me. When those are consistent, all sorts of other areas of life feel better. That’s why I track them. Even a couple of bad days seem to put the rest of life into a spin.

Then there are habits that seem to have an overarching impact on our mindset. I already wrote about using character strengths. The days I use them, especially during work, are powerful.

It’s like having a turbo boost on my creativity.

And then there’s WOOP, which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan. It’s an approach to goal setting that asks you not just to imagine a desired outcome, but also the obstacles you are likely to face and how you’ll overcome them. It’s been called “science’s #1 tool for habit change and goal achievement.” I love that it hardwires my theme for 2021, imagination, into the daily task of managing projects. And, WOOP makes a whole bunch of other habits, like having a growth mindset or gratitude, easier to maintain as well.

The Prospect Of Automation

When I think of the habits I’ve done well at establishing and sustaining in recent years, three stand out: daily mediation, regular sleep, and walking 10,000 steps a day. What all these have in common is that they’re tracked with very little effort from me. In fact, they are tracked automatically, even if I forget my daily habit check-in.

The Calm app records my daily meditations, as does the Apple Watch Breathe app, with time and frequency details collected in Apple Health. In the same way, my sleep is recorded by my Sleep Tracker and my various devices collect my daily steps.

If you’re interested in tracking your habits, here are a few ideas to consider. First, keep the list of habits you want to track short. You don’t want to create a long list that breeds anxiety, resentment, and resistance. Second, focus on the most important habits, the ones that beget other goods in your life. It might be tempting to track a lot of wellness habits, for example, but, perhaps, one or two that become daily and regular will have more impact.

Third, consider whether you need to track the habit forever or whether it’s OK to focus on it for just a season. It might be enough to embed a habit by tracking it for a few months. And you may find that the habit doesn’t need to be a daily thing.

Finally, where possible, automate your habit tracking. If you can offload the habit tracking to a device, then do so. We’re kind of terrible at scoring our efforts. So, it makes sense to offload the tracking when we can.

Being intentional about your habits is an essential part of living well. Our habits make us who we are. Cultivating the habits we want to have is an integral part of aligning our lives with our values. Tracking a well-curated list of habits is one of the best tools we have for maintaining our well-being.

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