In the fall of 2019, I got a pretty magazine. Besides the allure of a cloth-bound notebook and a fancy pen to use with it, I was drawn to the journal the way I was in a good story: with passion and obsession. It was a habit-tracking journal, and every single day since I opened the notebook, nearly three years ago, I’ve been tracking my habits.
why? Well first, why not? And second, because we only give 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 achieving those aspirations. It took keeping track of my habits to understand that I wasn’t working as hard to achieve my goals as I thought. It made me realize the discrepancy between what I thought I spent my time doing and what I do In fact spent it. This was a slap in the face, I’ll be honest. But kind of good. Like a loving push from a wise old man.
We just give 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 tracking habits is a new concept to you, here’s a brief overview of how it works:
(For a more comprehensive explanation, click here for my original article explaining how my life has changed.)
1. Make a grid
On one of the hubs, write down the habits you would like to track. When you’re just getting started, it’s all about being aware of what your current habits are so you can adapt as you wish. Make a list of every habit you can think of, including positive and negative ones. Here’s a general idea of the habits you can track:
- No phone an hour after waking up
- No phone an hour before bed
- No social media
- Study (insert the language or skill you want to learn)
- Spending time outside
- Watching TV
- Device-free time with the family
A note about wording: If you have a habit that you want to quit, such as nail-biting, for example, you can list your habit as no-nail-biting or no-nail-biting. I’ll go into how to track it down next.
2. Give yourself 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 every one you did that day — or didn’t, depending on how you wrote down the habit. (In the nail-biting example above, you’d give yourself an X if you didn’t bite your nails that day.) Or give yourself a checkmark or a smiley face. I did.
At the end of the first month, you will get a good idea of how to spend your free time at work. Use this information to inform the habits you’d like to track for the next month. Make adjustments and set goals. Write your goals in the same journal so that each time you record your habits, you see what you’re striving to achieve, then compare them at the end of each month so you can see how you did.
One of the things I particularly loved about the journal I own is that there is room to total each habit at the end of the month. If you are a progress-driven person (be it good or bad progress), adding up the number of days you did your habits will be helpful to you.
How does this help me today? It helps me identify patterns, which highlights how I work. And only by knowing how I work can I understand how to make changes in my daily life.
Example: In March 2020, I went twenty-seven days without eating out (maybe I did something similar). I only spent four days without social media. In hindsight, it worked for me to spend fewer days on social media that month, given the kind of information I was consuming. How does this help me today? It helps me identify patterns, which highlights how I work. And only by knowing how I work can I understand how to make changes in my daily life.
While researching my Habits Journal (I’ve used the same journal since I started at the end of 2019), I notice seasons in my life; The season of diligence in keeping pace with the Italian language and the season of meditation. I also note the outlines, the easy habits for me, and the habits I still struggle with. Looking back opens the eye in many ways.
Here are some of the lessons I took from looking back and reflecting on my experience keeping track of my habits:
1. Consistency is the motivator
It’s hard to miss a day of something when you’re in a straight line. If you’ve gone all month without missing a single day of going for a walk, why do you miss the day? Over time, consistency itself makes its own form of accountability.
Another example: I keep track of the days I go without eating meat. When I first started doing it, it was one of the most enlightening habits to keep track of. I thought I Scarcely eat meat. This couldn’t be further from the truth! When I started tracking, I was eating meat almost every day. I have no idea. (I won’t go into my reasons for consuming meat here, but I’ve included them because they’re important to me.) Yesterday I spent the whole day without eating meat. At dinner, my daughter didn’t finish the chicken nuggets she was producing and reached for it almost without thinking. But then I realized it’s been a meat-free day thus far, and I wouldn’t make an X next to this habit if I ate their chops. So I handed them to my husband, and that night before bed, I was able to give myself an X.
2. With separation comes realization
When I look back at my early months of tracking habits, I see some very clear patterns. Some of my habits have gone beyond being normal; They are just who I am. I don’t even need to track them anymore because they’re running in my blood now. I also see that today I struggle with the same things I struggled with back then: going a day without social media, for example. or diary.
When I started, I was writing about 75% of the time. Six months later, it’s down to thirty percent. After a year of tracking, I only logged my journal twice a month. The next month I didn’t patrol at all, and after three months, I stopped tracking them. Today, a year and a half after my hiatus, the diary has been replaced by different habits, more health-oriented ones like getting 10,000 steps every day. But I want to write more diaries, so when I write down the habits I want to track next month, I’ll add them to my list. It won’t turn me into a night journalist, but at least it will keep the thought front and center. Who knows, maybe if you write every day for a month, it will become the norm again.
It wasn’t until after I started tracking habits that I really felt like I was in control of my time – both how fast you go and how I spend it.
I don’t know how long I will keep tracking my habits, but I don’t see an end to it now. There is something so comforting to me – 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. While I’ve always been in control of 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 had an actual grip on my time — how fast and how I spend it.
In many books quoted 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, losing what matters in this glorious life I got. This is why I keep track of my habits, and that’s why I urge you to give it a try as well.
Collina Cicero is fond of stories – read them, write them and get lost in them. Other things she loves include yoga, traveling, taking cooking classes, Italian, and writing. Her first children’s book, Rosie and Hobby Farmpublished in July 2020.