Take Control of Your Habits
Habits make up a huge part of our lives. They go unnoticed for the most part, quietly working in the background and affecting our lives. How you eat, how you get ready in the morning, the routes you travel to and from work, the way you make coffee… all of it is largely controlled by habits. And habits are tricky to change because of how deeply ingrained they are. If you have ever tried to set a new year’s resolution or try a new diet, you know what I’m talking about. So how do you go about changing habits when they are so firmly rooted in our daily lives? The best way I have found is with a simple and free tool called the habit tracker.
Bad Habits Consumed Me
I used to be so frustrated with my life. Several years ago, when I entered college and became solely in charge of how I spent my time, I realized that I struggled with this responsibility. Despite desperately wanting to spend more time on my hobbies and studies, I still found myself falling back into old habits of squandering my time. Instead of getting ahead of my homework, I would browse Reddit. Instead of taking a half hour to practice my art, I would watch Netflix. I felt like a slave to these useless bad habits, and I just could not figure out how to break free.
It wasn’t until I was a recent graduate of college that I discovered the bullet journal, and the habit tracker shortly after. This simple tracker looks pretty unassuming. It isn’t flashy. It is just plain ink on plain paper. However, after several years of using the habit tracker, I can say with certainty that this is the best tool I have ever used to improve my life — period.
What is a Habit Tracker?
First and foremost, we have to answer the obvious question: what is a habit tracker? As the name suggests, a habit tracker is a tool that you create to track your habits. Like I said before, the habit tracker is an incredibly simple tool. You don’t need any kind of fancy journal or planner to create a habit tracker. In fact, you can create your habit tracker on a scrap piece of paper and stick it on your fridge. You can use any pen to make it and fill it out. As long as all the basic elements are there, you can make some huge changes to your habits.
The two elements of a habit tracker are the habits you want to track and some measurement of time, like a week or a month. Don’t worry — I’ll get into the details of how you use these elements to create your habit tracker shortly.
Why Use a Habit Tracker?
Before I dig too much in the nitty-gritty of how to set up and use a habit tracker, I want to explore why this tool is so valuable. Why should you put your energy and time into a habit tracker?
The simple answer is that a habit tracker makes your habits more transparent. Habits are like lines of code in the program that makes us who we are. They quietly do their work, hidden among other lines of code. While the lines of code may seem small or inconsequential, a single character out of place can have enormous effects on the overall system. If you want to debug a faulty system, you need to know where in the system to look. This process can take hours because faulty code blends in perfectly. Once you find it, though, you can begin the process of rewriting the code to do exactly what you want it to do. Rewriting the code can take some time and effort, but often the most frustrating part of debugging a system is finding the tricky code in the first place.
With habits, we typically know what habit we want to focus on. The problem is identifying that habit when it happens in real life. It is easy to let our attention slide right over habits without noticing them at all. We can tell that there is a bug in the system, but we can’t find where. A habit tracker acts like CTL+F. With the habit tracker, you can pick certain habits to focus on and begin to truly see them as they occur in your life. Being able to identify habits as they happen makes it a million times easier to take control and change your habits to your whim.
Small Steps Lead to Big Change
Changing your habits is one of the most powerful things you can do to achieve your goals. Whether you want to start your own business, move to Greece, become an accomplished musician, or do something even more exciting, it always comes down to habits. One small habit that you change this year may be the difference between accomplishing your dreams and falling short. I know I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t started my habit tracker years ago.
Before, I was unable to focus on honing my skills, and I spent hours each day on time wasters. After developing the habits I wanted in my life, I now run my own creative business with my husband and I get to do what I love for a living every day. I’m living the life I want because of the small habits that I cultivated years ago. So if you want to seize control of your destiny and push toward a certain goal, the best thing you can do right now is harness the power of your habits.
How to Set Up a Habit Tracker
So how do you set up a habit tracker, anyway? I promise that it is super easy. A habit tracker is the most basic chart there is, and anyone can do it. You only need two elements: the habits and a measurement of time. I like to keep my habit tracker for one month at a time. I also typically keep my habit tracker in my dot grid Leuchtturm1917, which allows me to conveniently space out all the parts of this chart evenly. You might also like to use graph paper to create your habit tracker.
On one side of the chart, write down each habit you want to track. On the other axis, write out the days of the month with each number on its own line. That should leave you with a small square intersection between each habit and day during the month. That’s it! Once you have completed both sides of the chart, then you have yourself a fully functional habit tracker. Of course, you may add other elements, colors, and doodles as you please. I typically add a title to the tracker along with a bit of colorful flair, but this is totally optional. The way you decorate your habit tracker is entirely up to you!
If you don’t particularly like the idea of drawing out the chart every month, then you might like to grab my habit tracker template from the Fox Den Resource Library. It’s completely free and has more than enough room for all the habits you want to track. Check it out here!
Where to Keep Your Habit Tracker
When I first discovered the habit tracker, I was up to my eyeballs in the bullet journal world. Most people who are reading this article probably are interested or actively using a bullet journal, so that seems like the natural place to keep your habit tracker. However, that is not the only place you can house your habit tracker. You can easily tape a habit tracker into any planner or journal that you use regularly. If you prefer, you can keep a habit tracker on the wall of your office, in your bathroom, or even in your bedroom. Wherever you decide to keep your habit tracker doesn’t matter as long as it is somewhere you can easily see it and use it every day.
How to Use a Habit Tracker
Once you have your habit tracker created, then you are all set to begin. So how do you go about using your habit tracker? Thankfully, this part is very simple and takes nearly no time at all.
If you set your habit tracker up for a month, then your tracking begins on the first day of that month. On the evening of the first day, shortly before you wrap up your day, sit down with your habit tracker. Look at the habits you have set to track one by one and think back on your day. Did you do your habits? If a habit did happen during the day, fill in the box on day one for that habit. If you did not do a habit, then leave the box blank. This requires a simple yes/no response.
How to Find a Yes or No Answer in a Maybe
If you aren’t sure whether your habit can yield a clear yes or no, try to reframe the habit so it is more black and white. You don’t want your habit to produce maybes. That also means that you want to make sure your habit is easily measured and not vague. For example, I want to track how often I exercise in my habit tracker. I can obviously mark yes on days when I go to the gym. However, what do I mark on days when I break a sweat without going to the gym? Every time I visit Chicago, I end up wearing myself out by just getting to my destinations. So how do I categorize those days in my tracker?
Recently, I have decided to rely on my Fitbit to tell me if I exercised on a non-gym day. It can track my heart rate and steps to see if I burned off calories, which is incredibly helpful. If you don’t have a fitness band of some kind, you just need to make decisions based on your gut. The trick here is to be honest with yourself and try not to exaggerate the truth. If you know deep down that taking two flights of stairs doesn’t count as exercise for you, then don’t mark a “yes” on your tracker. You aren’t helping yourself build better habits when you lie, so what’s the point?
This doesn’t just apply to exercise, of course. Every habit should be able to be identified as a “yes” or a “no.” If you can rely on other data points to help you, then go for it! It isn’t cheating in any way to get information from multiple sources. I lean on my Fitbit for exercise data and an app called MyFitnessPal for my caloric intake. Both of these apps make it that much easier to monitor my habits and make changes to them, so there is nothing wrong with a little extra help.
What Habits to Track
Now that you know how to set up and use your habit tracker, you are golden! All you need to do now is make it happen. However, you may find that when you sit down to write out the habits you want to track that your mind goes blank. Perhaps there are one or two that immediately popped into your head, but you want to focus on a few other habits. To help with this, I have created a list of habits that will hopefully inspire you and help you create your ideal habit tracker.
Of course, you can always track your health — both physical and mental health! There are a ton of health and self-care related habits that would be a natural fit in your habit tracker. Here are some of my favorite:
- Caloric intake
- Hit 8 hours of sleep
- Say affirmations
- Cook at home
- Walk dog two blocks
- Take vitamins
If you want to track your mental health more directly, you can always start a mood tracker, which is very similar to a habit tracker.
If you are trying to get on top of your schedule, then you probably want to focus on some planning habits like these:
- Use bullet journal/planner
- Get up at 6:00 am (or whatever time suits you)
- Fill in logs and trackers
- Empty inbox
A habit tracker can be a helpful way to keep you on top of your household duties. Here are some suggestions for chores to add to your tracker:
- Make bed
- Do dishes
- Do today’s chores from cleaning calendar
- Tidy up for 15 minutes
- Take out trash/recycling
- Complete homework or studying
If you want to grow your skills and hobbies, then add them to your habit tracker! Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
- Practice your hobby
- Work on your novel
- Relax / me time (this is very important for creativity!)
- Write Morning Pages
How Many Habits You Should Track
By now, I’m sure your head racing with the possibilities of your habit tracker. You probably want to get started quickly and jump in full force. I totally get that, and I don’t want to get in your way at all! I do want to spare a moment to talk about how many habits are too many habits to track. Because yes, there is such a thing as too many! If you add too many habits to your tracker, you run the risk of overwhelming yourself and potentially making you quit altogether.
As you are getting started, I would suggest you aim for 2 – 8 habits to track. You can always add more habits later as you get used to your habit tracker. If you want to incorporate more habits into your habit tracker, then be my guest! When I first began, I tracked at least fifteen habits and it went alright. But if you find that keeping that many habits stresses you out, don’t be afraid to cut back a little until you have a more manageable tracker. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, don’t be afraid to only track one habit if you want to focus on it! There is no right or wrong answer, only what feels right or wrong to you.
7 Tips for Using a Habit Tracker
I have been using a habit tracker for many years now, and I have gained some valuable experience during that time. Let me share some of my top tips that I have learned so you can use your habit tracker more effectively.
Add “Use Habit Tracker” to Habit Tracker
When you first begin using a habit tracker, you want to use it every single day. Of course, if this isn’t a habit already, you may find that a bit hard. Add “Fill in Habit Tracker” as one of your habits when you first get started and you’ll be amazed at how much it helps!
Try Different Layouts
If keeping a monthly habit tracker just isn’t your style, then don’t be afraid to mix it up! Some people like keeping weekly habit trackers. Others like to keep a year-long habit tracker. Experiment until you find a time period that works best for you.
Use Habit Tracker to Set Goals and Rewards
Want to incentivize yourself to develop a habit ultra fast? Set a goal and reward! Decide upon a goal (exercise 3 times a week all month) and a reward to give yourself once you hit that goal (one new piece of exercise clothes under $20). Then, at the end of the month, look at your habit tracker to see if you hit the goal. If yes, reward yourself! If no, then try harder to hit your goal next month with that reward in mind. This type of motivation can be incredibly powerful and it feels amazing to get rewarded for your hard work!
Make Your Habit Tracker Fun
Speaking of rewards, it’s worth mentioning that the habit tracker is a reward system in and of itself. Filling in a box for a habit can be oh-so-satisfying! So lean into that — make filling in your habit tracker fun! Use colorful markers, stickers, or fun patterns to fill in your tracker. If it makes you feel good, you will feel incentivized to use your tracker more frequently, which will only lead to more success.
Allow Room for Mistakes
Eventually, you will miss some time in your habit tracker. Your routines will be disrupted by a holiday, event, vacation, or life event. If that happens, don’t beat yourself up! Just begin again when you are ready to begin tracking again. You don’t have to wait until the next month’s tracker is drawn up — you can jump in any time. You are human, and humans make mistakes. Roll with it and be kind to yourself, and it will all work out!
Track Bad Habits
So far, I have predominantly talked about tracking the habits you want to encourage. If you want to increase the frequency of good habits, then a habit tracker is an excellent tool. But did you know you can use the habit tracker to decrease bad habits as well? If you are trying to get rid of negative influences in your life like sugar, negative thinking, procrastination, or anything along those lines, then a habit tracker works wonders! Like I mentioned earlier, the habit tracker simply helps make you aware of the habit, which allows you to change it. This means that your tracker is the solution for growing positive habits and destroying bad habits all in one fell swoop.
Marry Old and New Habits
If you want to put a new habit on the fast track to success, marry it to an existing habit in your life. Every day, you have certain routines: you wake up, brush your teeth, shower, make coffee, commute to work, and so on. Often, these are so ingrained in your life that doing certain routines out of order can throw your whole day off. Rely on these set habits and pair one with a new habit that you want to grow. Want to start reading more often? You can fit that reading into an existing habit like your commute. If you drive or walk, you can listen to audio books with the help of a service like Audible (you can try it for 30 days free and get two free audiobooks if you want to test it out). If your commute is on public transit, then bring your book along.
Pay attention to the routines you perform every day and begin to think of ways you can incorporate something new. Say affirmations in the shower. Tidy up for a few minutes while dinner is in the oven. Meditate while you wait for your coffee to brew. You will find that you develop new, desired habits much more quickly when you find ways to integrate them into your existing life.
Should You Use a Habit Tracker App?
If you aren’t sure whether you can keep a paper habit tracker, you might wonder if there is a digital solution. Some people might try to tell you that keeping a digital habit tracker is not the right way to do it, but you won’t hear that from me. Honestly, I don’t care whether you use a habit tracker app. Because at the end of the day, you need to decide what works for you. If you don’t keep a single paper planner, then you might find it difficult to remember to use a paper habit tracker. Plus if you use a system like a digital bullet journal, adding a digital habit tracker could be a perfect fit.
On the other hand, if you prefer keeping a paper planner, a digital habit tracker app might just complicate things and get in the way. Experiment with each version if you’re curious and pay attention to how you feel using each one. You and only you can find the solution that helps you track your habits the most effectively.
Bring Your Habits Into the Light
And that, my friend, concludes all you need to know to begin your habit tracker today. A habit tracker is an incredible tool whether you want to completely rehaul your life or you just want to hone it a bit more to your liking. You can easily figure out how to adapt it to your needs no matter your skill level with drawing, bullet journaling, or general organization. All you need is this basic chart and the desire to make some changes in your life. You got this. If I could make this work during the hot mess stage of my life, then I know you can conquer your habits. So grab your favorite pen, sit down with your habit tracker, and get tracking.