Infallible Framework for Habit Development | Part 3: Habits Tracking
I developed dozens of daily habits without a fail using this framework.
This is part 3 of 4 about a habit development tool widely known and highly undervalued.
III. Habits Tracking.
I don’t agree with those who claim that tracking is limiting and cripples your chances to develop new habit. The argument against it is that tracking constricts a person, making them feel like a prisoner or a laboratory rat under scrutiny.
In my experience tracking is pure gold in habit creation and is a factor that can make or break your habit. Without tracking, the chances for habit development reduce drastically.
If you keep everything in your head, your subconscious can trick you into believing you are achieving your goals, or even that you don’t need the habit you are trying to form. It can twist everything and sell you a bunch of distortions mixed with a little truth to make them believable. And you will buy these packages each and every time.
So, what is habit tracking?
In its simplest form, you are just recording whether you have done your habit or not. The means you use to record this is absolutely up to you. You may use pen and paper, an Excel sheet, a text file, an application, a wall calendar — anything.
Habits tracking in the form of a journal is widely known and recommended by many researchers and coaches. Journals are used in many areas: a writing log, food journal, exercise log and so on. They are recommended, because they work.
Habits tracking works like magic
In 2012 I lost about 15 pounds. It took me several months and I used various methods, from ditching sweets, intermittent fasting and introducing more vegetables into my diet, to intensifying my exercise program. But my progress stalled in December. At the beginning of January 2013, I started a food journal. I registered everything I consumed, every gulp of soda and crumb of bread. I didn’t change my exercise program. I didn’t change my diet. I just noted down my consumption.
My awareness with regard to the amount and quality of food I ate increased almost magically. And I lost those last six stubborn pounds.
My story is not some aberration. Journaling, and tracking in general, works because it immensely increases your awareness. It instills filters in your brain. We get about 100 million sensual impulses every second — this is gigabytes of data. Your conscious mind perceives only a small fraction of that info ocean.
Tracking creates additional filters that redirect a portion of this vast amount of data to your conscious mind. Your attention determines what you become conscious about.
Habits tracking instills filters in your brain
When I was keeping my food journal, I carried sticky notes and a pen with me. Immediately after consumption, I noted down what I ate and drank. When I arrived at my computer, I copied those notes into a text file.
Keeping records on sticky notes felt weird to me, so I trained myself to remember what I ate and, once I reached a computer, I dumped this information from my head into the file.
I did that at first after each meal, then a few times a day, and finally I was able to keep in my head everything I ate on any given day and note it down in the file during a single session in the evening.
I kept my food journal for about 9 weeks and ditched this habit around 10th of March 2013. But today I can still recall everything I’ve consumed from the moment I wake up till the moment I go to bed.
As an example, today I ate an orange, five small slices of wholegrain bread with cheese, a peach, lunch (one pickle, some cabbage soup and a sauce with chicken meat), three more slices of bread with cheese and four slices of bread with jam. I drank two glasses of chicory coffee with a spoon of honey and a glass of coffee, all of them with milk.
I have filters in my brain that register my consumption. They work in the background. I don’t need a conscious effort to remember what I eat. Whenever I want to recall my consumption, that data is “at hand”. But don’t ask me what I ate yesterday. I need to refer to the normal memory routine to get to that data.
So, if you track your habit, the attention of both your conscious and subconscious mind focuses on this activity. Your chances of success rise exponentially.
The second biggest advantage of habits tracking is tangible data for analysis. We are so prone to lie to ourselves! When you keep everything in your head, fantasy and illusion are mixed up with the facts. You can justify any action:
“Oh well, a cup of ice cream will not do much damage. It’s so yummy, and you deserve a treat because you didn’t eat much today anyway.” Or: “C’mon treat yourself, you will burn it tomorrow in the morning workout.”
If you don’t know how much you ate or how many calories your average workout burns, such “arguments” from your subconscious seem logical and convincing. If you possess such data, your subconscious cannot pull most dirty tricks on you.
Habits tracking vs. developing a habit
The more comprehensive your tracking is, the more data you collect and the harder it is to cheat yourself. I just tracked everything caloric that went into my mouth, but food journals may be more elaborate than that. You might track the number of calories, time of meals, your moods, and many more details.
Of course, the more comprehensive is your tracking, the more burdensome it is to keep. It’s so much easier to mark a habit once a day in a tracking application than writing down what you ate, where you ate it, how long it took you and in what mood you were in.
I consider tracking an integral part of habit development. I don’t start a habit without a parallel discipline of tracking and/ or measuring this habit.
Data driven analysis example
When I decided to overcome my shyness, it was tracking that saved me and ultimately helped me to succeed. My subconscious mind used the normal arsenal of tricks to discourage me from my new habit. It was sending soothing messages: “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad, you will do it next time, take it easy, it’s not worth it anyway, this talking to strangers is really terrifying.”
If not for my tracking, I would have believed those messages. But, several weeks into my habit, I took the sheets of paper I had been keeping my tracking on and I compared the habit of talking to strangers with other habits I started about the same time; a dozen or so. I had more minuses in case of talking to strangers, than in all other habits together.
Only then I really realized the real scope of my problem with introversion and changed my strategy. I downsized the habit at the beginning to simply making eye contact, later I started smiling to strangers and finally I began talking to them.
Thanks to tracking I didn’t let my habit slip into the abyss of failure, where most New Year’s resolutions finish.
Author and Business Coach