Once a year, I pull out some of my old notebooks, flip through the pages, and take a short walk down memory lane. I find this is a great way to see my life's overall trajectory and make sure I am moving in the direction of my goals. It also involves a nice mixture of nostalgia and the occasional "Oh, I should try this layout again!" But during my last flip through, I noticed an unfortunate pattern emerging in my habit tracking.
Each month, I was writing down a list of about eight items to track and to try to develop into habits. These were usually pretty general such as: no snooze button, read a book, drink 8 cups of water, exercise. The problem was that every one of my habit tracking spreads only had the first week or two filled in! After the burst of motivation at the beginning of the month wore off, I wasn't keeping up with the habits.
I began to realize a harsh truth:
Simply writing down 8 things to do each day is not a sustainable method for building consistent habits.
So why was I so bad at keeping up with my habits? Digging a little deeper, I discovered that every time I didn't follow through with a habit, there was an "event" that derailed the month. These were things like needing to stay up extra late to finish a work project or feeling sick. This would lead me to skip my daily habits, and once skipped they were often hard to start up again.
The problem was twofold: I didn't have a solid plan for completing the habits each day (when? where? how?). And because of that, I had to use a large amount of mental energy every day to decide what to do and to follow through with it. Inevitably, coming up with a habit plan daily was the first thing dropped when other life challenges got in the way.
Based on these previous habit missteps, I set out to come up with a new tracking method focused on two key areas:
Reducing the daily "decision energy" required to complete each habit.
Promoting consistency and returning to the habits after missed days.
At its core, my method for tracking habits is all about planning out as much as possible in advance. Knowing that my willpower ebbs and flows throughout the month, the goal is to minimize the amount of mental energy required to complete the habits each day.
Defining my habits
I start by making a list of the habits that I want to track for the month. I try to tie these to long term goals I have set for the year, and it is normal for this list to change each month as habits solidify and priorities change. Recently, my focus has been on health, with habits such as working out, yoga, and meditation. I have found that my sweet spot is at around four to five habits. If I track more than that it starts becoming harder for me to keep up with them.
An important aspect of the habit list is including a short sentence or two about why each habit is important to me. The act of writing this out helps to set my intentions for the month, and I try to keep in mind a couple guiding thoughts:
How does this habit help me reach my long-term goals?
What are the changes I am hoping to see in my life by developing this habit?
By incorporating this type of reflection directly into the tracking spread, I am reminded of my "why" throughout the month. It is much easier to keep up with a habit when the underlying motivation is clear.
Designing the tracker
Once I have decided on my habits and have grounded my intentions, I move on to designing a layout to track the habits. The exact format I use changes slightly from month to month, but the overall idea is consistent: a pre-planned and easy to fill-in visual representation of my habits.
For this month, I am tracking exercise, meditation, yoga, and whether I drink 8 glasses of water. Starting with a simple box, I layout a space for tracking each habit.
At the center of the box I place a line where I plan out what type of workout to do each day. These are broad categories such as: Abs, Legs, Arms. If I complete the workout for the day, I write the duration underneath and highlight the date with a grey highlighter. If I miss a day of working out, the date gets highlighted in red.
The vertical bar on the right side of the box is my yoga tracker. If I complete my yoga practice, I fill it in with the length of the session and highlight the bar in grey. The small semi-circle at the top of the box gets filled in if I meditate, and the square in the bottom left gets highlighted blue if I reach my hydration goal.
With the base daily "unit" designed, I make a box for each day of the month.
Creating an execution plan
Now for one of the most important parts of the method: coming up with a plan for how I will complete the habits. What can I plan in advance to make sure that on any particular day I have to make as few decisions as possible. For my habits, this means answering questions like:
"When am I going to exercise each day?"
"What type of exercise & what routine will I do?"
"When will I meditate each day?"
Where I can, I try to integrate and display these plans on the habit tracker. In this case, the middle line of each box is the dedicated spot to write the type of exercise I plan to do that day.
The planning stage is also a chance to think about how the habits might be able to inter-connect and support each other. For example, if I exercise at 7am every day and tie drinking a glass of water to the end of my workout, I have already made progress on multiple habits. This idea of habit "stacking" or "anchoring" is discussed in more detail by James Clear (https://jamesclear.com/habit-stacking) and BJ Fogg (https://tinyhabits.com/design/).
Filling in the tracker
Once the plan is set, it is time to do the work. Each day during the month I write some simple todos in my daily log to exercise, practice yoga, etc. Then when it is time to exercise I reference this tracker page to see what I scheduled for the day. I have found that since the tracker contains the "plan", I don't forget to flip back to it and I am better at filling it in every day.
The filling in of the tracker is definitely one of my favorite parts. This is when I get to break out my favorite highlighters and pens to mark the completion of the habits. It ends up being a lot of fun to fill in and the visual format helps draw me into completing my habits each day.
An element that I have added recently is an arrow between consecutive days of exercise. This introduces a feeling of forward momentum that encourages following through with the habits.
One of the aspects of this tracker that I find appealing is how flexible it is. Some months I don't have the time to make an intricate design, so I can fall back to a simple table representation of the habits. The workouts still get planned in advance, and I include columns for the same types of things I included in the box layout.
Or in months where I have more time, I can go all out and make more elaborate representations of my habits. Artistic designs are by no means essential for this form of habit tracking, but they can be a great outlet if making them is something you enjoy!
Tips & Takeaways
To wrap up, here are a few tips that I found helpful for sticking to my habit routine:
Plan as much as you can in advance. Things can change as the month goes on, but having a plan up front lowers the resistance to keep up with a habit.
Expect that you are going to miss days (or 5; or 10). It isn't about being perfect and practicing your habit every day. It's about returning to your practice and coming back after missed days.
Make the tracker as easy as possible to fill in throughout the month. Each day I am only marking completing habits; no habit planning or intricate designs.
Find ways to link habits together. How can one habit help me complete my other habits?
Be flexible. Plan on changing the tracker as needed to suit your needs while discovering what works best for you. My tracker has never been the same for two months in the row. It is constantly evolving to fit my life.
This habit tracking method has been a game changer for how I plan and keep up with habits throughout the year. After using this method for a few months, I am no longer dropping off completely from my habits during the month. Sure, there are days (and yes, even sometimes full weeks) that I miss, but I am consistently returning to the habits. By lowering the decision energy required each day, it has become much easier to jump back into the plan and finally start actually forming lifelong habits.
About the author
Dan Knowlton first started bullet journaling in the fall of 2017. He is best known for his minimal and bold visual style which he shares extensively on his Instagram account: @pacificnotation. Outside of journaling, Dan is a software engineer in the visual effects industry and runs a small stationery and printable shop on Etsy: The Pacific Line.