Friday Fundamentals #5: Track Your Habits

It’s often said that you can’t change what you don’t measure. A common adage among CEOs and successful business executives alike, people know that our brains are just not that effective at properly evaluating big trends over the long-term. In order to change our long-term outcomes, we need to change our day-to-day behaviours, and that process starts by tracking our habits. 

When it comes to habit tracking, there are a few things you can do to optimize your chances of success. It comes down to three things: setting “build vs. quit” habits, using streaks, and establishing your golden rule.

Build vs. Quit Habits

When we talk about habits, we often think of the behaviours that we’d like to start taking on in a more serious way: going to the gym every day, sleeping for eight hours and eating right. But, if you simply took a serious look at all the negative behaviours you take part in – like the addictive behaviours you encourage or the harm you cause to your body and mind – you would realize that you have a chance to change so much by getting rid of your bad habits, too.

In reality, any healthy and effective habit tracking should involve some aspect of “quitting.” Whether this be quitting smoking and drinking, stopping to use social media or your smartphone, or even putting an end to your dependence on your morning cup of coffee, balancing out the “build” habits with some challenging “quit” habits is a recipe for long-term success.

Using Streaks as Motivation

It’s hard to find the motivation to get up and do something that might not provide an instantaneous reward. As dopamine-hungry creatures, we crave the short-term spike in mood that we get from things like our phones, human interaction, and junk food. But, the things that create the most value in our lives, from working on our physique to sharpening our mental acuity, require arduous and unrewarding long-term work. Many “habit experts” talk about how you can optimize your habits schedule to ensure that you don’t have to rely on your own willpower to get up and do the work. But, having test-run just about every technique I’ve been able to get my hands on, I can confidently say: it just comes down to willpower.

When you get up to brush your teeth, you don’t rely on any sort of external motivator. You don’t have a bet with your friend to ensure that you’ll keep on brushing. You don’t have a friend that you brush your teeth with every morning. You just get up and do it. You do it because you did it yesterday, and the day before that, and the one before that – so why stop now? This is what you do. You brush your teeth.

The same mentality needs to be applied to other habits. In order to motivate ourselves, our desire has to come from within. But, we can use the psychology of streaks to help us out. In the real world, it is clear that humans have an insatiable desire to keep streaks alive. Whether it be the infamous “streak” setting on Snapchat, or the well-known method used by recovering alcoholics who announce the amount of days they have been sober at AA meetings, we will find all the motivation to keep that number from reaching 0. Use this to your advantage, by keeping track of the number of consecutive days you have completed the habit, and putting this front-and-centre.

Establishing Your Golden Rule

Understand that when you take on this journey, you will fall off the proverbial horse several times. The factor that will define your long-term success is how many times you get back on it. In this process, it will help to create one “golden rule” that is never broken, no matter what. There are a variety of options, listed below, that could suit your habit building style best:

  • Never miss a habit for two consecutive days: this ensures that you never fully fall off the horse, but rather, when you stumble, you gather yourself and re-gain a position of strength. This rule is great in the long-term, but can be difficult to follow.
  • Complete habits at near-identical times of the day: this golden rule ensures consistency in your habit-building, and actually makes it easier to comply with habits in the long-term because your body starts to associate the time of day with the activity you should be doing.
  • Reward yourself for a perfect day: this provides added motivation for you to complete every single habit and have the “perfect day.” When you achieve 6 out of 6 of your daily habits, reward yourself with a good movie or a “guilty pleasure” snack. This will keep you going, down the line.

These are only three examples of potential golden rules; however, the common thread is this: choose one golden rule, and follow it at all costs. All other behaviours, missed habits, and issues are forgivable and recoverable.

Habit tracking can provide you with the framework you need to change your life. If you set it up in the right way, with the proper balance of build and quit habits, use streak psychology to your advantage, and abide by one golden rule, you just might be on the way to making that ground-breaking change.

  “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”                                                                                                                                          – Gretchen Rubin

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