How to Change Your Life with This Simple Habit
The habit I’m about to share with you has significantly impacted my life in many ways. It’s simple to do, but requires consistency over an extended period of time. I’ve mentioned it briefly in the past. Today I want to give it the attention and space it deserves.
I call this habit tracking. It’s basically writing things down in a format that’s easy to review, see patterns, and gain clarity.
Tracking covers things like writing in a journal, documenting your food and calories, or keeping a record of your progress as you exercise, learn, or change a habit.
This practice can transform your life—if done intentionally and consistently.
The benefits of tracking
Here are my top five benefits.
Clarity: It’s much better to transfer stuff from your mind to paper, or a computer file. You won’t need to worry about having to remember what you did, or how you need to change it. Creating a home for your experiences frees your mind to do other things. More importantly, you separate the experience from yourself, which can lead to valuable insight about what’s working and what’s not.
Measure progress: It’s hard to know how well we’re doing today if we can’t see where we started, and how far we’ve come along. Looking back from the start of a project gives us the boost to keep going.
Inspire change: If you track a behavior that you deem excessive, you can see how much it costs you in terms of time and money, or health and energy. Your written record can be the catalyst for change.
Motivation for habits: Don’t break the chain is a productivity tip that’s attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. If you’re tracking the days of doing something productive, you would not want to break the chain (the marks on your calendar) of success. This is a great motivational tool when you don’t have the willpower or enthusiasm you had when you started.
A reality check: I’ve found tracking to be the most effective awareness tool. We often tend to overestimate or underestimate our actions, or their consequences. Through tracking and writing we can look at our behavior with accuracy, instead of impressions that may not reflect reality.
This practice also shows us what our true priorities are, not what we think they are.
If these benefits appeal to you, then it’s time to start tracking.
How to track
Tracking is a fairly simple process the can be summed up in three steps.
1- Determine what things you want to track.
What do you want to track? Focus on what’s important to you now.
Here are a few ideas:
- Journaling daily, and reflecting on your thoughts and experiences
- Food and calories consumed every day
- Daily exercise and movement
- Activities you want to do more of: time spent writing, painting, drawing, learning a language, playing a musical instrument, or starting a hobby
- Activities you want to do less of: hours spent watching TV, or online, how many cigarettes you smoke, or how much alcohol you consume
- Recording the details of a project from the start: for example, writing a book, or learning a skill
These are just ideas. The most important thing is to be clear about what you want to track.
2- Get the essential tools.
Depending on the type of activity you want to document you will need the following:
A- Pen and notebook, or their digital equivalent: Use these tools to write anything down that requires text. This includes daily journaling, learning, and project notes.
You can use a service like Evernote by creating a notebook for every area you want to track. Evernote is very accommodating, so you need to keep things simple by using each notebook for its intended purpose only.
You can also use a folder on your computer for each area you want to track, and create text documents for each day or idea.
B- Calendar or spreadsheet: You can use it to mark the days you performed a task, or the time you spend each day doing something.
You can use a paper calendar or use the one that comes with your email.
Or you can use a spreadsheet. It doesn’t need to be complicated, just a simple sheet with numbers to indicate that you did something, or a value if you’re tracking your calories or the time spent on an activity. Click here for a simple example.
I use Excel for spreadsheets. Google Drive sheets are a good and free alternative. If you need help with setting up your spreadsheet, just drop me a line and I’ll gladly help.
3- Do it daily.
Once you decided on what you want to track, and have your tools ready, it’s time to take action.
The most challenging part is deciding when to do it, then bringing yourself to do it.
The best method is to anchor the tracking to something that you do every single day. For example, you can write down your food and calories consumed after you eat.
Or you can write in your journal after you wake up in the morning.
Make the documentation of your progress part of the project you’re working on. You do the work, and then write about it before you wrap up the session.
Do your best to write things down as soon as possible. If you don’t have your tools with you, use your phone or a notebook, and transfer your notes the moment you have access to your tools.
Here are a few reminders that might be of helpful in building the tracking habit.
Don’t worry about it. Tracking is a process that is intended to help you. You don’t want to turn it into another stressful task that you have to remember to do, or worse, worry about catching up because you skipped a few days. If this happens, move on and start over.
Tracking is not easy in the beginning. Nothing that’s life transforming is easy when we start. If you stick with it long enough to turn it into a habit, it will get easier.
Keep it simple. You don’t want to start tracking every aspect of your life. Start small with one or two things and use the simplest way (tool) to document your progress and results. Don’t get bogged down with apps and gadgets, unless you’re already accustomed to them. Every specialized tool requires time to set up and learn. It’s best to start with the tools you’re familiar with.
Review and reflection
At the end of the month, spend some time looking over what you documented and see how you can learn from it. Some results will surprise you, others will disappoint you. Overall, you will have a better view of what you did and how you can move forward.
Tracking takes time and effort. It’s worth your while though. When done consistently, it can become a frictionless habit. In the long run, the benefits of reflection and growth will outweigh the cost of time and effort.