This week, I talked about habits in my FB Live video. In it, I suggested three ways to set up your habit trackers to improve the probability of success. These derive from my own experience of So Many Years of using other people’s planners with only middling success, but also from looking at how other people use their journals. Recently, I’ve started to make real progress with changing my habits, and it has given me some insight into what was (and was not) working.
I’m not recommending a particular solution, but I do have three general principles for setting yourself up to succeed at building new habits.
Pick a habit you actually care about
An awful lot of our goals come from other people’s priorities. Our friends tell us what we need to be doing, or we decide that there is something about ourselves that is too awful to stand… and so we set a goal that we think will fix it.
At root, though, we don’t really want to meet that particular goal or set that particular habit. We just want to stop feeling bad, or to get other people to approve. Those are hard motivations to maintain. We’re experiencing discomfort now for a payoff down the road. Maybe. If you want to stay motivated, that payoff better come pretty quick… or, you have to really want it.
Make a positive statement
It’s a lot easier to succeed at doing something once than at avoiding something for an entire day. It’s a lot easier to keep doing something if you feel like you are succeeding. And success breeds success. That is, once you start checking something off once a day, you can add on a second time, and before you know it, it has become just “a thing that you do.” (Then you can stop tracking it. The goal is not to write down every time you remember to floss your teeth for the rest of your life; it is to floss your teeth without having to remind yourself.)
[Having rewatched my video, I feel compelled to point out that I did actually establish the habits in the tracker that I didn’t finish… but I had to use a daily reminder in my to-do app instead of the paper-based one. One of the habits that I haven’t developed is “colouring in the habit tracker.” As I said, there’s more to it than this.]
Don’t get hung up on appearances
In the video, I talked about how people don’t use bullet journals because they can’t (or don’t want to) do the fancy “layouts” that have become so popular in our image-focused social media landscape. [You’ll have to imagine my “curmudgeonly pundit” voice.]
I am here to tell you that your bullet journal does not have to be pretty to work.
I showed a couple of plain pages from my journal that I used to plan a trip to Italy (with excursions, train tickets, a conference, and language lessons), get my kids’ activities arranged, and read more than 50 books in the year. There weren’t even any headings on most of the pages… just bullet points.
A habit tracker can be dots on a page, or checkmarks on a chart on the fridge. You can give yourself gold stars, or you can make little x’s on your mirror in eyebrow pencil. You can use a paper planner, or an app that sends a daily reminder on your phone. One caution here: It is perilously easy to dismiss a reminder without actually doing the thing, so you do want a sense that you are tracking, not just receiving an update.
Why Habits Matter
We are, I hope, more than the sum of our habits. But flourishing is easier if we aren’t fighting ourselves all the way. If eating well, getting enough sleep, and taking care of our homes (for example) can be moved into the realm of the automatic, it leaves energy and space for us to do more complex things with our minds than remember where we left the remote control.
And yes, this means that all our right brain ooey-gooey creative juices are going to need to let the left brain systems-and-structures run the show some of the time. There will be notes. There will be charts. You will be asked to monitor your patterns… but one day you will realize that you never have to remember to floss your teeth any longer because you just do it when you walk into the bathroom before bed. Yay!
To sum up
- It doesn’t matter how pretty your tracking method is.
- It’s much easier to stay motivated if you are doing something (which you get to mark off regularly) rather than avoiding something (which requires long-term success for each check mark). If you stay motivated, you are more likely to actually adopt the new habit.
- If you are having trouble meeting a goal or establishing a habit, pause to consider whether it is something you actually want to do. If not, consider whether there is a related habit that you actually do want to develop, and redirect your efforts. In my experience, some of those other goals may come back around in their own time, when they become things you actually want… and sometimes they don’t. Don’t fight gravity; work with it.