This article includes an excerpt from Atomic Habits, my New York Times bestselling book.
If you want to stick with a habit for good, one simple and effective thing you can do is keep a habit tracker.
Elite performers will often measure, quantify, and track their progress in various ways. Each little measurement provides feedback. It offers a signal of whether they are making progress or need to change course.
Gabrielle Hamilton, a chef in New York City, provides a good example. During an interview with the New York Times, she said, “The one thing I see that consistently separates the chef from the home cook is that we taste everything, all the time, before we commit it to the dish, right down to the grains of salt. We slurp shot glasses of olive oil and aerate them in our mouths as if it were a wine we were trying to know. We taste the lamb, the fish, the butter, the milk before we use it… we chew salt to see how we like it in our teeth, on our tongues, and to know its flavor, its salinity.”
For the chef, tasting the ingredients tells them whether they are making progress toward their desired end goal. It provides the immediate feedback they need to get the recipe just right.
Like a chef improving a recipe through trial and error, we often improve our habits through trial and error. If one approach doesn't deliver the desired effect, then we adjust—like a chef tweaking the amount of an ingredient.
However, there is an important difference between getting feedback while cooking a meal and getting feedback while building a habit. When it comes to building a habit, feedback is often delayed. It's easy to taste an ingredient or to watch bread rise in the oven. But it can be difficult to visualize the progress you are making with your habits. Perhaps you've been running for a month, but you still don't see a change in your body. Or maybe you managed to meditate for 16 straight days, but you still feel stressed and anxious at work.
Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.
And this is where a habit tracker can help.
The Habit Tracker: What It Is and How It Works
A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit.
The most basic format is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick with your routine. For example, if you meditate on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each of those dates gets an X. As time rolls by, the calendar becomes a record of your habit streak.
To make this process as easy as possible, I created the Habit Journal, which includes 12 habit tracker templates—one for each month. All you have to do is add your habit and start crossing off the days.
Placing an X on each day is the classic look. I prefer something a little more design-oriented, so I shade in the cells on my habit tracker. You could also use checkmarks or fill your habit tracker with dots.
No matter what design you choose, the key point is your habit tracker provides immediate evidence that you completed your habit. It's a signal that you are making progress. Of course, that's not all it does…
Habit tracking is powerful for three reasons.
- It creates a visual cue that can remind you to act.
- It is motivating to see the progress you are making. You don't want to break your streak.
- It feels satisfying to record your success in the moment.
Let's break down each one.
Benefit #1: A habit tracker reminds you to act.
Habit tracking naturally builds a series of visual cues. When you look at the calendar and see your streak, you’ll be reminded to act again.
Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t. One study of more than sixteen hundred people found that those who kept a daily food log lost twice as much weight as those who did not. A habit tracker is a simple way to log your behavior, and the mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it.
Habit tracking also keeps you honest. Most of us think we act better than we do. Measurement offers one way to overcome our blindness to our own behavior and notice what’s really going on each day. When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself.
Benefit #2: A habit tracker motivates you to continue.
The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path. In this way, habit tracking can have an addictive effect on motivation. Each small win feeds your desire.
This can be particularly powerful on a bad day. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to forget about all the progress you have already made. Habit tracking provides visual proof of your hard work—a subtle reminder of how far you've come. Plus, the empty square you see each morning can motivate you to get started because you don't want to lose your progress by breaking your streak.
Benefit #3: A habit tracker provides immediate satisfaction.
Finally, tracking feels rewarding. It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list, to complete an entry in your workout log, or to mark an X on the calendar. It feels good to watch your results grow and if it feels good, then you’re more likely to endure.
Habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball: you’re focused on the process rather than the result. You’re not fixated on getting six-pack abs, you’re just trying to keep the streak alive and become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.