Alright, those benefits sound great, but it's not necessary to fill your habit tracker with every habit that makes up your day. In fact, if you're already sticking to a habit, then it seems like extra work to me to track it as well. So what should you measure in your habit tracker?
Habit tracking can help kickstart a new habit or keep you on track with behaviors that you tend to forget or let slide when things get busy.
In Atomic Habits, I recommend using the Two-Minute Rule, which suggests you scale your habits down until they take two minutes or less to perform. You can track whatever habits you want in your habit tracker, but I recommend starting with these super small habits to make sure that you are at least showing up in a small way each day. I'll share some examples below and break them out by daily, weekly, and monthly habits.
Common daily habits to track:
- journal 1 sentence
- read 1 page
- meditate 1 minute
- do 1 push up
- stretch for 1 minute
- write 1 thing I'm grateful for
- make your bed
- wake up by [TIME]
- go to bed by [TIME]
- take a shower
- floss teeth
- weigh myself
- take medication
- take vitamins/supplements
- play [INSTRUMENT] for 1 minute
- contact 1 potential client
- prioritize to-do list
- say “I love you” at least once
- put all dishes put away
- take a walk outside
- call mom
- walk the dog
Notice that most items on this list can be completed in two minutes or less. Make your habits so easy that you can stick to them even on the hard days.
For something to become truly habitual, you need to repeat it frequently. As a result, most habits are daily. But it can also be helpful to use a habit tracker for various weekly or monthly routines. These behaviors won't become “automatic” like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth, but a habit tracker can remind you to complete them nonetheless.
Common weekly habits to track:
- publish blog post
- take out trash/recycling
- do the laundry
- water the plants
- tidy up your bedroom
- write a thank you note
- review finances
- transfer money to savings account
- pay off credit cards
- pay bills
- deep clean the house
You can also use a habit tracker to simply count how often you do something. For example, if you want to keep track of how many days you travel for work each month.
- days spent traveling
- conduct weekly review
- conduct monthly review
Finally, you can use a habit tracker to measure what you don't do. I call these “habits of avoidance” (that is, behaviors you are trying to avoid).
Habits of avoidance:
- no alcohol
- no Netflix
- no online purchases
- no soda
- no sugar
- no caffeine
- no smoking
Again, the Habit Journal offers a proven template and the fastest way to create your habit tracker. No need to spend an hour drawing your own grid. Just write your habits down and you're ready to go.
How to Get in the Habit of Using Your Habit Tracker
Despite all of the benefits, a habit tracker is not something that makes sense in every situation or for every person. Many people resist the idea of tracking and measuring. It can feel like a burden because it forces you into two habits: the habit you’re trying to build and the habit of tracking it. That said, nearly anyone can benefit from habit tracking in one form or another—even if it’s only temporary.
What can we do to make habit tracking easier?
First, manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten. I tend to keep my habit tracker simple and limit it to my three or four most important habits.
Second, record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs. The completion of the habit is the cue to write it down. (This is a twist on the “habit stacking” approach I discuss in Chapter 5 of Atomic Habits.)
Here's the basic formula: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
- After I hang up the phone from a sales call, I will mark the “call 1 potential client” column.
- After I finish meditating, I will fill the “meditate for 1 minute” column.
- After I put my plate in the dishwasher, I will complete the “put all dishes away” column.
Basically, what we are talking about here is getting in the habit of using your habit tracker. These little rules help you remember to pick up your habit tracker and mark off another accomplishment.
How to Recover Quickly When Your Habits Break Down
Finally, I want to discuss what to do when you fall off the wagon.
Every habit streak ends at some point. Perfection is not possible. Before long, an emergency will pop up—you get sick or you have to travel for work or your family needs a little more of your time. Whenever this happens to me, I try to remind myself of a simple rule:
Never miss twice.
If I miss one day, I try to get back into it as quickly as possible. Missing one workout happens, but I’m not going to miss two in a row. Maybe I’ll eat an entire pizza, but I’ll follow it up with a healthy meal. As soon as one streak ends, I get started on the next one. I can’t be perfect, but I can avoid the second mistake.
Generally speaking, the first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. As I write in Atomic Habits, “Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can't do something perfectly, then you shouldn't do it at all.
Sure, a perfectly filled-in habit tracker looks beautiful and you should strive to achieve it whenever possible. But life is messy. In the long run, what matters is that you find a way to get back on track.
How Long Do I Need to Track My Habits?
One of the most common questions I get is “How long does it take to build a habit?”
You'll see all kinds of answers: 21 days, 30 days, 100 days. One popular answer right now is 66 days because there was one study that found that, on average, it took 66 days to build a habit. However, even within that study the range was quite wide depending on the difficulty of the habit.
I find that people are really trying to get at something else when they ask, “How long does it take to build a habit?” What they often mean is, “How long until it's easy? How long until I don't have to put much effort in anymore?”
Look, all habits get easier with practice. But this line of questioning ignores the real purpose of building better habits in the first place.
How long does it take? The honest answer is: forever. Because once you stop doing it, it is no longer a habit.
A habit is a lifestyle to be lived, not a finish line to be crossed. You are looking to make small, sustainable changes you can stick with for years. And a habit tracker is one tool in your toolbox on the road to behavior change. It is an effective way to prove to visualize your progress and motivate you to show up again tomorrow.