We've all grown up with the message, Where there's a will, there's a way. But, how do we find the way when the will to do something is weak, as it often can be? The answer is to create a "system"—a set of rules and routines that do not rely on the often finicky and finite willpower. Habit tracking is one such system. And a powerful one, to boot.
What gets measured, gets managed – Peter Drucker
'Tis that time of the year
January derives its origin from the Latin equivalent to the noun Janus—the Roman God.
Janus is the Roman God of beginnings (and doorways) typically depicted with two faces. He stands with his two heads facing in opposite directions to indicate someone looking both at the past and into the future. Janus represents transitions—from the old to the new.
Yes, it is that time of the year—the time for transitions. We may soon need a new warning label: "Don't peek at your calendar. New Year's Eve is lurking."
For many, January 1 on the calendar means more resolutions. Or, to be precise, more of the same unfulfilled resolutions they had this year. Or, for the last five years:
Lose weight. Be patient. Exercise regularly. Make more money. Spend time with loved ones. Learn to knit. Clean out the garage. Etc. Etc.
The pattern is predictable.
You are determined to go to the gym three days a week. And you do. You show up to a crowded parking lot in brand new, fashionable athleisure for your workout. You feel great, and it all goes perfectly to plan. For about three weeks.
Then, life starts to get in the way. There's a 5.30 p.m. emergency meeting at work on your scheduled workout day. Or your child falls sick. And the snowstorm hits. And so on…
Soon, the three-day-a-week routine is cut short to a two-day-a-week plan. Before long, you stop going to the gym altogether for entire weeks. Then, guilt-induced, you eventually show up again in April to find an empty parking lot. At least you aren't alone. It appears everyone in town is dealing with emergencies in their lives.
The entire cycle is oh-so-predictable, right?
We are bright and bushy-tailed on January 1 with loads of willpower but tired and deflated by April with no gas left in the tank.
It doesn't have to be this way, though.
An alternative to willpower
Almost a year ago, I wrote a post on how I used the power of habit streaks to build consistent habits. To date, that post has been one of the most-read and popular articles on this website. Understandable.
Popular culture has placed way too much emphasis on willpower. But, willpower is scarce and not a very trustworthy resource. Like that last bit of toothpaste that's forever stuck in the tube, willpower tends to disappear—especially when you need it the most.
On the other hand, habit tracking is much more reliable than willpower in getting us out of bed each morning and on to our business.
The above-referenced post describes how I used habit streaks to incorporate consistency into my routine.
Today, like a salesperson on an "As seen on TV" infomercial, I say to you: But wait, there's more.
As someone who has experimented with many self-improvement / personal growth toolsets, I'd venture to add that I've found habit tracking to be one of, if not THE most durable, tool to incorporate consistent, long-term habits into our lives.
Habit tracking has staying power.
Creating good long-term habits is hard. Through the power of habit tracking and using habit streaks, we can build accountability (to ourselves) into this challenging process.
In the rest of this article, I explain why I'm confident this system works way better than relying on willpower.
A brief intro
It's no secret that I'm a running aficionado. I enjoy the accomplishment of signing up for and finishing endurance (running) races. But I realized a while ago that I was operating in almost two parallel universes.
I'd be fit and active during my training months but equally couch-bound and lazy when I didn't have a race goal to chase after.
This kind of blow hot, blow cold approach to activity wasn't, of course ideal, for my overall well-being. Especially during the off days when I'd be in a low-energy, almost sloth-like state that just did not feel good.
It wasn't just physical fitness either; it impacted my mood and just made me a not-so-fun person to be around.
That's when I decided to find the middle-ground—to engage consistently in a moderate level of activity, regardless of whether I had any races on the horizon.
Close your rings
Long story short, I combined the power of habit tracking with the power of technology —Apple Watch's close your rings program—as the tool to help me build a lasting physical fitness habit.
My initial goal was to close all three rings (move, exercise, and stand) on my Apple Watch for thirty consecutive days. When I got there and realized I hadn't died, I decided to increase the duration to a whole year of consecutive ring closings. It took some effort, but I eventually reached that goal and documented the journey in the how to develop habit streaks post.
Fast forward to today.
As I write this, my streak is now over 700 days. And counting. Finally, I'm at a point where the number of days on the streak is meaningless. That's because I have met the ultimate objective of habit tracking—making the habit second nature.
Even on low-enthusiasm days, I don't spend all my waking hours on the couch, regardless of how much I want to. Movement is now a part of my daily routine—a testament to the reliability of habit tracking.
Let's just say that took a bit of effort. About 700 days, give or take.
The road to a long habit streak—Ten lessons I learned
If you genuinely want to bring about change in any area of your life, try to create a habit streak. I've already expounded on the whys and how-tos of developing a habit streak in this post.
Here are ten lessons I learned in the process.
1. Choose your goal wisely
I chose a physical fitness goal because it was important to me. Your goal can be in any domain — spending more time with loved ones, carpentry, reading, starting a business, learning how to make kites. Whatever. But it needs to matter to you. A lot.
For instance, I thought I'd learn to cook a new recipe every week in addition to the physical fitness goal. It didn't last. Let's just say I'm not going to any master chef competitions anytime soon.
To even have a remote chance of succeeding on a habit streak, it's imperative to find something that speaks to you instead of something that will look good on your social media feed.
2. Be realistic
Set reasonable, achievable goals.
In my case, I set realistic goals for what I could classify as "daily movement." While I managed to exceed my goal many days, there were other busy days when I could barely meet the minimum.
Habit streaks aren't compatible with "reach" goals. It likely won't get done day after day if it takes too much effort or is too hard. At the same time, the goal shouldn't be a shoo-in. It has to be just a tad above your comfort zone.
Before you start working on the streak, spend time to find and define this equilibrium. That is the key to stopping you from getting overwhelmed.
3. Start small
I initially aimed for just a 30-day streak. It seemed long enough at the time. Challenging, but not anxiety-provoking. Over time, I ramped it to a doable three months, six, and eventually a whole year. The two-year mark almost happened on its own.
If the thought of doing something for seven days in a row is challenging enough, then just begin there.
4. One change at a time
I was able to keep up the long streak because I tried to adopt just one major habit—daily exercise and movement. I most certainly would have failed early had I attempted multiple habit streaks concurrently.
Being able to tell yourself there is only one thing you MUST do on any given day is helpful and liberating on days you have trouble even getting out of bed in the morning.
5. Get timely feedback
Your habit needs to be easily measurable and trackable.
There is a world of difference between
"I'll be active during the day," and
"I'll burn 500 active calories during the day."
The former is tenuous and subjective. The latter is fact-based and objective.
Habit streaks require clear, measurable goals and a system to track those measurements easily and in a timely manner.
I was fortunate to have the power of technology. My watch measured and recorded my activity levels and provided me with timely feedback through alerts. I'd know, with just a glance, whether I was on or off track at any point during the day.
6. Make peace with looking like a dork
There have been times when I have simply stood up and walked the hall a few times during some long meetings because my body knows it's been sitting too long. I try to do it as discreetly as possible, but sometimes there is no way to stop the gawking.
I realize I may look like a weirdo pacing the length of the room while everyone else sits for hours. But I now own this eccentricity.
Sticking religiously to a habit streak requires some sacrifices. You may have to leave a fun happy hour early to attend your kite-making class. Make peace with it. If it does not harm others and it is important to you, by all means, own it.
7. Beware of unsolicited opinions
I often get asked the question if I'm a slave to my watch, especially if I'm seen rearranging my schedule to fit my goal of closing three rings.
I get it. There will come a point in the process where you may stop making sense to others around you.
But embarking on a habit streak is part of your self-improvement journey, not theirs.
Treat unsolicited advice like you'd treat someone singing out-of-tune. Ignore it, walk away if you can, or put up with it without it letting it affect you. It'll soon be over.
8. Don't find shortcuts
We are all human. It can be tempting to find shortcuts.
For instance, one of the three rings I had to close in my example is the stand ring. The stand ring requires you to move for at least one minute each hour, for twelve hours a day. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Not if you slept until noon and then sat on the couch for a couple of hours. It can become challenging at 11 p.m. to find two more hours in the day.
This is where I found that human ingenuity knows no bounds. Especially when it comes to finding shortcuts. I read a hilarious (and equally informative) article on how to cheat on the stand ring. The genius suggestion was to change the time zone on the watch to Alaska time. If you were in NYC, for instance, just like that, you'd have manufactured four more hours in the day.
Cheating on the habit streak is a losing proposition. Once you know about a trick, you may be tempted to use it. The best way to deal with shortcuts—don't find them. Ignorance is bliss.
Remember, you're choosing to do the habit streak to get better at something. Not to impress others.
9. Luck helps
Events outside our control—falling sick, the weather, family commitments, etc. can cause habit streaks to end.
I certainly was lucky to get through 700 days of decent health that allowed me to close all three rings every day.
But sometimes, we may not be so lucky. A stupid cold may waylay us, or the trains may strike and prevent us from getting to our destination.
If things don't go to plan, it's okay—as long as we know we've done our part.
10. Journey, not destination
At some point, it is okay to say enough. Most habit streaks have a natural endpoint—when the habit becomes second nature. At that point, it's best to let go and move on to something else, maybe another area in life that can benefit from habit tracking.
Obsessing about a habit streak after it's become second nature is pointless. I can choose to extend this 700-day habit streak to a 1000-day streak. But I'm now at a point where movement in my life is consistent. The number of days on the streak isn't going to make a difference.
Habit tracking an established habit defeats the purpose, and it simply becomes an overhead like an office with more managers than workers. At that point, the best you can do is to say thank you to the habit streak and move on. Perhaps to another habit.
Evidently, I'm a fan of habit tracking, and I genuinely believe tracking progress by creating habit streaks can help crystallize a habit. It worked for me.
Up until two years ago, my longest ring-closing streak was seven days. That's before I understood how to track a habit and build a streak effectively. The journey from a seven-day streak to a seven-hundred-day streak wasn't as hard as it sounds. It just took a little perseverance and focus. And a system.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks. But I do fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times – Bruce Lee