Keeping track to build new habits

Keeping track to build new habits

If you’re trying to establish healthy new habits, it can help to hold yourself accountable using a home-made habit tracker. I tried one out for a month and learned some valuable lessons in the process.

As a former nail-biter, I speak from experience when I say that it is hard to break a habit. However, this month I learned that it can be just as hard to form a new habit. In January, I made a list of some healthy things I wanted to do for myself this year. Drink a litre of water day, for example. Do yoga every day. Get on the cross-trainer twice a week. Integrate a gratitude practice into my day. Actually use and not just stock those little interdental brushes. I was full of superb intentions.

However, as February loomed large, I looked at my list and was forced to observe that I had done almost none of the above. So, uniting two of my passions – taking action and making lists – I created a habit tracker, put it on my kitchen noticeboard, and got busy.

What’s a habit tracker?

Well, as you can see from the image above, it’s a list associated to a calendar. (Funny story about lists. As we’re leaving for the market the other day, my five-year-old daughter asks, “Mummy, you haven’t made a list of what we need – shall I do it?” My gobsmacked and slightly horrified husband looks at me and gasps, “You’ve created a mini-you!” while I just beamed with pride.)

Back to the tracker. On the vertical axis, you list the (presumably good) habits you want to form. Across the top, you write out the days of the month. At the end of each day, you colour in the corresponding boxes to show whether you did or did not manage to maintain your new habit. I kept it simple with red for “didn’t do it” and green for “achieved!” but you can add more nuance with, say, blue for “half done” or perhaps yellow for “I tried but due to circumstances beyond my control (children/work/act of God) I didn’t manage it”.  Some people add an extra element by tracking their mood or physical feelings each day, which helps them notice the impact of maintaining their chosen habits.

And the point is?

For me, the first objective of the habit tracker was to provide me with an accessible visual reminder of the habits I wanted to build. It also made me hold myself accountable. As a Good Student who likes getting gold stars on wall charts (Oh my goodness. New plan. Next month, I’m actually buying little gold star stickers. Can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!), it made me feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied when I had to colour a box in red. Not enough to create low self-esteem or damage motivation but enough to make me want to do better the next day.

So, what did I learn?

I realised a number of things about myself during this process, and also a number of things about the art of creating good habits. Here are my – watch out! corp-speak coming up – key learnings and takeaways.

  1. How many matters.

My habit list grew during the month and I ended up tracking 15 habits. For me, this was just about manageable, but I think that any more would have been too much. I’m sure many would say one at a time is best, perhaps three maximum, but I’m inclined to think you have to find what works for you. It may take a couple of tries to figure out how many habits you are comfortable working on at one time. But don’t worry, the idea is to acquire new habits and make them second nature, so you can start tracking new ones!

  1. Mix it up.

One thing that helped me track so many habits was that they varied in nature. Some were physical (water, yoga, flossing); some were social (call, write or email a friend every day); others were mental or spiritual (create a gratitude practice). This also ensured I continued working on myself in a holistic way without getting too caught up with just one aspect of my being.

  1. Every day is easier than every week

I included a couple of weekly goals in my habit tracker and it just didn’t work for me. Firstly, it’s simply easier to commit to doing something every day than every week. Every week opens the door to “I’ll do that one tomorrow”, whereas with every day, there’s no way out. I think a weekly habit tracker could work, but if I were going to do that again, I’d keep it separate from my daily one and consult it at a different time.

  1. Tracking is not enough – you need a plan

Simply making and hanging your colourful chart will not put in place the good behaviours you’re seeking. You need to make a plan for how you are going to establish these habits. Flossing’s a no-brainer for me (do it every night before brushing), but drinking water was harder. My cunning plan – which worked quite well – was to fill a litre bottle every morning and make sure I emptied it by the end of the day. I also decided to have a glass of that water while waiting for the kettle to boil each time I made tea. On the other hand, I did not make a concrete plan for how I was going to cultivate more gratitude, and I have to say that’s the habit that I really didn’t manage to create. Needless to say it’s on my March list.

  1. It helps to hitch new habits to the wagons of old ones

It can really help to attach a new habit to an existing one. I never go to bed without brushing my teeth, for example, so it was relatively easy to add flossing to my nightly ritual. I am a total tea addict, so drinking a glass of water for every mug of tea also worked well. To help anchor the gratitude habit, I’m currently considering a few methods: one is listing the things I’m thankful for while drying my hair, others are: while I walk to school to collect my daughter, while in the shower, and while tidying up the small regional branch of Toys R Us that is our sitting room at the end of the day.

  1. It takes more than a month

Studies have shown that it takes a little over two months (66 days in fact) to create a new habit. I’ll be able to report my thoughts on that at the end of March, but for the moment, the one thing I can say for sure is that it takes time. Creating a new habit takes discipline and control, but above all it takes perseverance. It’s easy to lose motivation, especially if you have a series of days coloured red on your habit tracker. But the keys to getting into a habit are the same as getting out of one: take one day at a time and keep trying – even if that means picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting all over again every morning.

7. You have to care

If you keep trying and trying, but a new habit just doesn’t seem to stick, ask yourself how committed you really are. I included « eat one piece of fruit per day » on mine and, after over a month, I’ve only managed a handful of times. So, I’m wondering how strongly I really feel about the habit. I know it would be good for me, but I eat loads of veg, so I’m not sure it would make as big a difference to my life as my daily litre of water. Ask yourself where the idea for the new habit is coming from, too. Is this something you really believe in and want to establish, or is it an example of you should-ing on yourself or making someone else’s priority your problem? Remember that, like the tracker itself, good habits are there to serve you. Make sure you keep a firm handle on the master-servant relationship when it comes to both.

One last thing. Newsflash: it turns out water really is important. Who’da thunk it, eh? It appears that when I drink my daily litre, I’m far less tired, less inclined to snack, and my skin looks better. I believe some people have been wise to the virtues of this miracle substance for some time, but apparently I had to learn for myself to believe the reports of its life-enhancing properties…


If you’re finding it hard to give up an old habit or put in place some new ones, I can help. Compassionate, zero-judgement support from a qualified coach can make a huge difference when  you’re looking to change any part of your life that isn’t currently working for you. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can upgrade to a life lived with purpose and on purpose.

Tales of the unexpected

Tales of the unexpected

If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, it’s wise to keep a few gaps in your diary…

I am definitely one of life’s planners. I like making a list, checking it twice, then typing it up and keeping it on file. I enjoy feeling organised and like things are under control, or at least as if I’m doing everything I can to make life run smoothly. In general, I think this a quality that usually serves me well. It means I show up on time, rarely forget appointments, keep on top of paperwork, and don’t often run around like a headless chicken. Organisation and planning – within reason – are undeniably Good Things.

‘Tis the season to be organised!

In the run up to Christmas (and the beloved’s birthday, which occurs the week before), my list-making takes on gargantuan proportions. Lists of things to get, things to do before I leave for wherever I’m going, people to contact, Christmas cards to write, appointments to make for the new year… I like to have it all written down so that I’m not permanently worrying I’ve forgotten something. Writing a to-do list frees the brain for higher activities – like watching Gremlins for the tenth time and working out the exact right recipe for mulled wine.

The best laid plans of mice and men

Funnily enough though, in recent years, Christmas has also served as a reminder to me that sometimes the best things in life are the things we don’t plan. A couple of years back, I was going home to England for Christmas, travelling with an American friend who was staying with me over the holidays. (When told that she was featuring in my latest column, the aforementioned friend wanted to choose her own pseudonym. At her own request, she shall henceforth be referred to as Peggy Sue.) A few days before we were due to leave Paris, the Eurostar stopped working. It just stopped. Apparently the winter was so cold that the trains were experiencing a thermal shock as they entered the tunnel, and the engines were seizing up. At first I didn’t actually believe that we wouldn’t be able to get on a train. I kept telling an increasingly worried Peggy Sue that the Eurostar was sure to be fixed somehow and that all would go according to plan. I guess everyone can see what’s coming.

A long coach journey into night

The date of our programmed departure came and went, and we couldn’t get a seat on a train, so we ended up catching an overnight coach from Paris to London. What ensued was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve ever taken. We had a leaky roof on our coach; a woman point blank refused to swap seats to let us sit together (her prerogative, of course, but who actually refuses that sort of request?); the man next to Peggy chatted to himself the entire journey; another chap was almost left behind every time we had to get off the coach and go through customs; one passenger was actually detained… It made the Odyssey look like a trip to the seaside. All this from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. in freezing and icy conditions. Now, I’m not going to suggest that Peg and I preferred this to whizzing under the Channel on the cosy Eurostar, but neither would I say I regret the trip. We had fits of giggles, took turns sleeping on the ferry, made up silly stories about our coach-mates. We were already friends when we left, but when we arrived, that epic night had made our bond even tighter.

Seizing the surprise

Thinking back, some of the best things that have occurred in my life indeed happened while I was busy making other plans. Like the time I intended to go to the cinema, take a walk then have an early night. Luckily I abandoned my plan when a charming chap I met while waiting for the film to start asked me to go for coffee with him. He turned out to be the love of my life. Or the time I received a letter meant for a different Joanne Archibald offering a part in a play at university. I had made the decision not to audition for anything that term, but I phoned the director to tell her she’d got the wrong woman and ended up auditioning for and getting the lead (the other Joanne had already declined). Thanks to that role, I made friends I still cherish to this day, was given a part in another play after that one, and ended up directing something myself. Or the time I got lost in Paris, stumbled upon a volunteer bureau and ended up doing some great charity work.

Relishing the random

Planning is, for me, one of the keys to a calm, organised life; but the unexpected is always the source of the best fun. I won’t stop making lists (I suspect it’s actually an addiction, but I think it’s a pretty harmless one), but every Christmas I am now reminded to revel in whatever gets thrown at me. It’s the bumps and twists in the road that make the journey interesting. It’s the random encounters and chance events that make your life full of life rather than simply a slavish playing out of your day planner. Sometimes, as I discovered on a cold and leaky coach in Calais, it’s actually life’s hassles that prove to be the most entertaining, enriching and memorable experiences we share.