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.

I’ve started so let me finish

I’ve started so let me finish

I’m a stickler for good table manners. I can’t bear it when people don’t pick up their feet. And finger drumming really gets my goat. I have, I am aware, multiple bêtes noires; but by far the most unpleasant “bad habit” in my book is interrupting. As bad behaviour goes, it’s one of the most common and also the most damaging to interpersonal relationships, but luckily, it’s also one that’s relatively easy to correct.

Interrupting during a conversation takes two main forms: cutting someone off to make one’s own point and finishing someone’s sentence for them. Both drive me mad. The former simply shows a lack of respect for the other person, their right to express themselves, and what they have to communicate. It says, “What I want to say is more important and/or interesting than what you are already in the middle of saying, and frankly, I don’t much care about what you’re trying to tell me”. The latter annoys me because I want to be allowed to express my opinions in my own specifically chosen words. When someone cuts me off and finishes my sentence for me, they almost never say exactly what I was going to say, so I feel like my point is misrepresented and I’m not being fully “heard”. I regularly want to shout “I’m not running out of steam and I don’t need help to make my point; am I just not speaking quickly enough for your liking?” but of course, I’m British, so I just seethe silently instead…

Being regularly interrupted makes the “victim” feel unheard, frustrated, disrespected – none of which helps build a relationship with another person, which, ironically, is often the point of having a conversation in the first place. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being interrupted… which is odd since we are almost all both victims and perpetrators of this destructive conversational habit.

So, what happens when you’re the interrupter? In addition to the message you’re sending the person you’re talking to, you’re not doing yourself any favours either. How stressful is it to be responsible for both sides of a conversation – both your own and the end of every sentence your partner tries to get out? How tense do you get when, instead of listening and then responding, you’re formulating your reply to your friend as they’re talking so that you can start making it even before they’ve finished? How often do you finish someone’s sentence only for them to say, “Well, no, that’s not where I was going with that”?

Curbing the urge to interrupt – to butt in with my idea or push people to make their point quicker – is something I’ve been working on for a while now, and I have to say the benefits are both powerful and immediate. When I’m not thinking ahead to my turn to speak, I can fully listen to friends, right to the end of their sentence or story – which lets me relax and makes them feel unrushed and heard – which makes them relax too. Since I’ve heard their full point in their own words, my replies are more pertinent and structured; which makes for a richer conversation.

It’s no fun being interrupted, but short of actually calling someone out on their bad habit, there’s not much you can do about it. But in a spirit of being the change you want to see in the world, you can work on your own tendency to interrupt, and it really is win-win. The less you do it, the better your conversations and, as everyone relaxes and gets used to being fully heard, the less likely it is that you yourself will be interrupted. So, next time you’re chatting to friends, mentally note how often you start talking before others have really finished. The first step in changing a habit is to acknowledge it – and when you do start noticing, I bet you’ll shock yourself. And when you start to stop yourself and force yourself to listen patiently, you’ll be amazed at the effect it has on both the people around you and on your own stress levels and enjoyment of the conversation!

Turn over a new leaf in 2011

Turn over a new leaf in 2011

A new year, a new chapter of life to be written. Choose your words wisely and make your new year’s resolutions work for you.

I am, and always have been, a notebook junkie. A handbag-friendly size, a pretty cover, and all those clean white sheets waiting to be filled are a writer’s nirvana. Something about those empty pages strikes a note of hope and promise – they represent a new set of ideas, new journal entries, a new chapter in my scribblings. Knowing that, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also love the turn of the year. The change in date from 31st December 2010 to 1st January 2011 is like a beautiful new notebook for me, and this year, the date is particularly delicious, isn’t it? 1/1/11. Doesn’t that just make you want to clean the house, detox your liver, and – yep, you knew where I was going with this – make some resolutions?

But wait, hold it, back up a second! You don’t start a new notebook when the old one isn’t yet filled up, do you? So why be in a rush to jump into making worthy resolutions without properly rounding out 2010? There’s not much point setting new objectives without first taking stock of where you are now and how far you’ve come since last January. While many advocate taking a look at the ups and the downs of the past year, I’m afraid that doesn’t suit me at all. I find that most people are only too keenly aware of anything that hasn’t gone well and that ending the year listing only the positive points of 2010 is much better for the soul. Think hard about all the great things that happened this year – did you learn a new skill, take a trip, change jobs, meet new people? Don’t just count the big achievements, think of the smaller, daily victories as well – managing to stick to an exercise regime, finding time for a phone date with a far-flung friend, remembering birthdays… We’ll happily kick ourselves for forgetting to send a card in time, but how often do we pat ourselves on the back for getting that sort of thing right? Celebrating the joys of 2010, however big or small, is guaranteed to put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate objectives for 2011.

Strengthening your resolve

I happen to enjoy making resolutions. I find setting an objective or deciding to make a change wholly invigorating and motivating. However, I am aware that I am very much in the minority on this issue. It seems that many people find the post-Christmas push to Improve Oneself a heavy burden and see it as a thinly-veiled excuse for self-punishment after festive excess. Who can blame them? It’s the middle of winter, we’re all tired after the party season, we’re facing three of the bleakest months of the year, and it’s now that we decide to start depriving ourselves of pleasures and forcing our bodies to the gym. A recipe for disaster.

Don’t should on yourself

The main problem with most resolutions is that they are all too often the result of people shoulding on themselves. I’ll wait while you re-read that sentence. Yes, people should on themselves. Instead of identifying a resolution that will truly boost happiness, all too often we jump on the insidious bandwagon of “I really should be healthier” or “I should shape up a bit”. These resolutions come from a negative place and generally take a negative verb form – I will not drink, I will not eat chocolate. I’m not saying these resolutions aren’t fundamentally good ones – of course we all need to take care of our physical health, but maybe we can do it in a way that doesn’t damage our mental health!

Start as you mean to go on

This year, how about making positive resolutions based on what you want to do? If better health is your goal, make it more about your decision to favour positive choices than a battle to resist unhealthy options. Think “I choose to eat a fresh, nutritious salad this evening”, rather than “I can only eat salad, and I mustn’t have dessert”. If changing jobs is your aim, say, “I want to spend an hour working on my CV this weekend” rather than “I have to update my CV”. Think as much about the phrasing of the goal as the goal itself.

Another way of self-motivating is by setting an intention for the year, rather than an objective. Your resolution could simply be a one-word theme for 2011. “Healthy”, for example – health-consciousness will inform all my choices for the year. Or “give” – I will become more generous in 2011. Of course, a one-word intention has to be translated into actions, but once you have the theme, the rest comes quite naturally. In any situation, you might ask, “What’s the generous thing to do here?” You may react with generosity to a news item by sending some money to a charity, or by donating some time to relief work. When faced with a difficult colleague, you might give him the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe he’s just having a bad day, rather than jumping to conclusions about his inherent and unchangeable evilness.

Don’t blot your copybook

Resolutions are supposed to be tools for self-improvement, not sticks with which to beat yourself. Make sure that the intentions you set yourself for 2011 serve you, bringing you closer to goals that will increase your happiness and prompting life-affirming decisions. Think of the new year as a beautiful leather-bound notebook with heavy cream pages and a sewn-in place marker. Make sure you write in it with the best pen you can find, using your nicest handwriting, and make sure that whatever you write is kind, loving and positive. Live the year on purpose.