As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting and renewing my resolve to improve myself. In this post, I’d like to share a simple yet unbelievably powerful technique I use that helps me stay on track, focused on the right things, and always improving. The key is simple: manually track your daily activities to help build them into healthy habits.
Habits and Awareness
What you think and believe defines who you are to the rest of society, as your thoughts manifest themselves in actions through the process of motivation. But as Gandhi’s quote above alludes, that’s only half of the story. Your beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions also define who you are to yourself through the solidifying process of habituation. In Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions, I was inspired by Gandhi and talked about how by taking conscious effort, you can use the natural progression of motivation to encourage the kinds of positive action you might otherwise find difficult. In this article, I’ll talk about the rest of the story: how by taking a conscious effort during the process of habituation, you can ultimately affect your values and your destiny.
When people talk about habits, they typically speak mostly of small actions like “leaving the cap off the toothpaste” or “shuffling my feet when I walk.” While these can be habits, this view downplays the importance and strength of habits in our daily lives. A habit is any action, speech, thought, or belief which represents a default, one which you will naturally exhibit given the right situation or stimulus. As such, habits cover a wide range of human activity. Showering every evening before going to bed can be a habit. Always using the phrase, “Let’s get the show on the road!” when trying to motivate your children to head out the door could be another habit. But habits can be more subtle, like automatically thinking “that [insert gender/ethnicity/religion/age] person is probably up to no good,” or feeling a sense of resentment when your boss gives you something extra to do, or believing that someone is selfish when they cut you off in line at the grocery store.
Some habits are naturally healthy, others are mostly harmless, and some are naturally unhealthy, but all habits are learned. This is great news because it means that you can actively learn good habits and likewise actively unlearn bad ones. But how does one go about systematically making or breaking a habit? And which habits should we learn?
Because habitual behavior happens by default, the first step in taking control of your habits is awareness. How can you possibly decide to take an action or not take an action, unless you are aware of what you are doing? Awareness lets you short-circuit the default path. Once you do that, you can make your decisions consciously and in line with your specific goals. In other words, you can exercise willpower.
One way to learn awareness is through meditation. When you meditate, you train yourself to focus on your object of meditation (usually, your breath), and return to it if you should stray. This is made possible by an awareness of the self, and a development of meta-attention – the ability to pay attention to what you are paying attention to. Learning to meditate will absolutely help you build or break habits, but meditation takes time to learn, and ideally should itself be a habit.
Another way to build awareness is through daily tracking. The idea is quite simple: pick the actions you want to reinforce, and every evening, write down whether you were successful in taking the right path for each action for that day. That’s it. If this sounds familiar from my recent post on sleep, you’re right – it’s exactly the same idea, only now we apply it to many different activities. Here’s some advice I offered a friend who recently asked me about how to start tracking:
Start small – just a few things (like 3) to track. (See below for some ideas of what to track, like eating well, sleeping well, exercising.)
Start easy – with things you are currently failing at but are just this close to doing. Tracking things you already do well has little immediate benefit, and tracking things you really suck at can be demoralizing at first. You can add these things later, after you’ve made tracking itself a habit.
Start uncomplicated – give yourself a pass/fail. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Mentally define what a pass is for each activity, and stick to that definition. After a few months, you can change the definition if you need to (ideally making it more strict).
Important: do not rely on software/hardware to do the tracking for you, or if you do (e.g., pedometer or Fitbit), make sure you transcribe the numbers into your tracking sheet manually. If you just let the computer track for you, you are no longer mindful of that activity. The whole point of tracking is to give yourself daily reminders and build awareness.
Just as in meditation, rest assured that you will fail, and when you do, gently bring your focus back towards achieving your daily goal, without judgment. This is the hardest thing for many people to do, but it is the most important part. (By the way, meditation helps you develop this skill.)
When I first started tracking, my tracking sheet was just a sticky note – and that’s all you really need. Here’s one from a few years back, where I was tracking eating, exercising and connecting (socially).
Of course, it may be easier for you to use an electronic medium, and for that I recommend starting with a simple spreadsheet: one row for each day, and one column for each thing you want to track. Every day/night, simply enter a 1 or 0. As time goes on, you can make it more complicated. For example, I added graphs, I track 7-day moving averages, and I define complicated functions that automatically translate things like “number of steps” into a score between 0 and 1. But those are just bells and whistles. The above is the core.
Daily tracking is such a simple idea, and is really easy to do. Its power comes from the fact that it encourages you to review your day, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. After a short time tracking, you’ll soon find yourself thinking ahead to your “sticky note time” when making decisions throughout the day (like whether to drink that soda, or whether to step out for a 30 minute walk). Likewise, as time progresses, you’ll use your “sticky note time” to encourage yourself to take actions (like, setting up that lunch date with an old friend). So you can see why I stress the manual part of tracking – if your phone or Fitbit is automatically keeping track of your steps taken and calories burned, there’s no reason for you to do it, and you’ll lose the awareness you need to be able to break out of your defaults.
When you first start, you may find that it helps to reward yourself for your successes (say, by linking your monthly point total to something you enjoy). If you take this route, make sure your reward is not something that would otherwise cause you to “lose a point.” It’s also not uncommon, at least initially, to criticize yourself when you fail. Don’t make that mistake. You are measuring yourself, not judging yourself. Cultivate a dispassionate attitude towards your failures – you will probably fail more often than you succeed, at least at first.
What to Track – The 5 Pillars of the SWEET Life
Although you can use tracking to be conscious about any kind of habit, I believe it becomes most powerful when you apply it to your health. After all, as the saying goes, without your health you have nothing, or to put it more positively, “The first wealth is health” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). By health, I don’t just mean physical health, although that is a large and critical component of your overall health. To quote my high school health teacher, Jim Spoerl, “Health is optimal physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional fitness for full, fruitful, creative, and spiritual living.” Having a healthy mind, body, and soul provides the foundation for happiness and a meaningful life, so making health a habit can have profound implications for all areas of your life.
My wife and I have been fine-tuning a tracking system over the last several years that works for us. We call it “The SWEET Life.” SWEET is an acronym for the five key elements of health: Sleep, Work, Exercise, Eating well, and connecTing with your Tribe. Sleep, Exercise, and Eating well are the three pillars of physical health. Work and connecTing are the pillars for mental and emotional health. I’ve also recently added meditation as a form of mental exercise.
Tracking the three physical pillars provides an easy and obvious starting point if you’re just beginning to track. Confucius once said, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” To which I would humbly add, “To put our hearts (and minds) right, we must first put our body in good order.” The mind-body connection is so important, yet all too often self-improvement advice skips over the physical and jumps right into the mental. If your body is not healthy, keeping your mind healthy can become too challenging. Also, the techniques and skills you develop when getting your body healthy will naturally carry over to your mental and emotional efforts.
Before you begin, you have to define for each pillar what it means to succeed on a daily basis. This definition of success is necessarily very personal and relative, but it’s critical that you spend a few minutes to get this straight in your head or on paper in the most objective way you can. Here are some guidelines:
Sleep: Establish your sleep baseline and make this your goal. See: Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep.
Eat: Get clear in your head what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. If you eat any unhealthy food on a given day, you don’t get to count that day as a success. Stay tuned here, I’ll be writing a blog post about how to eat healthy.
Exercise: Spend 20-30 minutes doing something that makes you sweat a little. (Hint: to make this easier, choose things that you enjoy doing. I like walks, so I park my car 20 minutes walking distance from my office, and I don’t even have to think about whether I’ll get my daily exercise.) Need inspiration? Check out this fun video: 23.5 Hours
If you’re a geek like me, you may want to jump straight into using a spreadsheet to do your tracking, and that’s okay because you’re still manually tracking. Here’s a good starting point spreadsheet – feel free to copy it: Tracking Template – Beginner.
I strongly encourage beginning with the 3 physical pillars, and then adding the other two later once you’ve gotten the hang of tracking and have made some progress on improving your physical health. When it is time to add work and connecting (and meditation, which you can think of as mental exercise), here are my guidelines:
Work: Personally, good “work” is any activity which gets me into a state of flow (see: A Simple Recipe for Flow), so I set a goal for number of minutes in flow.
Connecting: Spending time with people, in person, is important. I set a minimum goal around this in terms of minutes. I don’t count spending time with people that I always see on a daily basis.
Meditation: Right now, I’m still establishing this as a habit, so my goal is purely one of whether I meditated for at least 15 minutes or not.
For the truly geeky, here’s my full SWEET Life template for 2014: Tracking Template – Advanced. Yes, it is complicated and ridiculously customizable (and I make liberal use of logistic functions), but don’t let that scare you – I’ve evolved this over many years. Be satisfied with just a sticky note for now, but know that you can always “up your game” if you like, and if you find things like this graph useful as tools:
Habits, Values, and Your Destiny
So, tracking provides a way for you to consciously build healthy habits. The key facility that tracking provides is awareness – you develop the ability to intervene and change your actions in the moment, if they are not aligned with your daily goals. When this awareness itself becomes a habit, you begin to internalize the goals, to automatically think in terms of them, and to unconsciously consider them whenever you face decisions. In other words, as Gandhi noted, you incorporate these goals as key personal values. This won’t happen overnight, or even over the course of a year. And tracking alone won’t necessarily bring it about, but tracking can start you down this path of awareness of yourself and of your world, and lead you to consciously lead “the examined life.”
If all of this all sounds sterile, stoic, controlled and scientific, and well, just too much work, I invite you to step back and think about it for a moment. It may help to think of tracking as simply a quantifiable and much simpler form of that time-honored daily logging technique – the diary. In just one minute a day, you’ll be able to make a huge difference in your health and happiness. The potential return on investment is ridiculously positive and there is absolutely no downside risk.
As you become more facile in your ability to be aware, through tracking or other techniques like meditation, you’ll start to develop the ability to apply the habit-making and breaking skills to more and more situations. As an example, one of the habits we learn as children is to equate grasping with pleasure, and pleasure with happiness. That association serves us well when we are very young, but it does us a great disservice as we mature, especially since we tend to generalize literal grasping to metaphorical grasping. (Generalizing thought-based habits like this, without much thought, can be one of the most dangerous things people do with habits.) Unfortunately, most people never unlearn this grasping habit, because they don’t realize they have it, or if they do, they don’t have the skills to do anything about it. Imagine the power you will have to greatly reduce your own suffering, then, when you are able recognize your own grasping nature and gently guide yourself away from it. At that point, your awareness will have reached the level of enlightenment, and you will truly be living the SWEET Life. I sincerely hope you can reach that point, and that the techniques discussed here can help you do so.