Everyone keeps asking me, “How are you achieving so many things and stay awesome all the time?” No I’m kidding, I just like to give unsolicited advice. So here goes.
Many people (including me) struggle with doing new things on a regular basis, even if they enjoy it. Weird how human brains work. I wanted to start reading again and go running on a regular basis, eat better, learn a new language and so on. All of that is tough to get going if your schedule and other habits prevent you from doing that.
Years ago I have tried to use an app called Streaks but somehow it did not work for me at that time. I thought, well too bad, I’m lazy, that’s the way it is. But at the end of 2019 I had a bit of a motivation outbreak and reinstalled Streaks. I reflected about why it did not work for me and found the reasons. I’ve now been using Streaks for almost a year and have fantastic success with it. So here are my tips on how to approach learning new habits using habit tracking tools.
First and foremost, Streaks is not the only app to do this. There are many other apps on iOS and Android which are probably great and may work even better for you. The Sweet Setup has a great rundown (for iOS). It would also be pretty easy to do habit tracking using only a piece of paper, a whiteboard or a notebook. If that’s your thing, go for it! Anything that takes away as much friction as possible is perfect.
How it works
The general idea is that you set yourself a bunch of goals to achieve for things you want to do during each week (or month) and set how often or how long those should be done during that timespan. No specific dates or times. Each week (or month) the list resets. What you want is to keep your streak up. If you don’t achieve a set goal in a task by the end of the week it is back to 0 (but see rule #3).
The end goal is that you eventually remove tasks because they actually became a habit.
This is basically the structure of it:
|Run 1x a week||-||-||✔||-||-||-||-||5|
|Read 5x a week||✔||✔||✔||-||-||-||✖||0|
Pretty simple, right?
There are a few things you need to consider when starting this because there is a fine line between not caring for your tasks and being overwhelmed with it. These rules are there to keep most of the pressure off of you but leave a little bit so to gently nudge you in the right direction.
1. Be modest
Give yourself some slack, the last thing you want to do is being stressed about your goals all the time. If you have a fully packed day or just don’t feel like doing anything at all, you should be able to without ruining your streak.
2. Not Sharing is caring
This is not a battle against your friends about who can read the most books or who ran the most marathons. Once you start comparing or showing off how productive you are on a regular basis, it turns into external pressure and you totally want to avoid that. That’s the problem with social media these days but let’s not get into that. Of course, if you are proud of what you did, go brag about it from time to time, you deserve it.
3. It’s ok to miss streaks
If you find yourself not achieving one or many goals at the end of the week, this is ok! Maybe you had a bad week or did not follow rule 1. It does not matter. No one is going to judge you (since you kept it for yourself hint hint). Maybe adjust your goal but definitely try again. If it still does not work for a few weeks, throw this goal away, it might just not be your thing or life has other plans right now. Come back to it next year maybe?
4. Chores are still chores
Don’t go in and expect to magically make chores fun. Things like washing your clothes, getting groceries, cleaning windows are still annoying and I personally wouldn’t put those tasks in here. There is a place for those and it’s called a Todo List.
5. Avoid tasks with dependencies
If you set a task like “Sleep 7 hours every night”, that depends on a lot of things you are not in control of. Your body and brain have a much to say about this and also your schedule, a screaming baby, snoring partner, neighbors party. Avoid avoid avoid! Of course you should try to sleep enough but this is not how it’s done. I might come back to that another time.
6. Remove what became a habit
As I said at the beginning, the end goal here is to turn a task into a habit. Once you feel like ticking of the box has become a chore because you do the task anyways, it’s time to ceremonially remove this task. You did it!
7. Find your balance
These are rules that work for me. You are an individual and you have to find out what does for you. Maybe sharing it with others does actually help you keeping motivated? Go for it. You need brutally high goals like a maniac? Go to town!
Once you have set your goals, go through them and estimate how much time each one takes or how much you want to allocate for it. Some things take 10 minutes, some 3 hours.
Now you might want to think about when would be a good time to do those things. For example I like to read during my lunch break (I work from home, so I am not being anti-social) or right after work. If you take public transports, that’s also a perfect time. But don’t be too fixed on that, you will automatically adjust your schedule around your new tasks over time.
Start at the beginning of the week (which is Monday in countries that know how weeks work) and don’t try to do everything in the first day. Remember, this is not a challenge.
Lets go through some examples from my personal list which I started at the beginning of my journey and my current status on those:
Eat 3 meals every day
Since I have been struggling with being underweight for my whole life due to little interest in eating and also a fast metabolism, I needed to push myself to eat 3 meals a day. This breaks rule #1 actually because it has no room for exceptions but I was serious about this and I felt motivated enough.
Status: Removed this a while ago since it did become a habit and I gained over 10 kilos! *crowd is cheering*
Read 5 chapters a week
I had many books lying around and generally always loved books as a thing. Amazing stories or new things to learn in a block of paper that smells nice and does not overwhelm you with moving images and noises. But I simply could not get myself to sit there quietly with all those distractions around me.
Status: Also archived, I am now reading 1-4 chapters daily and finished about 8 books in half a year *standing ovations*
Run 20 min once a week
I liked going for a run once in a while but I felt the urge to achieve something bigger, so first I set my goal to once a week, then, when that worked, I upped it to twice a week. But I wasn’t done. Now I run 3-4 times a week for 1-2 hours.
Status: I am keeping this task because 1) it feels great ticking this off and 2) it ticks off automatically anyways when I finish a run, thanks to an iOS shortcut automation I created
Cook 1 meal per week
If someone asked me about my cooking skills last year I would say I can heat up ready made pasta sauce or one of those meals from the freezer in the pan. No wonder I did not care about food that much. So I needed to improve. I downloaded a cooking app that has an great variety of interesting recipes from professionals that are very easy to follow for a novice and set a very modest goal.
Status: I have a good record on this and have improved my cooking skills a lot but still need a nudge every now and then
1 Duolingo session (~10 min), 5 times a week
For some reason I have this distant dream of some time moving to Denmark or the Netherlands. And even though this is not really a priority for me at all I wanted to start doing something about it and that would be to learn a language. So I started a Danish course in Duolingo. This task I also automated based on opening the Duolingo app.
Status: As I’m writing this I am 2 categories away from finishing the course! Next I’ll do either dutch or spanish.
1 hour of drawing once per week
Wanted to get into drawing again, which I loved doing when I was younger.
Status: Did not work for me, I removed this after a month. I just sat there and drew circles. Wish I was more creative…
These are just a few examples but you get the idea. As you can see, sometimes things go so smooth that you actually increase how much you do and sometimes it does not and you just get rid of it.
As I said in rule #7, this is not a one-fits-all solution and habit tracking is not my invention anyways. I just had a failed attempt already and learned from it. It might totally not work for you or it does with some adjustments. Message me on Twitter if you have ideas on how to improve this or any questions or thoughts about this topic.