How Daily Habit Tracking Can Give You the Ability to Achieve Anything

We all know what it’s like to have a day where we get nothing done. You know the feeling; sitting in your office chair, staring at the wall, thinking about your endless to-do list and all the things you could have gotten done today if only you weren’t… what were you doing again? Staring at the wall?

Constant productivity is bad for your mental health. But there’s a big difference between mindfully spending time enjoying life instead of working and staring at the wall in a fugue state. I don’t know anyone who feels guilty about not getting anything done after hiking in the mountains, but many people know the feeling of shame after wasting a day playing candy crush.

Someone I love is trapped in a cycle of doing this. At the end of most workdays, she proclaims to me “Oh my god! The day is almost over and I haven’t gotten anything done!” Sometimes she will make a mad dash to squeeze something into that last hour and a half of the day, but more frequently she will say “Fuck it, I’ll try again tomorrow.” And the day after that, and the day after that…

Ideally, you should find yourself at the end of most days satisfied with the amount of work you put in. If you find yourself frequently feeling guilt, shame, or fear instead, daily habit tracking might be able to help you.

How Daily Habit Tracking Works

I’ve been a daily habit tracker for years. I have the memory of a fungus gnat and frequently get distracted, so daily habit tracking gives me the framework I need to structure my day-to-day activities.

These habits are not chosen at random. Each of them represents the most important daily step I can take toward a goal of mine.

  1. Mindfulness: As someone who is in recovery from major mental illness, it’s extremely important for me to meditate regularly. It is as good for you as they say it is. I recommend the apps Ten Percent and Breathwrk.
  2. ExercisePhysical activity is like the fountain of youth. Everyone should move their body daily to the extent that they can.
  3. Journal: Freeform and gratitude journaling are both excellent complements to any mental health or self-care practice. Journaling in particular helps me release feelings of tension and anxiety.
  4. No Cleaning: One of the things I do when I’m procrastinating or avoiding difficult feelings is compulsive cleaning. I’ll spend entire days just doing errands or straightening up the house. When I do this, my house is clean, but my life is empty. This habit reminds me to avoid doing that.
  5. Submit an Article (weekdays only): I’ve been taking a break from writing for the last three months, but it’s time for that break to be over. This habit reminds me to submit a new article every day.
  6. Client Work (weekdays only): Much of my freelancing time is spent waiting on clients. This habit reminds me to get back to my clients quickly when they are the ones waiting on me.
  7. Read a Book: Reading is the primary way by which I develop my mind. It’s crucial for me to remind myself to do so.
  8. Do a Hobby: One of the things I prioritize for my mental health is spending time on hobbies like watercolor painting and winning games of Civilization 6.

The power of this habit-tracking routine isn’t simply that I’m tracking habits. It’s what I choose to track. I also brush my teeth daily, go to bed at the same time every night, keep up on dishes and laundry, water and tend to my houseplants, avoid processed foods when convenient, and a whole host of other things. But they don’t make the list. Why? Because the only habits that make the list are habits that directly support my most important long-term goals for myself.

  1. Mindfulness, journaling, no cleaning, and hobbies all support my mental health, which is my top priority. Reading frequently also helps develop my mind, another top priority of mine.
  2. Exercise is the fountain of youth, and I’d like to be young and physically capable for as long as possible.
  3. Client work and writing Medium articles are the two most important things I can do to accomplish my professional goals.

Brushing your teeth is important. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a mouth full of cavities and need more root canals than you’ll believe. Sleeping at the same time every night is an important way to protect your health and well-being. But they aren’t as important as the other things, so they don’t make the list.

How I Use My Habits List

Some productivity gurus recommend you schedule out every minute of every day into blocks to make sure every minute is accounted for. This is probably a great strategy for healthy people who can depend on their minds and bodies to be functioning optimally on a day-to-day basis, but that’s never been me.

Instead, I use my habits list like a productivity menu. If I’m up to doing something, I open up my productivity menu and ask myself what I feel like doing. Most days I prefer to do mindfulness or client work first thing, then exercise, then listen to an audiobook later on the way into town, but not always. If I had a mental health breakdown the night before, I might wake up and immediately play video games (do a hobby) to unwind.

Typically, this is where people jump in and say “Not everyone can set their own schedule like you! What about the people who have work schedules?” to them, I say, everyone has some control over their schedule. Even someone who works food service full-time has control over their schedule when they’re not at work.

This brings me to my next point: You don’t have to make your habits list work-related tasks. You probably have some stuff you’d like to do “someday,” like learn a new language or write the next great American novel. If you find the months and years roll by and you still haven’t done any of your bucket list things, you can create a habits list to help yourself prioritize.

  • If you dream of running a marathon, make a habit to run a small amount each day.
  • If you dream of learning to draw, make a habit to do one small sketch with a random pencil and some printer paper every day.
  • If you dream of learning to cook, make a habit to cook yourself one simple meal every day instead of eating something prepared.

How to Choose Your Habits

About a year ago, my partner saw how much daily habit tracking was working for me. He made his own habits list. But unlike mine, there were dozens of items on his list, ranging from reminders to brush his teeth to quit smoking to reading to cleaning. They weren’t organized around his big goals for himself. Predictably, the entire thing fell by the wayside.

Remember the person I mentioned in my introduction? Same thing happened to her. She made a huge habits list with dozens of items and taped it to her bathroom wall at the beginning of the year. That list is already long gone.

No one tactic is right for everyone. But if you do habit tracking wrong, it doesn’t work for anyone, so let’s make sure to do it right.

Pick Your Goals

If you could name three things you want to fix about your life right now, what would you say?

Don’t be afraid to get specific. Oftentimes, these sorts of exercises end with “My health is important” or “my career is important.” Sure, that’s all well and good, but the more specific, the better. For instance, my mental health goal isn’t to “have good mental health,” it’s “to become someone who is calm and centered at all times,” like a zen monk or that especially chill dude at the office.

Not every goal will be specific. My career goals right now are just to make money, have a good time, and see where this goes. But the habits I developed — be responsive to clients and write Medium articles — are specific and clearly support these goals.

Come Up With 5 Habits

For each goal, determine one small daily action you can take that will, if repeated, ensure you meet your goal.

Make sure to make it small! One of the reasons people fail with daily habits is they pick burdensome daily habits for themselves. If the last time you exercised was before the outbreak of COVID, don’t expect yourself to do an at-home workout for an hour every day. Start with a commitment to walk around the block or do ten minutes of yoga. If you end up finding the small commitment too easy, you can level up later.

If you judge yourself for picking small daily habits, let those thoughts come and go. It took me months of meditating for only 3–5 minutes a day before I could tolerate meditating for ten minutes at a time. Progress arrives on it’s own timetable.

To start with, don’t pick more than 5 habits. Yes, I know I have 8, but I’ve been doing this for years, this includes my work habits, and 8 is my absolute maximum. If you overwhelm yourself with too many habits, you’ll give it up altogether, so do yourself a favor and take it easy for the first few months.

Last but not least, you may not have a problem with this, but I typically have a problem with time-bound habits like “Write for 30 minutes.” I’ll end up checking the timer repeatedly and staring at the wall. I’ve always resented timers. Habits with concrete outcomes like “Submit an Article” are much better for me.

For me, even a vague habit like “Exercise” works well. With exercise, I know I’ve completed it once I’ve started (once I’ve started the walk or the bike ride or arrived at the gym) and everything that happens afterward is just a bonus.

Put Your Habits List on Your Phone

One of the keys to this trick is to make sure your habits list is accessible. It won’t do you any good to pick out habits and then forget about them because you left your habits notebook at home.

Mine is on the widgets screen of my iPhone. On , it is only one of two main screens on my phone, making my habits easy to find.

I recommend you do something similar. Pull out your smartphone and download a habits app that will let you make widgets. This way, whenever you pull out your phone to goof off or waste time, your habits list will remind you what you wanted to do with this time instead.

As mentioned earlier, I use the app TickTick, but it doesn’t really matter which app you use. There are dozens of habit-tracking apps on every available app store. Pick one and go to town.

In Conclusion

Daily habit tracking is a great way to steer your life in the direction you want to go. It gives you structure and direction amidst the day-to-day chaos that life throws at you, especially if you face unique productivity challenges.

That being said, daily habit tracking is easy to get wrong. If you create too many habits for yourself, habits that are too challenging, or your habits aren’t closely tied to your goals for yourself, the whole enterprise will be for naught. To avoid this, make sure to…

  1. Pick 3–5 habits for yourself and no more.
  2. Pick habits that are small and easy to do.
  3. Pick habits that are directly tied to your most significant goals for yourself.
  4. Put your habits on your phone somewhere prominent so you are reminded of them frequently.

If you do all these things, you won’t need to stress out about your productivity. The system you’ve created will ensure your productivity.

You won’t need to wake up stressed about your goals or end the day wondering where your time went. Your phone will remind you of your habits, you will do them because they’re easy to accomplish, and you will begin to end days feeling happy about your progress instead.

That’s a system that works.