The Habit of Habit Tracking

. 3 min read . Written by Russell Smith
The Habit of Habit Tracking

How many can one person track?

Writing recently about losing my Fitbit, I began to wonder about my overall habit of, um, tracking habits. Currently, I use Notion to track seven daily habits. Four concern writing; one involves reading; one with studying Chinese; and one for exercising.

Previously, I tracked even more habits. Looking back at my journals from early this year, I have tracked up to 10 daily habits, including drinking water, mental preparation for the day, and an end-of-day routine. In the James Clear Habit Journal I used for a while, I see even more available rows to track habits – up to 15 in fact. Those other five rows called out to me. What else could I do each day to improve myself? Was I slacking off by only tracking 10  habits?

For many people, habit tracking provides focus and motivation. Cal Newport urges daily tracking of one keystone habit in each major “bucket” of life – work, family, community, and so on. By focusing on one habit in each major bucket, a person can make important improvements in life now, then move to a new habit within each area after a few months of rooted progress with the first set of habits. Tracking can simply provide a useful daily reminder to focus on important actions. Tracking in a visual way – digital or hard copy – also reveals seeming progress. Jerry Seinfeld famously created his work with the ethic of “don’t break the chain” – write each day and make sure today you also write, so you don’t break the chain. By tracking the days he wrote, he could see on paper precisely when he broke the chain. Seeing a long chain of consecutive days provides powerful motivation to sit your bum down and get to work today.

Even with the advantages of tracking, a different consideration entered my mind. Slowly, it gained traction and then dominated my perception of habits. If I tackled 15 daily habits, when exactly would I tackle my actual work?

Like a To-Do list, habit tracking can metastasize into a tumor of its own. Looking back on my tracking 10 habits, I see it getting out of hand. I lived it. I often spent the first 90 minutes or even two hours of my day throwing myself at my 10 habits. And, of course, tracking them to prove to myself today and in the future that I approached self-improvement seriously and worked powerfully hard at it.

I imagined one night waking with a start, clammy and sweaty, trembling that I hadn’t tracked the prior day’s habits. If I didn’t record them, did I really do them? Could I feel certain, absent that tracked evidence? Should I start tracking whether I had tracked each day’s habits? Shouldn’t I ensure I didn’t break that habit tracking chain too? Wasn’t that the logical – nay, the emotional – end of my daily focus on habits? Track that I track doing my daily habits, and all will be well…right?

This reductio ad absurdum awakened me to, well, this growing absurdity. Perhaps a few daily habits should play a role in my life. So should other things. Like getting down to brass tacks and doing my work. Like my family. Like serendipity and randomness. Like occasionally losing myself in thought. Every once in a while, perhaps skipping performing any daily habit, as a palate cleanser, a refresher, a moment to exhale.

Today, seven daily habits seem like too many. I can tell, because quite often, I don’t feel much of an emotional twinge when I do break the chain on one or more of them. Ho hum. Skipping it reveals it simply may run its course. Other habits matter more now, and I should act and track accordingly.

Also, my gut says 15 daily habits are way too many. Even ten or even seven habits seem like too much to “focus” on each day. I suspect each person will come up with a different answer. And our season of life plays a role too. Some years we focus on more or fewer habits. Or perhaps a health scare points us to tracking only one or two food- and exercise-related ones.

Habit tracking may therefore be a “less is more” proposition. Pick one or two key actions, and tolerate no distractions – even seemingly helpful habits aimed at self-improvement. And see what singular, undivided focus unleashes in our lives.


Images created by Olivia Lund.