Habit trackers: does tracking your habits actually work?

We rarely lack good intentions. We want to drink more water, exercise regularly, or meditate every morning. Establishing habits, however, can feel like a struggle, and there’s often a gap between intention and execution. This is why habit trackers are such popular tools to help us stick to our goals. But do they work, and if they do, why do we tend to abandon them? 

We are bundles of habits

A habit is a behavioural pattern that occurs through repetition. Once established, the behaviour occurs naturally. This is great news for healthy habits, because once your routine is in place, you will automatically stick to it. But habits are not always good: an important downside is that ceasing undesirable actions can be challenging.

In his book The Principles of Psychology, the pioneering philosopher and psychologist William James described living creatures as “bundles of habits”, explaining that developing habits “simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result.” He found that habits make our actions more accurate and less tiring to complete.

Habit tracking is a way to log all of the times when you behave in a desired way — when you make the right choice, such as eating healthily, writing in your journal, or reading a book. There is evidence showing that tracking behaviour can increase the likelihood that habits will become established, as establishing healthy habits makes it easier for us to repeatedly make the right choices.

And such tracking doesn’t have to be tedious. We now have a wealth of technology at our fingertips. This means it is easier than ever to track our habits. Which is fortunate, because the simpler and more goal-oriented the system is, the more successful habit tracking seems to be.

Dr Katarzyna Stawarz and colleagues reviewed 115 habit formation apps, comparing app functionality to the cues that naturally help habits become established. They found that apps are most likely to successfully support habit formation if they provide contextual cues or implementation intentions to guide goal-directed behaviour.

The benefits of habit tracking

One of the key advantages of using a habit tracker is that it allows you to visualise your progress and identify any recurrent setbacks. This form of metacognition can help you adapt your approach and keep on improving your habit formation strategies.

Let’s say that you want to drink more water. Once you get started with tracking, you can see exactly when you met your goal of staying hydrated, and when it was harder to stay on target. You may start to detect patterns, such as not drinking as much water at the weekends when you may be out of the house, or during busy work days when you may forget to rehydrate. In seeing these patterns, you can develop new strategies to embed the behaviour, such as setting reminders or ensuring you carry water with you at all times.

In addition, using a habit tracker may improve your mental health and motivation. In 2020, Marco Stojanovic and colleagues asked students to log their study patterns. They found that when students used the habit tracker to improve their study habits, they were less likely to experience a bad mood or feel distracted while studying, and were also less likely to wish they were doing something more enjoyable. Across the six weeks, using a tracker increased the habit strength and motivation.

One of the mechanisms through which habit tracking can benefit your mental health is by celebrating micro-wins throughout your personal growth journey. If your habit tracker shows that you have eaten healthily for a whole week or that you got eight hours of sleep for three nights in a row, you can experience some sense of accomplishment before the effects of such good habits start to show. 

Finally, another advantage of using a habit tracker — especially a digital one — is that it can remind us to act. If you want to drink more water, having reminders throughout the day can help us get used to refreshing our glass or re-filling a water bottle at regular intervals. Even if you are using a good old pen and paper to track your habits, seeing your habit tracking notebook on your desk may act as a trigger.

Gradually, as the habit forms, the process will become automatic. However, not all is rosy in the world of habit trackers, and you should not blindly assume that tracking your habits using any method or app will necessarily help you stick to your goals. Some of the aspects that make habit trackers so powerful can also be detrimental to habit formation.

The dark side of habit trackers

One problem researchers found with habit trackers is that it creates a “habit dependency” in users: you are only sticking to the habit because of artificial support such as reminders and streak notifications, which help with the repetition of a desired behaviour, but tie the habit to in-app triggers. No app, and the habit is gone. Your habit is tied to ongoing app use.

Another problem is the over reliance on inflexible technology. Digital self-tracking is quickly overtaking paper-based tracking, but most apps focus on very simple habits that may limit users in their personal growth. Researchers have warned that many habit tracking apps are too rigid to support our diverse practical and emotional needs, and that more flexible, customisable self-tracking apps are required to meet the multidimensional goals and challenges of users.

Finally, it’s common for users to abandon an app before the habit becomes established, meaning that the app fails to fully assist with habit formation. As such, installing habit tracking apps often becomes a form of wishful thinking, rather than a productive strategy to build better habits.

The key to developing a habit is to find a way to ensure the desired behaviour becomes automatic. For habit tracking to be successful, it must therefore be simple and flexible, as well as encouraging self-control and goal-directed behaviour.

The key to successful habit tracking

Like many self-improvement strategies, habit tracking needs to be designed carefully if you want to reap its benefits without falling prey to the illusion of productivity. Following three simple strategies will help to improve your chance of success when using a habit tracker.

  1. Choose the right tool. You may instinctively know if you’ll prefer a paper or app-based method of tracking. If you love to journal or enjoy putting pen to paper, you will benefit from the flexibility of paper-based tracking. However, if you feel more comfortable using your phone, using a digital habit tracker will make it easier to set up initial reminders and track your progress at any time or location. Whichever method you choose, ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of the habit itself, as habits will only form with long-term repetition.
  2. Decide if you are forming or breaking a habit. Habit tracking can be used not only to form habits, but to break them as well. Similarly to forming a new habit, breaking an existing habit will take sustained conscious effort. If you want to make a habit, you should make the most of helpful triggers, such as putting a water bottle on your desk to act as a visual reminder to drink more regularly. If you are breaking a habit, you should instead remove any triggers, and replace the unwanted habit with an alternative activity — such as going for a walk instead of smoking.
  3. Apply the “never miss twice” principle. It’s easy to feel discouraged when making or breaking habits, especially when life gets in the way. If you go to bed later than you wanted to, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead, say out loud: “Never miss twice.” Then, the next evening, make sure you have an early night. By avoiding missing twice, you are making space for the inevitable slip-ups, while maintaining the motivation to succeed over the long-term.

Establishing good habits and breaking bad habits can improve your life and your work, but it takes dedication for these behaviours to become automatic. Simple and flexible habit trackers can help you visualise your progress, boost your mood, and maintain your motivation. Just make sure that you have a clear idea of the habit you want to make or break, and to focus on long-term consistency.

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