Setting out to form a new habit can feel like setting myself up for disaster.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve attempted to either make regular time for reading, commit to exercise, explore a creative pursuit, or introduce a healthier style of eating into my life, only to have my good intentions crumble when life introduces an obstacle to my routine. Sometimes I’ve been able to accept the shifting seasons of my life. Other times, I’ve found myself frustrated with what felt like inevitably failed drives at perfection.

This calendar year, things have been different. I recognize the year isn’t over yet, but eight solid months of a three-part pledge to my wellness is more than I’ve ever achieved before. My secret? A habit tracker.

Don’t let the buzzword-type moniker intimidate you. All I’m talking about is a pen and paper. In my case, the pen is a simple Bic wrapped in green raffia and topped with an artificial flower, part of a gift my oldest son brought home from preschool many years ago. And the calendar is, if I’m honest, one my best friend sent me with pictures of her adorable cat pasted in each month, scrapbook-style. Not fancy, not expensive. But effective.

At the start of the year I, like so many others, contemplated what sort of changes or resolutions I wanted to make for 2021. The prior year had shown me, again, like so many others, that there’s only so much we can plan for, so I didn’t want to set my expectations too high. I boiled it down to three practices that were important to me: drinking a protein shake for breakfast most days, doing ten to fifteen minutes of Pilates every day, and saying my favorite prayer every day.

I devised a key for my calendar. A star represents my shake. A check represents my Pilates. And a heart represents my prayer. Initially, I thought this last element might be kind of silly. Who checks prayer off a list? Would my (real, spiritual) heart still be in it, if I marked prayer off as what looked like a chore?

And yet, seeing those three little marks on my calendar has held me accountable to myself for months and months, through school quarantines, phases of my youngest’s infancy, and the transition to summer. I’ve missed a few days here and there, but every time I’ve quickly gotten back on track.

My tracker is on the inside of my closet door, where I see it almost every day. I try to make all these things happen in the morning, but that isn’t always the case. Having the tracker where it is reminds me to get my practices in before bed on the days when (even after eight months) I forget. When I went on vacation earlier this year, I even created a Google Sheet with a column for each practice, so I could fill in my progress on my calendar when I got home.

The research behind habit tracking

After some research, I learned this thrifty technique is properly called "habit tracking," and professionals have proven it’s like a secret weapon for making goals come to fruition. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes, “Habit tracking can help kickstart a new habit or keep you on track with behaviors that you tend to forget or let slide when things get busy.” Clear explains:

When it comes to building a habit, feedback is often delayed. … it can be difficult to visualize the progress you are making with your habits. … Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.

I can attest to the three reasons he explains habit tracking is powerful, namely, the effect of the visual cue as a reminder, the motivation of seeing a streak build, and the satisfaction of recording success.

According to Clear, “Habit tracking also keeps you honest. Most of us think we act better than we do.” There have been many days when I thought I was on top of things, only to remember that I’d had to get the baby when he woke up and didn’t get to my prayer first thing. Or I thought I had exercised, but really I conflated today with yesterday.

There are so many things I need to remember and be conscious of on a daily basis, and having a written record, rather than trying to keep yet another thing at the top of my memory has been freeing. Of course, as Clear admits, habit tracking “can feel like a burden because it forces you into two habits: the habit you’re trying to build and the habit of tracking it.” But because I kept my proposed habits quick and focused, I’ve found tracking them to be a help, rather than a hindrance.

Perhaps the most insightful nugget Clear has to offer is this: “Habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball: you’re focused on the process rather than the result.” In the past, I’ve set up reward systems with myself to help me achieve a goal. For example, once I finish that race, I’ll add the t-shirt to my collection. Or after I exercise for a certain amount of time, I’ll get to wear something in my closet that hasn’t fit so well lately more comfortably. Or perhaps as a kind of high five to myself, I’ll grab a celebratory latte next time I’m out doing errands.

As I get closer to being able to say I’ve incorporated these practices into my life on a daily (or near-daily, in the case of the shake—sometimes a girl needs eggs for breakfast) basis for a year, the consistency is feeling like a reward in itself. I know I am more centered, joyful, patient, and forgiving when I pray daily. I know I feel better in my own skin when I care for my body with nourishing food and invigorating exercise.

I also know that when I lapse in these practices, soon my overall wellness will suffer too. These habits help me be a better version of myself, which resonates in every other area of my life. Working to keep them a priority will only lead to more positive progress in whatever comes next.