Do Habit Trackers Work?

Let's start by defining what a habit is. A habit is something that feels natural, automatic, something that you do without thinking twice. It's something that becomes part of your daily life. If you still need to set a reminder or put a post-it note on your fridge to drink that glass of water in the morning — it is not a habit. Not yet. 

Why do we need habits? Aside from the obvious benefits of good and healthy behaviors, habits create a routine, they provide comfort and make us feel more secure, and therefore increase our productivity.

If you have moved places as an adult, you probably know the feeling of floating around and being unable to feel grounded during the first couple of weeks in a new location. That's because everything around you is new and you don't have your normal day-to-day routine in place. Routine consists of habits. 

21, 66 or 285? 

How long does it take to establish a certain behavior pattern and adopt it? There’s no one answer to that. It’s like asking “how much does a car cost?”. It depends on the brand, model, year, condition, for example. The same thing happens when it comes to habits — it depends on how new or different a habit is compared to your normal behavior, how disciplined you generally are, how much effort you’d need to apply to do it daily, what benefits you see in that habit, etc.

There’s been a wealth research on how much time it takes to form a habit, and the results were anything from 21 to 284 days. 

The “21 days myth”, that was born from Dr. Maxwell Maltz's book Psycho-Cybernetics, wasn’t actually about a habit, but about how long it takes for our brain to get used to something new. It wasn’t about an action that his patients performed, it was about a change in their appearance that was noticeable to them after it just occurred, and then less so or not at all after 21 days. Also, he says there that 21 days is a minimum number of days that it takes to get used to a change, which was dropped over time and became just “21 days”.  Actively doing something and just getting used to a new thing are very different processes. It’s much easier to get used to a new background on the screen of your phone than to cut on your screen time. 

Then at University College London, they discovered it takes people 66 days on average to develop a new habit. 96 people took part in that research and individual results varied from 18 to 284 days. These numbers don’t mean anything, so maybe you need to stop focusing on them. I’ve always noticed that I make the most progress when I just show up and do the thing without obsessing about the results. Habits are about the process, they take time, so get patient. 

Here are some helpful tips on how to make a habit stick: 

  1. Define your end goal. A habit is only a step on the way to your better self. What is it that you what to have on the other end of this journey? A job promotion, to run a marathon, to finish writing your book, to improve your health? If you are thinking something like “to be more productive” — this is not the end goal. Why do you want to be more productive? To achieve what? This step is important because if the habits you are trying to adopt are not supporting any goal or supporting a vague goal, they are not going to stay with you. It’ll be wasted time and effort. But hey, maybe you need to make that mistake to realize it?

  2. Start small. This is a good tip for basically anything. If you are trying to cut the amount of sugar you consume and right now you drink 3 Cokes and eat 5 candy bars a day, replacing all that goodness with a carrot probably won’t work. Set achievable goals, be realistic, and go easy on yourself. Once you attempt a tiny change (maybe 2 cans of soda instead of 3?) and you go through with it, it’ll motivate you to keep up with the habit.

  3. Don’t let the failures discourage you. You are a human, not a machine, you are allowed to make mistakes. The trick to establishing habits is to get back on track the moment you realize you went off. One slip doesn’t mean you failed, and it hardly reflects on the bigger picture at all. Also, beating yourself up for missing a day of the routine doesn’t help anyone achieve their goals faster.

  4. Create the right environment. Habits are not about willpower and pulling through, not at all. Habits are about your convenience, comfort, happiness, and a better life. To establish a new behavior pattern, you need to make it as easy as possible. If you’re trying to drink more water, buy a water bottle that conveniently fits in your bag, is big enough so that you don’t have to refill it every hour, has a convenient top that doesn’t spill the water or knock your teeth out. You get the idea.

  5. Get a habit tracker.

So do habit trackers work? And how?

There are tons of kinds of habit trackers. You can start a bullet journal, or cross off days on your calendar, you can use endless apps and online tools, whatever works for you. The point of a habit tracker is to give you a visual perspective of your progress, to help your accountability, to keep your focus on the task, and generally to make the process of establishing a habit easier. 

A tracker is a helpful tool in creating new habits. One of the biggest advantages of a habit tracker is that it helps you with metacognition. It’s a way to touch base at the end of the day, look back and reflect, why you did what you did and how you can change it in case it needs to be changed. If you didn’t drink enough water today or ate a lot of sugar again, think about why this happened. What were you doing before you went and bought that Snickers? Why didn’t you bring your water bottle with you? Analyze your behavior and your environment and make the required changes so that tomorrow it’s easier to follow the habit you’re working on. 

There are other benefits to keeping a habit tracker: 

  • A tracker gives you feedback on your progress. It takes time to notice the effect of some habits. 3 mediation sessions are not going to grant you the feeling of eternal zen, drinking more water and cutting out sugar for a week will give some small results that are difficult to measure. This all can be discouraging. A habit tracker will help you visualize your progress.

  • It reminds you of the habit. When you are at the beginning of this path, you need daily reminders to act on a habit. Even if you don’t choose an app or an online tool, the motion of crossing off the check-boxes on the tracker will make you remember to perform the habits.

  • It makes you accountable and keeps you honest. Most of us don’t have an outside perspective on our behavior. I used to think that I “wasn’t eating anything bad”, yet couldn’t lose weight no matter how hard I was working out. Then I downloaded a food tracking app and it gave me a very clear picture of what was going on with my “healthy” diet. You might think you drink enough water or sleep enough, but until you have the data in front of you, you don’t know it.

  • It motivates you to continue. When you see your progress over the past weeks, it gives you a feeling of accomplishment, which is a very strong motivator. When you feel good about yourself, you want to keep it up, which makes you more likely to keep going.

A behavior stops being a habit once you stop doing it regularly. It is extremely difficult to break habits, research shows. Habits depend a lot on the environment and the patterns, so if you want to break a habit, you need to change some parts of your daily routine as well. Our brain treats breaking a habit essentially the same way as establishing a new one, except now it’s harder because it has learned to respond to certain patterns. In this case, a replacement method can be useful.

No matter whether you’re trying to create or to break a habit, it’s going to depend on many factors in your life and the most helpful tool here is mindfulness. Be conscious about your actions and small decisions you make every day and you will achieve your goals more easily.