James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the no. 1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in places like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on CBS This Morning. His popular “3-2-1” email newsletter is sent out each week to more than 1 million subscribers.
“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” are typically marketed to entrepreneurs or as a self-help guide, aiming at achieving success or increased productivity. And, fair enough. This book would be an excellent choice in those capacities.
In the sixteenth chapter of Atomic Habits, Clear explains a method called Habit Tracker as a way to stick with our habits. First, he says about a stockbroker man named Trent Dyrsmid that makes a good habit tracker for himself.
Dyrsmid began each morning with two jars on his desk. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. As soon as he settled in each day, he would make a sales call. Immediately after, he would move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar and the process would begin again.
Within eighteen months, Dyrsmid was bringing in $5 million to the firm. By age twenty-four, he was making $75,000 per year—the equivalent of $125,000 today. Not long after, he landed a six-figure job with another company.
In the following, Clear explains the habit tracker and its benefits.
A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit. The most basic format is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick with your routine. For example, if you exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each of those dates gets an X. As time rolls by, the calendar becomes a record of your habit streak.
Habit tracking is powerful because it leverages multiple Laws of Behavior Change. It simultaneously makes a behavior obvious, attractive, and satisfying.
This is one sample of a habit tracker that you can make for yourself if you wish.
Planning a habit tracker for yourself has some benefits like:
1. Habit tracking is obvious.
Habit tracking naturally builds a series of visual cues like the streak of X’s on your calendar or the list of meals in your food log. When you look at the calendar and see your streak, you’ll be reminded to act again. The mere act of tracking behavior can spark the urge to change it.
Also, habit tracking causes you to be honest with yourself. Because you can see your progress in the calendar or your daily planning notebook. When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself.
2. Habit tracking is attractive.
The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path. In this way, habit tracking can have an addictive effect on motivation.
Plus, the empty square you see each morning can motivate you to get started because you don’t want to lose your progress by breaking the streak.
3. Habit tracking is satisfying.
This is the most crucial benefit of all. Tracking can become its own form of reward. It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list or to mark an X on the calendar.
Habit tracking also helps you to be focused on the process rather than the result.
A note that you should pay attention to is that tracking isn’t for everyone, and there is no need to measure your entire life. But nearly anyone can benefit from it in some form—even if it’s only temporary.
So, if you have a problem making a habit tracker for yourself and want to make it easier, you can do 2 things based on Clear’s book:
First, whenever possible, measurement should be automated. You’ll probably be surprised by how much you’re already tracking without knowing it. For example, your credit card statement tracks how often you go out to eat, or your calendar records how many new places you travel to each year.
Once you know where to get the data, add a note to your calendar to review it each week or each month, which is more practical than tracking it every day.
Second, manual tracking should be limited to your most important habits. It is better to consistently track one habit than to sporadically track ten. Finally, record each measurement immediately after the habit occurs. The completion of the behavior is the cue to write it down.
How to recover quickly when your habits break down
No matter how consistent you are with your habits, it is inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. Perfection is not possible. Whenever this happens to you, try to remind yourself of a simple rule: never miss twice.
For example, if you miss one day, you should try to get back into it as quickly as possible. You can’t be perfect, but you can avoid a second lapse.
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit. This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers. Anyone can have a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work. But when successful people fail, they rebound quickly.
Simply doing something—ten squats, five sprints, a push-up, anything really—is huge. Don’t put up a zero. Don’t let losses eat into your compounding. Furthermore, it’s not always about what happens during the workout. It’s about being the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it’s crucial to show up when you don’t feel like it—even if you do less than you hope.
The all-or-nothing cycle of behavior change is just one pitfall that can derail your habits. Another potential danger—especially if you are using a habit tracker—is measuring the wrong thing.
Knowing when (and when not) to track a habit
The dark side of tracking a particular behavior is that we become driven by the number rather than the purpose behind it. The human mind wants to “win” whatever game is being played. This pitfall is evident in many areas of life. We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done. We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy. When we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior.
Measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you. Each number is simply one piece of feedback in the overall system. We mistakenly think the factors we can measure are the only factors that exist. But just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.
Generally speaking, it’s crucial to keep habit tracking in its proper place. It can feel satisfying to record a habit and track your progress, but the measurement is not the only thing that matters.
So, if you’re not feeling motivated by the number on the scale, perhaps it’s time to focus on a different measurement—one that gives you more signals of progress. No matter how you measure your improvement, habit tracking offers a simple way to make your habits more satisfying.
To sum up, for keeping your habits on track, you can make a habit tracker for yourself. A habit tracker is a simple way to measure whether you did a habit—like marking an X on a calendar. Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress.
Note that you shouldn’t break the chain. Try to keep your habit streak alive. Never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible.
Also, you can choose new habits for yourself with our app. It helps you break your habits into small ones and gives you suggestions to make it easier for you to stick to them.