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Best paper habit trackers.

Best paper habit trackers.

Humans are creatures of habits, and as a species we have habits. You don’t need to like them, you don’t need to be aware of them, but you do have them, regardless of your preferences. They’re the building blocks that form a large portion of what we do, and also a mirror to our identity. Without an autopilot mode for us to rely on, we’d be mentally exhausted by the time we’d showered and gotten dressed in the morning. Habits can be exhausting, stressful and not enjoyable at times, but keeping track of and building realistic habits is a good method to share our energy.

With so many potential decisions to make every day, this autopilot mode is crucial. But it comes with an important feature: we get to program parts of our personal autopilot modes ourselves. By choosing how we set up the system, we’re choosing how our future selves will react automatically when they don’t have the time to consider what they’re doing.

The problem, then, is that building these habits is challenging and time-consuming. For some of you, the answer will be to use a habit-tracking app, but that is no longer the answer for many of us.

What Does This System Do Differently?

This system is built to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls people run into with traditional habit-tracking methods:

  • Starting a new habit didn’t always have an obvious end-point, which kept most people from wanting to try new things or push themselves too hard.
  • One failure breaks a streak forever, which meant that once you’d failed once or twice, you couldn’t feel successful anymore.
  • There was no way of knowing which habits worked and which didn’t, as they were often deleted or spread out across several different apps from different attempts at getting reorganized.
  • They could not give enough attention to short-term goals that didn’t warrant a long-term habit to go with them.
  • Even when you succeeded at my habit attempts, you grew bored of them. Without a clean slate feeling to re-energize and refocus my efforts, my successful habits became meaningless chores.

The ability to explore and move on from something becomes hard to find as an adult. The key of habit tracking is to make it exciting and to implement a growth mindset along with the goal of mastering the habit. A successful habit brings value outside of just learning how to follow instructions.

Get a Notebook

Preferably, start with a dot-grid notebook. Others will work, but you may need to change how the markup works or draw a bit more to set it up.

Writing it out each time is part of the ritual, so embrace the annoyance of using a physical pen; it should feel a bit like you’re making your plans official. This is your ribbon-cutting ceremony for another shot at finding meaning.

Just remember to keep track of where you put the old templates each year, so you can have a running log of how your trials have gone.

Write Out the Header

This could be something like “June 1st, 2020” or “June 16th, 2020”. The second cycle will contain a differing number of days, depending on the month. But I find that difference to be relatively unimportant compared to the psychological value of starting with a clean slate each month.

Choose Your Subjects

In line with the numbers written above, write out the subject of the habit, followed by the syllabus/schedule for this cycle.

The general format will be something like:

Subject: (action) (measurement, time or otherwise) (days of the week) [(outcome-based goal, if applicable)].

But beware of adding more than one output-based goal, as it becomes less clear where extra time should go, and you risk both goals.

If you have any other ideas, feel free to try them! The beauty of a paper system is that it’s completely flexible; the rules are yours to change as needed. The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work and you learn from it for future cycles.

Fill Out Your Habit Schedule

A couple of lines below the description, fill in the borders of a box for each day you intend to work on this habit/goal.

This makes it easy to take a quick glance at your goalbook and see if you’ve finished everything for today. It’s also why most people prefer a dot-grid notebook, as it has the measurements for squares, but no borders, allowing them to fill in their own more clearly.

Track Your Progress

This system has 4 basic symbols: +, -, O, and ✓

For progress, put a plus sign (+) in the box. It’s a plus sign, and not a checkmark, because you’re adding to your own ability to succeed. Progress, even without visible results, is worth feeling good about.

For a day you miss the requirements you’ve set out, put a minus sign (). It’s a minus sign because this is a setback—you’re hurting your own ability to succeed. But, importantly, you haven’t failed. Pick yourself back up and get as many plus signs as you can going forward.

For a day with an excused absence of sorts, put a circle (O). This is for quick visual reference later on. Life gets in the way sometimes, and we shouldn’t hold that against ourselves.

For outcome-based goals, if and when you finish the goal, use a checkmark (✓) instead of a plus sign for that day. Then, draw a line through the rest of the days. You’ve earned a break! Use the extra time for whatever you want.

If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you might draw up a new goal to work toward for the rest of the cycle, but tend to just take the time to relax and build up the mental energy for the next one.

Track Your Setbacks and Other Findings

Each time you miss a day, including for excusable reasons, write down the date on the upper half of the left page, followed by the reason you didn’t get everything done.

This will help you see patterns of behavior that you might want to work on for later. Going back, a lot of my misses are due to not sleeping enough, so it’s an obvious thing you could work on that would help you.

The bottom half of the left page is reserved for general notes on how you’re feeling about your progress. Are your habits working as intended? Did you plan too much, or too little? Is something you thought would be useful not worth keeping up next time?

Tracking setbacks and thoughts throughout the cycle allows you to learn and grow faster, ready to start up next time with some fresh ideas.

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