“Success is the product of daily habits”James Clear in Atomic Habits
The key to achieving long-term goals is building the habits required to accomplish them. You can resolve to get more fit, learn a foreign language, or start and finish that big project that’s been on your to do list, but until you decide the concrete actions needed and do them on a regular basis, those goals will remain unfulfilled.
For a few years straight my own top New Year’s resolution was to create a mobile app, and despite having the desire, much of the know-how, and even the time to make it happen, I failed to make real progress until I started using a habit tracker to track my progress.
I’d honestly thought habit trackers were a gimmick for people lacking the resolve to “do the work,” but I’ve found them incredibly effective at kickstarting and maintaining progress for two reasons:
- The only way to know that you’re actually putting enough time and effort towards your goal is to keep track of it.
- Seeing your success from previous days and weeks provides a powerful sense of accomplishment, as well as motivation to maintain progress.
So should you use an app to track habits or go with old-school pen and paper? Let’s start with a look at printable habit trackers (complete with some free printable PDFs below), then compare the merits of habit tracker apps.
Printable Habit Trackers
My own early habit tracking success came from using the single-habit, full-year tracker below. Some printable habit tracker templates track multiple habits – usually for the span of a few weeks at a time – but I think for people new to habit tracking it’s good to start with tracking just one or two habits for your most important goals.
To get started you’ll need a printout of one of the PDFs linked below, a red highlighter, and a blue or green highlighter. On the days you do your habit, fill in the corresponding date with the blue highlighter. On the days you miss it, fill in the date with the red one.
Simple right? That said here are a few tips to make the most of your printable habit tracker:
- Put it someplace you’re sure to see it – several times a day. I posted mine on the inside of my front door at first, but later simply kept it on top of my desk, which worked equally well.
- You can optionally write milestones for your goal in the blocks for dates. (In the example above, I have April 30 marked as the date I wanted to start actually using the app I was building.)
- Mark your habit tracker by the end of each day. You should not be thinking back and marking days before. You might not be able to remember whether you did the habit on a previous day, and more importantly the daily act of marking your tracker provides stimulus towards doing the habit.
- Never ever mark a habit done before you’ve actually done it. Accountability – even only towards yourself – is huge, and if you give yourself that little dopamine hit before actually doing the work you’re sabotaging your own success.
Here are habit tracker printable PDFs for the end of 2023 as well as for the full year of 2024. Don’t let any empty days or months that may have already passed keep you from getting started – far better starting late than never!
Habit Tracker Apps
If you’re not set on tracking habits using pen and paper, habit tracker apps offer a number of benefits:
- They’re better at tracking multiple habits – You could use two of the above printouts for two different habits, or use a multi-habit paper habit tracker that span less time, but habit tracker apps are the easiest way to track multiple habits for an unlimited time.
- They offer more features – The simplicity of paper habit trackers is nice, but the best habit tracker apps offer simplicity plus optional extras like reminder notifications, tips and tactics, different ways of visualizing progress and more.
- They’re always accessible – Having your habit tracker within constant, easy access can be a huge boost to productivity if you take advantage of it. (One great strategy is to get into the habit of checking your habit tracker instead of your usual social media app when you find yourself free or bored.)
Most habit tracker apps follow one of two formats. Grid-style habit trackers show circles for days you’ve done a habit or Xs for days you’ve missed it over the past several days. List-style habit trackers show your habits, their weekly goals, and the number of times you’ve done each habit that week. I prefer the list-style trackers – not every habit needs to be done every day to be successful (weight training for example), and seeing big ugly Xs for missed days in those cases is unhelpful and counterproductive.
One thing to watch out for is that many “free” habit trackers require a paid subscription to track more than a few habits. Frustration at the lack of good, free habit trackers is the main reason I created my own habit tracker app Motidayt. (The second was I wanted to manage habits and my to do list in one place, which is exactly what Motidayt is designed to do.) It’s available for free download for iPhone and Android.
Habit Tracking Tips
Whether you use a paper habit tracker or an app, it’s helpful to be clear about the concrete actions your habit entails. Here are some good and not-so-good examples of action-based habits for different long-term goals.
Action-Based Habits for Goals
|Create a blog||+ Write blog posts|
+ Work on site design
– Read competing blogs
|Learn a foreign language||+ Study new vocabulary|
+ Practice speaking
– Compare language learning apps
|Publish an app||+ Write the code|
+ Create screenshots
– Research frameworks and libraries
|Get fit||+ Exercise|
+ Fast until 11:00
– Search for the best workout routine
Anything resembling research or gathering of information doesn’t “count” as doing the habit in my own book. It’s all too easy to fall down the internet rabbit hole of endless links and distractions, and there’s a real risk of spending hours or days “preparing” for the goal or habit without making tangible progress. Some goals undoubtedly require research or prep, but I recommend making that initial research phase as short as possible – set a hard deadline for it and get to the actual action of the habit, even if you don’t feel completely prepared.
One other thing to consider is the minimum amount of work that makes your habit “done” each day. This can be either an achievement-based criteria or a time-based one. Here are some examples for the same long-term goals as above.
Achievement-Based vs Time-Based Criteria
|Create a blog||Write a blog post each day|
Write for twenty minutes each day
|Learn a foreign language||Memorize five new phrases each day|
Study for ten minutes each day
|Create an app||Implement a new fix or feature each day|
Code for thirty minutes each day
|Get fit||Do 5 sets of 5 exercises each day|
Exercise for twenty minutes each day
For all of the above habits except perhaps the last one, I think time-based criteria are ideal. Achievements like writing a blog post or learning language phrases can vary tremendously by the circumstances, and it’s neither fair to yourself nor helpful for motivation to consider a habit “undone” simply because you couldn’t complete a harder task than usual or had trouble concentrating that day. Far more important is even on an off day to put in the time you’ve promised. And if you consistently dedicate that time towards your habits you’re sure to make progress.
One important rule for time-based habit achievement is to dedicate that time exclusively to the work. No checking messages as they come or having a look at Instagram. That’s why it’s best to keep your target time span short enough that 1) You’ll have enough time to do it on most days and 2) You can maintain focus for its entirety. Thirty minutes is a good duration to eventually aim for, but even ten minutes is a worthwhile start. Put your phone on focus mode, start a Pomodoro timer, work exclusively on the habit until the timer finishes, then mark that baby done for the day. (And if you find yourself wanting to keep working after the timer’s finished more power to you!)
Track Habits, Achieve Goals
Whether you decide to use a printable habit tracker like the PDFs above or a habit tracker app like Motidayt, tracking habits is one of the most effective ways to live a more productive, purposeful life and make progress towards goals. It’s been such a huge help in my own life for everything from keeping fit to progressing on creative projects I can hardly imagine these last couple years without it. Give it a dedicated effort for just a few weeks and I believe you’ll find it powerful as well.