If there's a universal truth about getting older, it must be that we need to take better care of ourselves. Habits -- or the lack of habits -- that we could get away with in our 20s become more difficult in our 30s, barely possible in our 40s, and downright self-destructive in our 50s and beyond.
Like many people, as I've gotten older, I've been more motivated to take better care of myself -- physically and mentally. To that end, I have found two indispensable tools: habit tracking, and something I call "85 percent thinking".
The whys and hows of habit tracking
|Random habit tracker I found online|
- focusing: it provides a daily reminder of your goals,
- motivating: ticking the box or tapping the green square is a form of mental reward, and
- factual: it provides visual evidence of what you've been doing or not doing. In other words, it keeps you honest.
The format you use to track your habits should be whatever is easiest and most natural for you.
There are dozens of habit-tracking apps, or you can treat yourself to a special notebook, or use your favourite pen on graph paper. I avoid the fancy stuff -- try googling bullet journals -- because I don't want the tracker to become an end in itself, a cute time-waster of limited value.
I use a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is:
- convenient: I keep it open on my computer's toolbar.
- flexible: I can easily add new habits or gray-out columns that I'm no longer tracking.
- tidy: if I used paper, I'd be annoyed at erasures or cross-outs.
- easy: dates on the vertical, habits on the horizontal, and you're good to go. Excel (or whatever program you use) can insert the days and dates, saving you from repetitive writing.
There are dozens of habit-tracking apps that you can use on your phone. I purposely don't use an app, because:
- most have ads and other distractions,
- I like to archive all my past trackers, so I want files I can save independently,
- I don't want to obsess: with an app, I'd be likely to check it throughout the day, and
- I want fewer reasons to pick up my phone.
The content of the habit tracker is also totally personal.
My tracker includes health goals, such as minutes per day of exercise and meditation, stretching before exercise, plus any simple habits I'm trying to get better about -- things like caring for my dry skin, wearing my mouth guard at night (apparently it doesn't protect your teeth if you don't use it, go figure!), or having a mug of herbal tea when I feel like eating but I know I'm not hungry. I also track days I read, and days I blog, because both of those are important to me.
My 2022 tracker has 17 habits, some daily, and some weekly. If you're new to the idea, it might be better to start small, with five habits, or even three. When tracking itself becomes a habit, you can add more variables.
I also find it helpful to have a mix of "gimmes" -- goals that you are doing anyway and unlikely to drop -- and more challenging goals that you might do less frequently, but are cause for a bit of self-congratulation when you meet them.
I usually use one tracker for a full year. Boxes either get an x for "yes I did that", or a number, such as minutes spent doing something. Every morning, with my first cup of coffee, I open the tracker and record how I did on the previous day. At the end of the year, I archive the file and start a new tracker.
The important thing, of course, is finding what works for you, then using it. And if the first format you try doesn't fit, you can try something else.
This year I'm experimenting with a section for weekly habits. There are five or six habits I'd like to do on a weekly basis, and I'm seeing if attaching a day of the week to each one helps me do them more consistently: this on Monday, this on Tuesday, and so on.
Based on the popularity of books like James Clear's Atomic Habits, Make Your Bed by William McRaven, The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma, and a zillion other, similar titles, it would appear that many people are striving in this direction. The sheer number of books and apps and advice can be overwhelming. I think it's best to keep it simple. Grab a notebook or open a spreadsheet and let the tracking begin.
However... the goal is not to check every box, every day.
85 percent thinking
One of my biggest pitfalls, something I've worked hard to recognize and reduce over years, is All Or Nothing thinking. All Or Nothing says that unless you do something all the way, it's not worth doing at all. All Or Nothing recognizes only two possibilities: on or off. But real life is seldom so simple. If we recognize only two possibilities, we're setting ourselves up for failure.
In my mid-30s, when I was writing professionally, I had a run for a while writing about eating disorders. It was through those assignments that I first recognized my own disordered thinking about food and dieting. I reached out to one of the therapists I had interviewed, and worked with her for some time. It was difficult work and it had an enormous impact on my life.
This therapist taught something she called 85 percent thinking. Whatever you're doing, whether it's eating healthfully, getting more exercise, or any other goal, if you're doing it 85 percent of the time, you're doing well.
We're not machines that can be programmed to perfection. We're humans, with real lives, full of things we cannot control. That accounts for the other 15 percent.
To do anything well, especially to learn new habits, we need discipline and commitment and inner strength. But to be humane, we also need compassion, and flexibility, and forgiveness -- and we must extend those to ourselves. That, too, is the other 15 percent.
Habit tracking + 85% thinking = compassionate and realistic success
Habit tracking keeps me focused and motivated, and helps keep me honest.
Eighty-five percent thinking keeps me sane.
Eighty-five percent thinking does not come naturally to me. My natural tendency is obsession. But I want to reject obsessive thinking, reject beating myself up, reject the rigid, unrealistic confines of All Or Nothing. I consciously choose 85% thinking, a little bit, every day.