“It’s Thursday…almost the weekend. So of course I can stay up late!”
Little did she know, Rachel was sabotaging her new commitment…
And she didn’t even realize it!
Have you ever talked yourself out of doing a new habit?
Let’s face it. Sometimes change can be hard.
We all have good intentions when we decide to change our habits. We start with high hopes that we’ll continue doing them.
But in most cases, we give up and go back to the old way of doing things.
There’s a way to make change easier. You MUST track your habits if you want them to stick long-term.
In this post, we’re going to share three simple ways you can stay on track with your habits/rituals.
We’ll also walk you through a case study that will show you how our client Rachel kept track of her new nighttime ritual.
Keeping Track: Step 4 of the PEAK Method
This is Step 4 of our PEAK Method. The K in PEAK stands for Keep Track.
As a quick review…
At this stage, you should have picked out the Pillar Ritual you’re going to install.
You should also have decided on the Exact Cues you’re going to use to remind you.
And finally, you should be using “Activation Energy” to make your old negative habits HARD to do…
And your new Pillar Ritual EASY to do.
If these terms are unfamiliar to you, make sure you check out our post that outlines the PEAK Method.
Before we jump into the action steps…
Let’s take a look at what happens inside your brain when you’re creating new habits…
A closer look at habits inside the brain
Have you ever heard the expression “neurons that fire together, wire together”?
Here’s what this means:
The more you do a habit, the more automatic and deeply embedded in your brain it becomes.
Your brain is made up of billions of tiny cells called “neurons”.
These nerve cells transmit information within the brain and all over the body.
Any time you have a thought, a feeling, or you do some kind of action… It activates millions of nerve cells that are linked together (also called a neural pathway).
That’s that the “fire together” part of the expression means… they all get triggered at the same time.
As you repeat a habit over and over, the connections between these neural pathways become very strong. They “wire together”.
Eventually, these connections get so strong that your habit becomes automatic.
Let’s use a metaphor to understand this better…
Imagine you have an old habit of overeating at night.
The “pathway” for this habit is like an 8-lane interstate highway on flat ground.
It’s wide, smooth, and paved… You can travel on it at high speeds without being interrupted by lights and cross streets.
Let’s say your new ritual is to follow a healthy food plan.
This “pathway” for your new ritual is much harder to navigate. It’s like a steep, narrow mountain path. It's rocky and hard to navigate.
You have to go slow because it’s filled with overgrowth and boulders. It also has a lot of switchbacks (things that get you off track).
When you’re trying to install a new habit, you don’t have any connections between the neurons yet.
These neural connections form as you repeat your habit. But they stay flimsy and shaky for a while.
As you practice your habit over and over, the connections become thicker and stronger. In other words, they “wire together”.
Now let’s go back to the example of overeating...
Nita’s followed her healthy eating plan for only 5 days… And she’s about to go celebrating with friends after a brutal, long week.
She stops by the office break room before she leaves. Some kind soul brought in a triple-layer carrot cake from their birthday party.
Oh no! Nita’s favorite.
She’s feeling tired and stressed out!
How likely is she to follow her healthy food plan?
Not very likely, because the new neural tracks for her habit aren’t there yet.
The connections in her brain are still very weak.
And the rewards for her sticking with her new behavior aren’t top of mind,or even clear yet.
That’s why it feels awkward or hard in the beginning and oh so easy to talk her naughty Elephant into going on a rampage.
So what do you need to do while you’re still building up the brain pathway for the new behavior?
How do you get through that period of time when you’re trying to make that ritual into a steady habit?
The answer to that question is to Keep Track of your new ritual.
The benefits of Keeping Track of your rituals
Creating new habits is a process.
In most cases, it’s not something you do once and then the habit sticks forever.
You might need to tweak a few things in your environment… or even completely overhaul your approach.
There are two main benefits of tracking your habits:
- It helps you measure your progress and stay excited about staying on track
- It helps you discover patterns of self-sabotage or issues you need to tweak
Measuring something every day makes you aware of your progress. It lets you know how you’re doing.
In the beginning, it’s very easy to fall back on old habits... So you have to measure your progress to keep your ritual front and center.
Every day you mark your ritual as completed is a small win.
If you’re keeping track, every day you fail to do your ritual is a learning experience...
If you aren’t doing your ritual, it’s usually for one or two reasons…
Either you don’t have the right cues, or you need to change some aspect of your environment.
For example, let’s say you’re using an alarm on your phone as your cue to stop working at a certain time, but you ignore it.
Keeping track of your new ritual helps you discover that this alarm alone isn’t enough to get you to stop working.
So you may need to make your reminders stronger…so they interrupt your day-to-day, automatic routines.
You might need to set up other alarms. That way you hit yourself over the head with a 2x4 instead of using a chopstick.
Or you may discover that the pull of your old negative habit is really strong.
To fix this, you can increase the obstacles or barriers in the way of doing your old Negative Habit.
For example, you could find software that shuts your computer off at a certain time.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see how important it is to track your habits.
How to Keep Track of your ritual: Three simple methods
You’re aware now of the benefits of keeping track of your ritual. So let’s discuss how to keep yourself accountable.
There are three simple ways to keep yourself accountable when you are learning a new habit.
The basics of tracking your habits is just about
You want to measure your ritual daily by answering this question:
Did you do your ritual?
If YES: How did doing it help you?
If NO: What got in your way?
Whichever option you choose below, make sure you have some way of logging your answer to this question.
That will allow you to see any patterns that emerge when you’re not doing the ritual.
Don’t leave this step up to chance. Decide on a specific time when you’re going to do your check-in.
Here are three you can keep track of your ritual:
Option 1: Use a Ritual Tracking Sheet
The first option is to fill out a sheet that tracks your progress each day.
To make life easier, you can grab a free copy of our Ritual Tracking Sheet. Just right click on this link and select “Save file as…”
This is a very simple one-page tracking sheet that you can use to measure your progress when doing a new ritual.
Filling out the sheet takes only 30 seconds to do, but it is a very helpful form of accountability.
Option 2: Accountability partner
The second option is to have someone check in with you to see how you’re doing. Get them to ask you the questions above.
Marshall Goldsmith, author of Triggers, describes his system for keeping himself on track. He actually pays someone to call him and ask him some accountability questions every day.
Now, you may not want to pay someone to do this. So you can ask a teammate or friend to check in with you.
Or you can have an accountability partner who is also trying to make some positive change in their lives.
If you use this method, make sure you’re also writing down your answers so you can keep of patterns.
Option 3: Use an app to keep track
The third option for keeping track is to use an app.
Our favorite app for this is the Productive App. It’s a free app that has a lot of great features for keeping track of habits. You can also pay to upgrade it and get access to even more habit-tracking features.
Here’s another list of some free apps you can use to keep track of your ritual.
How long to Keep Track of your ritual (66 days! Not 21)
New research shows that it takes around 66 days on average to create a new habit. This is about three times longer than the 21 days that most self-help gurus claim!
Remember that this number is an average time.
Some behavior is harder to change than others. It’s harder to install a new habit that is complex and has a lot of moving pieces. It might take you more than 66 days to make it automatic.
Losing weight is an example of a behavior change made up of smaller habits that need changing.
We tell you this not to discourage you from creating a new ritual. But so that you don’t get frustrated and give up too soon.
Some habits are much easier to create, and they’ll take less than 66 days.
Just remember that you should keep track of the new ritual for at least 10 weeks. Doing this will help you install even complex habits.
Let’s check in with our “habit hero” Rachel and her new Pillar Ritual of going to bed early...
Applying this step to Rachel’s Negative Habit of staying up late watching TV
Let’s go back to the case study we’ve been using during this series on rituals.
Rachel’s Negative Habit: Staying up late watching TV
Rachel’s Pillar Ritual: Getting to bed by 10pm
Rachel chose to use our Ritual Tracking Sheet to stay accountable.
This was a complex habit, so she wasn’t super successful right in the beginning.
The Ritual Tracking Sheet helped her discover some of the reasons why she would go to bed too late:
Rachel noticed that she was getting to bed by 10pm most weeknights. But for some reason she stayed up late every Thursday night.
After thinking about it she realized what problem was. She would tell herself, “Great, it’s Thursday! So it’s almost the weekend and I can stay up late tonight.”
Another problem came up that kept her from doing her ritual.
Sometimes friends wanted to meet up during the week and have dinner and drinks after work.
Even though she had great intentions to stay a short time... she was having too much fun to leave.
Of course, that meant that she got home late… which threw her whole sleep schedule off.
Keeping track of her ritual helped Rachel see how going out with friends during the week was affecting her sleep. So she decided to get together with friends only on the weekends.
Also, she realized that some nights she was getting dinner started too late.
Her tracking sheet helped her see that she was going to the grocery store after work 2 or 3 times a week. This meant that she was late getting home and starting dinner.
She decided to go grocery shopping on the weekend. That way she would have all the ingredients she needed for meals during the week.
At last report, Rachel is in bed by 10pm most weeknights. She’s enjoying the added energy, focus and productivity from the extra sleep she’s getting.
Recapping Step 4 of the PEAK Method: Keeping Track
So let’s recap this final step of the PEAK Method.
Remember that installing a new ritual is a process, not a one-time event.
If you’re changing a habit that is complex… It can be hard to do and can take time.
As we mentioned, it takes on average 66 days to change any habit.
It’s easy to forget the new habit that you’re trying to install without keeping track of your progress.
You can use any of the three methods listed above to track your habits:
An accountability partner, our Ritual Tracking Worksheet, or an app.
Keeping track gives you the feedback you need to tweak your new habit... and encourages you to continue doing it.
Some final thoughts on creating rituals that stick long-term
It’s a fact that we all know from experience: “Old habits die hard.”
The pull of your old Negative Habit will be strong, especially when you’re just starting out. They give you some pleasure, some reward. Or else you wouldn’t do them.
It’s fun to binge watch all the episodes of Game of Thrones until early in the morning.
Let’s face it. Creating a new ritual can feel like pain at first. It might feel like sacrifice. It might feel awkward at times.
At times, your lazy, short-sighted Elephant is going to fight you tusks and trunk.
During this time, you need a way to keep track of your progress so that your Elephant stays on the path.
If you catch yourself sliding into your old non-productive habit, that’s ok. Don’t make a big fuss about it. Just know that you have some new neural tracks you’re creating and it takes time to do that.
Above all, don’t fall victim to “all or nothing thinking”... judging yourself as a failure if you don’t do your ritual perfectly every day.
If you're hard on yourself you will give up while you’re still trying to learn your new ritual.
Be patient and encouraging with yourself. Treat yourself like a child you love dearly who’s learning a new skill. You would never criticize or punish your child for making mistakes while learning something new.
Keep track of your progress, regardless of how well you do in the beginning.
In time, the new ritual will become pleasurable, it will become fun. If you don’t do it, you’ll start missing it.
At this point, your Elephant will be on board and will remind you to do it.
Before you know it you’ll have a new Pillar Ritual that will be the foundation of your success.
Note: This is a series about why change is hard, and how to create new rituals that fuel your success.
Dr. Nita Matthews-Morgan & Josh Matthews-Morgan are the co-founders of Learn Your Brain.
They are a unique mother-son team who specialize in helping entrepreneurs and business owners master their mindset.
They’re the authors of Deliver: How to Perform Your Best When it Counts the Most.