6 Ways To Make Your Habits Count (able)
And why measuring is essential
If you ever tried, you’ll know. Change is tremendously hard. The deluding characteristic of change is that it’s like running down an endless hill. It’s effortless at the start; you just move with the flow and the air around you. Surrounded by positive affirmations, because you’ve taken a new direction and you’re finally being able to do what you’ve planned. It feels amazing! Sooner rather than later you’ll find out that running down that hill is very, very hard and that your walking is forced into running by the mountain, gravity (or life). Before you know it, you either quit or fall — and back to the drawing board it is.
If you recognize this story, there is one upside to the downhill (pun intended). You’ve already experienced the first pitfall of change. Since starting is easy, you might get trapped by the fallacy that change, especially lasting change, is simple — even though it’s the total opposite. If we manage to start simple or very, very small, like ‘read one minute’, ‘floss one tooth’ or ‘meditating for 1 minute’, soon you’ll notice that it’s time to grow to achieve your bigger goal — unless you love one very clean tooth!
The world-famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. I believe that this also applies to change and especially to the habits you’re building as the foundation to achieve your life goals. So, you can’t grow habits that you can’t measure. Even though we can try very seriously and with that achieve some level of success, to create lasting change, change you talk about in the next New Years' resolutions, measuring account is necessary.
“You can’t grow habits that you can’t measure”
Sure, it’s much more manageable to say that you want to ‘lose weight’ or ‘feel more energized’ or ‘be healthier’, whatever those statements may really imply for you.
When sharing your vaguely described generic goal with friends or family, they can comfortably cheer for you and support you in the first steps. Simply because the accountability-effort you’re asking for is smaller with an abstract goal than a finely grained measurable habit.
When you tell your friends that your first action is ‘not eating any chocolate before lunch’, they’ll know exactly what they need to ask you to understand if you’ve executed your habit. They might not see the bigger picture or feel like you’re going somewhere, but they’ll know how to check your progress so there’s a certain amount of social pressure that’ll motivate you to work harder towards the action you described.
But perhaps we don’t like to be specific. It’s much harder for your environment to commit to supporting you because of the request for accountability that’s slipped in. Although, more importantly, measuring enables you to start small and make your habits bigger and thus gives you a much stronger sense of progress. You know that you’re not there yet today, but that’s okay! You most certainly know that you will get there, no matter what. It is much easier to carry on when walking on a clear road instead of a muddy and overgrown path. Take the leap of faith, ask for specific social support, and use the power of quantification!
“It is much easier to carry on when walking on a clear road instead of a muddy and overgrown path.”
How to measure your habit
Before you can start small and gradually expand your habit, your first need to find the right measurement that fits your habit.
1. Measure by repetition
Some habits are easily quantifiable in themselves. For most exercises, you can count the repetitions. I started once with ‘do 1 push-up every day’ and ‘walk up and down the stairs 2 times’.
2. Measure by the amount
If you really want to make progress with reading, you could also quantify by defining your habit as ‘read 2 pages of the book’. For some exercises this will also work like walking, running or cycling where you can set the distance as the amount, like ‘run 5 miles’. When I was training for a 5k I started with ‘run for 200 meters’.
After some time, these habits are very easy to increase by just adding one or multiple repetitions or distance every day or week. But don’t forget: Don’t go too fast, but make it last. Only take the next step when you’re really able to keep up with the next version. Got too big, too fast? Don’t worry, just notch it down a bit and keep going!
3. Measure by time spend
Another way to measure your habit is to make the time you spend on the activity count! For me ‘Play drums for 3 minutes’ helped greatly. The first few times I stopped after this short time to let my entire being feel the power of starting extremely small to eventually make the big goal your reality. When you feel up to it, you can always play longer but it’s not required. This makes the habit doable every day, even if you’re having a difficult one when you’re just starting (which is one of the biggest causes you could quit doing your new habit).
Almost any activity can be set in stone with the time measure, like ‘read my book for 10 minutes’ as an alternative to the pages, or ‘write for 30 minutes’.
Maybe you’ve already noticed that you can use the time for two types of measurement, a minimal amount, to do your habit ‘at least 1 minute’ or limiting time, for example, ‘up to max. 5 minutes’.
Once you’re comfortable with the time you spend, just add a minute or a couple of minutes. For time-bound measurements, a common pitfall is when you get to a point where the duration doesn’t fit with your other daily activities, so if you increase the time, you also have to decrease some other activity, for me that would be less mindless scrolling on Instagram or quit refreshing the news.
4. Measure by the time of day or location
For some habits, it’s more difficult to find the right yardstick. A simple but great habit can be ‘quit working at 5 pm’. I’ve used this habit so I make sure I don’t overwork and have the time for other habits. You can’t ‘quite working’ more but you can set yourself up for success by clearing the path for other habits. To incorporate goals to ‘reduce stress’ you could use a location like ‘take a deep breath when entering a room’ or ‘be aware of the gap between stimuli and response at 3 pm’.
From there you can go to multiple rooms where you take a deep breath and also be aware multiple hours during the day or every time the clock strikes.
5. Measure by combining measures
If your goal is ‘Drink more water’ the quantified equivalent could be ‘drink 2 liters’ which seems like a ‘Measure by amount’ but sometimes it’s not that easy. Gulping away 2 liters at once isn’t something our bodies love to do (so please don’t try this). Here you can use a combined measurement like ‘drink 2 liters before 5 pm’ or ‘Drink 1 glass of 200ml when I wake up’.
This way you can increase the amount to 250ml, shorten the timeframe to ‘before 4 pm’ or implement multiple times of the day like ‘when drinking coffee or before dinner’. Just be creative! This way I combine measurements and ‘triggers’ at the same time multiple ways.
6. Measure by not measuring (when you don’t want to measure)
Mindfulness habits can be difficult to measure. Most of them are easy to quantify by time or location yet their true nature is in quality rather than quantity. Meditation is an example where measure by time could work for at the start to create your consistent meditation practice but increasing the time is in contradiction with the activity itself.
However, you can still measure the effect!
One thing I do is write in my journal for 3 minutes after my meditation and reflect on that every 10 or 14 days. This way you can still determine if you’re going in the right direction or if you’re just walking in circles.
Do you know that you can start today?
With the how-to’s above, it’s no rocket science to turn your goal into simple measurable actions. Of course, it will take some experimenting at the start to find the right quantity. Just enjoy it! Experiment, play, learn, fail, but most importantly — fall in love with the boring small steps and increase as you go. Slow—but steady. Make it count!
Would you like some help to make your habit measurable? Drop your Big Goal and first habit draft in the comments below and let’s find your directions together!