Bad habits often build without effort, but understanding why — and then breaking them down — is hardly ever so easy. Using a simple habit-tracking app or even keeping basic records on paper can be a powerful way to pay attention to your regular routines, so you can structure your life to support more positive patterns. Below, Managing Editor Leah Pellegrini explains how this process has helped her shift her own tendencies. Try it yourself and let us know: what habits have you managed to uncover or alter, and how has your sense of wellbeing transformed accordingly?
It started with a jar of almonds. It was one of those Blue Diamond tins with the green plastic tops that you can get at any grocery store — small, but deceptively stocked with a supposed 10 servings. Somehow, while sitting curled up in my bed at 11:30pm, scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, I'd managed to scarf down the entire container.
It was the third time that week that I’d accidentally devoured a late-night snack large enough to cause a slight stomach ache — nothing awful, but just uncomfortable enough (and accompanied by a strange sense of guilt) to signal that something was off.
I’d built the bad habit gradually, during a several-week phase when I was working particularly long, hard hours. Noshing by moonlight with iPhone in hand had become a way to avoid going to sleep; a way to satisfy a desperate bodily craving for dopamine after a stressful day; a way, subconsciously, to allow indulgence after forcing my eyes on a computer screen for such prolonged periods of time.
Building the bad habit was easy and automatic. Breaking it was not. That jar of almonds was the last straw.
That night, with the tin tossed in the trash, I searched “habit tracker” in the App Store and downloaded Way of Life. Its free version allows you to plug in three different habits that you’re either trying to establish (like doing regular acts of kindness or cooking dinner from scratch) or end (like smoking or gossiping). Every day, you just tap a button for “yes” or “no” to note whether or not you’ve done the thing. A checkbox turns green if you’ve enforced the positive shift and red if you haven’t, and the screen shows a line of checkboxes to represent the week, so you can see how things are panning out.
Normally, I’m wary of using apps to alter or monitor behavior patterns. Particularly when they're gamified and intended to be addictive, I think they can cause more harm than good — and they can even be dangerous for those of us with perfectionistic or competitive tendencies, encouraging compulsive behavior. (I speak from experience, here.) But what I like about Way of Life is that it’s super quick and simple, hardly more complex than keeping count on a sticky note.
Though it does feel rewarding to tally up a string of green boxes all in a row, there are no prizes and no punishments. I don’t use the app so much to motivate positive behavior as to uncover explanations, clues and insights about what’s working and not working in my everyday routines.
Along with “midnight snack,” I added “run” and “practice yoga/meditation” as my other two habits, which means I get to watch the way these different factors play into one another. I pay attention, and I ask questions accordingly. If I manage to squeeze in the mindfulness practice and the workout, and I avoid the 10-serving snack, I’ve clearly managed to prioritize my holistic wellbeing — how? If I’ve missed my exercise and my meditation, it’s no wonder the bedtime binge has happened, since my body was likely left unhappy and out of whack by the end of the night, right? Do I function better when I run every day or every other day?
The more I understand what’s going on — which is to say, the more I see how the structures of separate days affect my longterm patterns — then, the more I can schedule and arrange my life with my own best interests at heart.
p.s. Craving another way to feel more peaceful and productive? Check out 5 Sayings To Keep Your Grounded.