habits and incentives

from evy's notebook

I downloaded a new habit tracker app recently. I've used a handful of systems for reminders to take care of myself: a sticky note on my work monitor to check off the number of times I drank a glass of water and stood with my standing desk, a piece of paper taped to the wall to check off when I take my vitamin, an app that notifies me to meditate and stretch. Each time I start up a new system, I reflect on how I want to use it. Here are some thoughts on what's been working for me these days:

on newness

Every time I start (or even restart) a system, I get a burst of motivation to use it. This is probably because every habit tracker eventually leads to a sense of obligation to do things I don't want to do, and shame for not completing things for a while. New trackers hold none of bad feelings, and are an opportunity to reset fresh. I recently realized this is something to use to my advantage. When I notice myself growing tired of using a habit tracker, I think it's worthwhile to let myself stop using it, spend some time reflecting on what I want, and eventually start with a new exciting setup. This allows me opportunities to iterate.

on streaks and completion rates

I have a complicated relationship with streaks. There are some streaks I've accomplished that I'm proud of (365 day meditation streak with Headspace, 24 day writing streak in my notebook) and I'm glad that I challenged myself to push through even on days when I felt unmotivated. Streaks can be powerful incentives to keep going, but I hate how breaking a streak can dramatically drop my motivation to do something.

My current iteration is to completely avoid streaks as goals. Instead, I keep a view of how many times I've done an activity recently, and try to keep the completion density as high as I can (e.g. aiming for a high % of last 20 days completed, instead of aiming for a high streak number). This doesn't fully solve the streak-esque motivation problem, since I'm still less likely to do something today if I haven't done it much recently. While I think this is somewhat unavoidable, considering how habits work, I sometimes try to address this issue by resetting the "recent completion" view periodically. The sheet of paper I keep on my wall (to track: vitamin, stretch, outside, exercise) resets every 20 days or so, which provides me an opportunity to start fresh again.

In the past I've felt overwhelmed by all the things I said I should do each day, so I'm trying a new strategy with my current app: I don't expect myself to complete every item every day. Instead, I have a wider selection of activities I'd like to do, and I try to complete a handful of them each day depending on what I'm in the mood for. This gives me permission to add activities that I wouldn't want to do daily (or on any predetermined cadence) but want incentive to do more often, like meditating or riding my bike.

on activity choices

One of my favourite parts of resetting habit systems is the easy opportunity to totally change what habits or activities I track. It's a moment to reflect on how I'm actually interested in spending my time, and why.

I often gravitate towards self-care activities that I know are important but need an extra kick of motivation to actually do. Take a vitamin. Exercise. Drink water. Recently I added "don't go on my phone until I'm out of bed", which has resulted in a huge quality of life improvement.

With this new app, I'm tracking skill-building activities for the first time. Writing a notebook post is on there. Practicing piano is on there. I'm excited to see how tracking these affects my motivation to work on longer-term things that are important to me. Perhaps in the future I'll add tasks for working on specific projects.


I've found habit tracking apps very useful for maintaining my health, and they've been especially effective because of the reflection I've done on what I want and how I can be motivated to do those things. Motivation works differently for different people, so I don't necessarily think the specific strategies I listed will be useful for everyone reading this post, but I do think that reflection on motivation and process is a useful practice for most people, and I think that sharing systems for self-care and skill-practice is one way to inspire each other to do this kind of reflection more. In fact, I downloaded this most recent app because a friend I was calling showed off their app to me briefly while we were talking. If you want to see a screenshot of their app as well as several other habit tracking systems, check out a collection I made here.