Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 12

21 days and Negative Tracking

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Last week I talked about using a structure called the habit traffic light to keep track of your habit while you're building it. Today I'm going to talk about how long you should continue using the habit traffic light, and what to do (if anything) when you stop.

What I recommend on the web site is to keep track for at least 21 consecutive successful days. Or at least 21 non-failure days (exempt s days are counted with successes for the purpose of racking up the 21 days). 21 days is about how long it takes to start a habit. I have no idea where this absurdly precise number comes from, I certainly didn't come up with it, it's floating around all over the place on the internet. But I have a feeling it's more or less accurate, and worst case scenario, it's a useful, motivating fiction.

Because, of course, there isn't really a precise dividing line between a non habitual behavior and a habit. Habit isn't a binary on-off thing, it's gradual. But after 21 days of practice, your behavior will certainly be more habitual than it was on day 1. Probably a lot more.

And having a precise number to shoot for is motivationally important. That's how our silly minds work. And we aren't going to get one of these motivationally necessary precise numbers without it being a little arbitrary. 21 days has the advantage that it's long enough for some serious habituation to take place, but short enough to feel attainable. It's certainly not a bad number. Neither are 19, 20, or 22. But 21 has an aura of authority, if only from having been repeated so often, and it's also numeralogically, aesthetically, and culturally attractive. If you're some totally rational logical Mr. Spock who is unimpressed by such considerations, I have to wonder how you developed such irrational illogical problems like being fat and out of shape to begin with.

So what do you do after 21 days? Some people on the everydaysystems bulletin board like to continue keeping track with the full habit traffic light. The habit traffic light is pretty unobtrusive, and still a little helpful, so they don't mind. Some people just stop keeping track. They feel confident enough in their habit to forgo the expense. And that's fine too. Maybe that's even the best scenario. Honestly I didn't keep any kind of track until several years into my systems. I started up mostly because people posting to the bulletin boards were clamoring for some way to keep track and I wanted to see if I could come up with a low cost way to do it -- low enough cost that I could do it myself, for several systems, for a long period of time.

And it worked reasonably well. Even I, will very mature habits, got some motivational benefit from it, and it wasn't too much of a pain. But I discovered (pretty recently, actually) that is that there's an even better way of habit tracking than the habit traffic light once you've gotten past the initial hump and established your habit. I call it negative tracking. It's like a simpler version of the traffic light. You only report the failures. So red light, or no light. Habit traffic light is better for new habits, but negative tracking is better for maintenance.

Here's the rationale. When you first start out trying to turn a new behavior into a habit, every successful day is "information" and worth noting. The behavior is novel, and by default, you wouldn't have been doing it. If you succeed, it's news. If you fail, it's news. If you take an exempt day, it's news. Anything except completely ignoring your new behavior is news, and those are the options.

But tracking takes effort, even if it's only a minimal "days on habit," and after a while, once you've successfully established your habit, it's no longer very informative. The default has changed. The default is now, not nothing, not undefined null, but success. Keeping explicit track of this default takes effort and doesn't tell you much. Success is implicit. Failures now become the only interesting, unusual, newsworthy thing. You can now switch to recording just these, saving effort and clutter and without losing information.

It's not just a good value over positive tracking, you don't just get the same thing for less, you get more. Since keeping track is a pain, good behavior is rewarded by not having to keep track, bad behavior is punished by having to do so. So negative tracking gives you an additional incentive to behave. This is magnified since because you're now only keeping track of the bad, it stands out more, it's more obvious and shaming.

Negative tracking sounds like a downer, but it's really very optimistic: it assumes the default is success. No news is good news.

As I mentioned before, positive tracking is best when your habit is young. But for most of our lives, hopefully, we'll be maintaining established habits rather than struggling with new ones. For that, I think negative tracking can be an even better way to go. It's almost as cheap as no tracking, and provides even more benefits, for a mature habit, than positive tracking.

That's it for today. Even if you don't think these particular frameworks for habit tracking will work for you, I hope I've been able to get you thinking in new ways about the issues involved. Bye for now.

By Reinhard Engels

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