Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 30

Introducing the HabitCal

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com

Today I'm going to talk about a free online tool I created for tracking your habits. It's called the HabitCal. Short for Habit Calendar.

A quick word of apology to listeners who are also active on the everyday systems bulletin board. You are probably sick to death of me talking about the HabitCal, but please bear with me. I think it might be interesting to other listeners who would never consider joining a bulletin board otherwise. So I want to make sure they get to hear about it.

You may recognize the term "Habit Calendar" from previous segments I've done. I've been talking about the concepts behind it for a while now and I've already described how to keep a paper habit calendar. The online HabitCal works in basically the same way, as I'll describe in a minute. I'm a big proponent of using the simplest possible technology to get the job done, but I actually think the online version is easier and gives you some extra benefits at no extra cost. Among other things, it's cheaper. A physical calendar and markers might be cheap, but do they cost something. The online HabitCal is 100% free.

Here's how it works. First, you create an account if you don't already have one (it uses the same login system as the everyday systems bulletin board, so if you have one of those you're all set). Then come up with terms for one or more habits you want to track. It could be an everyday systems of mine, like nosdiet or shovelglove or glass ceiling. Or it could be something completely different. You can track any habit using any terminology you like. You can then bring up a calendar for each habit you select for whatever time frame you select and tick off every day whether you succeeded, failed, or were except from the habit. Successes light up in green, failures in red, exemptions in yellow -- exemptions are days like S-days for the nosdiet and shovelglove when you officially have off. I call this simple scoring system the habit traffic light. And it gives you a striking picture of how you are doing with your habits, even over large spans of time. You can see at a glance whether you've been doing what you set out to.

Why did I come up with my own habit tracking system instead of using one of the (technically) excellent ones already out there? There are a bunch. Joe's goals is a really nice one, for example. The reason is because, technically cool as they may be, none of them work quite the way I want them to. They use complicated scoring systems that encourage bad ways of thinking about habit. When you are building a habit, you want to focus on a sustainable minimum level of compliance: either you do what is required on a given day, or you don't (or you are exempt because nothing was required). Quantifying success beyond this is counterproductive. Why? Well, for one thing, it's more complicated, and complexity is bad, but more importantly it's bad because you'll start to want to trade points -- to think that heroic efforts yesterday can buy off the need to do anything today. Or that efforts in one area can be exchanged for efforts in another. You'll think "I did extra good yesterday, so I can take today off" or "I did extra exercise this morning, so I can ignore my diet this afternoon." Theoretically these arguments (sometimes) make sense. The problem is that you can't trade unconsciously -- you can't automatically trade. And that's what habit is supposed to be -- unconscious and automatic. When you trade, you're no longer tracking habits -- you're keeping a ledger of conscious decisions. There is no automation. Your behaviors will stay conscious and hard.

When the best you can do in a given day is "success" and the worst is "fail" you've got four big advantages.

  1. it's very easy to score. You have to wrack your brains a lot less than if you had multiple levels of success and failure to choose between.
  2. you've got no "surplus" to tempt you to trade. Imagine if your scoring system allowed a double success or a triple success. You would inevitable feel like that bought you the right to a failure or two.
  3. the habit traffic light lends itself very nicely to visualization. Not only is the green/yellow/read easy to understand and almost primally motivating, but it stays easy to understand even when you've got months or years or a lifetime of data. It scales well.
  4. by keeping the scoring system this simple you can meaningfully compare how different people are doing. Yes, no two people will make exactly the same calls about what is a success and failure, but their judgements will be a lot closer than if they had to pick between levels of success and failure. This is useful personally on a diagnostic level, because you can post the the bulletin board and say, hey I'm having trouble, look at my HabitCal and people will be able to make sense of it. And it's also useful on an aggregate level. I haven't done this yet, but it would be neat to run summary analyses to mark particular times of year that people tend to have problems or how many days or weeks into a system. Or people could buddy up and get some kind of combined picture of how their doing.

Ultimately, the point of a habit tracker isn't to track. It does track, but the tracking is just a means to an end -- building a new habit. When you've reached that goal, you shouldn't need a habit tracker any more. I like to think that the HabitCal is so good at building habits that no one will have to use it for very long. But it's also so unobtrusive, it takes so little time and energy to keep current -- just seconds to add a whole weeks data for multiple habits -- , that I could imagine people continuing to use it even after they've built firm habits, just to play it safe, and for a continuing pat on the back for a job well done. I started using myself it mostly just to test it out, to make sure it worked. I've been practicing my everyday systems habits for years and am not seriously worried about them at this point. But I'm finding it strangely satisfying to make these ticks every day. Also, since we just had our second child and I'm writing a book, I've been immensely distracted and sleep deprived, so frankly I am finding the HabitCal a real help in keeping on track, particularly with my exercise routine, shovelglove. Shovelglove has been particularly challenging because it's the only I'm doing that takes any extra time -- 14 minutes may not be a lot, but it is something, and time has become very, very scarce all of a sudden. But I'm happy to say, thanks to the HabitCal I haven't had a single failure in the month since my second daughter was born (I did, however, take a couple of S-days while we were in the hospital).

Anything you put on the HabitCal is public, anyone can see it. I made it work this way intentionally. One, it can get complex adding permissions (because of course people will want certain people to be able to view it but not others, etc). I also don't want to be liable for the inevitable code goof that exposes information people expected to be private. But there's a postive reason too. It's motivating to know that other people (potentially at least) are keeping their eye on you. You have an audience for your struggles. You feel accountable to them.

What are some other aspects of the online HabitCal that make it preferable to doing on paper? Well, as I mentioned above, it's cheaper. This might not be much of consideration if you're just tracking one habit, but if you're tracking multiple habits it can add up. Plus it's easy to see multiple habits over multiple months in one screen, to do that with a paper calendar you'd need to chop it up, and it would take a lot of physical space. You could do it, but it would be cumbersome. With the online HabitCal, one click colors in the whole box for the day. You could color in the whole day on a paper calendar, but it would be tedious. Coloring the whole day is more visually compelling than just making a colored tick.

The HabitCal has been operational for about a month now and it seems both to work and to be catching on. A bunch of suggestions for improvements have been submitted, but I'm not going to rush into implementing them both because I don't want to risk breaking anything now that people are using it and because I want to be very careful about cluttering up the nice simple interface. But don't be shy about letting me know if there are things about it you'd like me to change. The more people ask for a particular feature and the more convincingly they ask, the more likely I am to getting around to adding it. If the HabitCal does wind up changing considerably over the next few months I'll do an update podcast to keep you all apprised.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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