Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.
About 15 years ago, in 2006, I came up with this idea for minimalistic tracking of habits, called the habit traffic light. The idea was, you take a habit you are trying to build, and record somehow every day whether you succeed, fail, or are exempt because it’s an official day off (an S-day, in No-S Diet parlance: Saturday, Sunday or “special days”). So Green for success, Red for failure, Yellow for exempt -- the colors of a traffic light. You could make these marks on a physical calendar. Green smiley faces etc. in magic marker as someone posted a picture of just the other day on the facebook group. You could use different fonts or background colors in google calendar or outlook. You could even use a simple app I created just for this purpose called the habitcal. At the time, it seemed original, but now there are dozens if not hundreds of apps that do something similar.
The point of all of these related tools is not data gathering per se, quantitative navel gazing, but to focus your attention on complying with the rules of a behavior or behaviors you are trying to habitualize and make it more difficult for you to kid yourself about whether you are actually following them or not. The color coding makes your success or failure jump out at you, impossible to ignore, and provides an irrational but strangely compelling chromatic incentive: you come to really want those greens and avoid those reds. Virtue may not always feel like its own reward, but green sure does.
Part of that chromatic incentive is a visual nudge to bounce back from failure while still recognizing it, to drown that red in a sea of green. Or see those reds becoming sparser at least. So unlike some other habit-building structures, like Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the streak,” where you focus on a building as long a chain as possible, an unbroken chain of consecutive success days, on never making a mistake, a habitcal is flexible in the face of slip ups. It helps you bounce back. It gives you visual credit for “sometimes,” “usually,” and “mostly” as well as perfection.
Today I’m going to talk about a more sophisticated way to track habits, that builds on the habit traffic light and habitcal, but goes way beyond them. It’s much more flexible than any of the apps or mechanisms I just mentioned but retains (if you are careful, and this is key) that element of simplicity that I think is so attractive and important about the basic habit traffic light concept.
After all, to quote myself from the everyday systems homepage, one of the core everyday system principles is:
“No keeping track of things. The system shouldn't require you to keep track of anything beyond the day of the week, what planet you are on, etc. You have too many things to keep track of already “
I call this new system the Everyday Systems Life Log. And it’s not a new new app nor a high level concept, but a set of conventions for using a spreadsheet to keep track of your habits and other personal metrics. Lifelog isn’t even a new term: But I have a specific everyday systems approach that I’m going to focus on.
Another way to think of lifelogging is quantitative journaling, or keeping a diary with numbers. It’s a sort of a spreadsheet diary.
Now you may not need this. A paper calendar and magic markers can do just fine for tracking habits. Maybe even better if you’re tracking just one. But if you’ve gotten stuck, are tracking a whole bunch of habits, or need a little something extra but you’re not sure what, a lifelog can help.
I use google sheets, but microsoft excel or libreoffice or numbers will work just as well. A key feature for lifelogging is something called “conditional formatting,” which any modern spreadsheet application will support. This is how you get habitcal-style chromatic incentive in a spreadsheet. And though it might sound scary if you’ve never used it, it’s actually quite simple both to understand and to implement.
In a nutshell, conditional formatting is a way to automatically color code the data you enter based on a simple set of rules you set, so among other things, you can get that red, yellow, green, habitcal effect. You format, i.e., color the cell, based on conditions, logic, that you set. Is the value in that cell a 1, indicating success, make it green, is it a zero, indicating failure, make it red. It can be that simple. If you are a technophobe and this sounds terrifying to you, don’t give up on it yet, take a look at the transcript of this episode. I’ve got some screenshots with arrows and other instructions and a sample spreadsheet you can copy as a template to get started.
The Lifelog has five basic conventions. I call them “the four one’s,” plus “conditional formatting” as the fifth convention.
And there you have the most basic version of the lifelog: one spreadsheet, one tab, one column, one row, conditional formatting. The four ones and conditional formatting. It gives you the functionality of a dedicated habit-tracking app except you also have the power to tweak it in ways that no app will allow. It’s convenient, if you’re using a cloud version of the spreadsheet, like google sheets or microsoft office online, you can access it from your phone or any computer. And it’s free, or at least it can be -- google sheets is totally free and microsoft excel also has a free online version that is totally sufficient for this. Finally, time you spend diddling with your lifelog spreadsheet is time you spend honing a potentially job relevant skill. I’ve learned all kinds of spreadsheet tricks that I’ve gone on to use at work messing around with my lifelog.
This most basic version of the lifelog may be enough for you. But one of my favorite things about the lifelog, vs. some app, is how easy it is to experiment, track new things, to tweak it to summarize and view in new ways, and to fine tune your habits along with your tracking so you really hone in on a problem and block off the escape routes as old bad habits try to rout around your self-improvement efforts.
Here are four refinements, beyond the basics, that I’ve found helpful:
OK. Five basic conventions. Four refinements. That’s it, in terms of mechanics.
Some higher level reflections.
Since you can access google sheets and microsoft excel on a phone, you could update your lifelog directly as soon as you have something to add. Just like a dedicated habit-tracking app. But I prefer to mark values on the physical index cards I carry around with me (personal punch cards) and update the spreadsheet once a week all in one go. Keeps my screen time more limited and focused.
Google Sheets has great sharing options. So you can easily share your lifelog, with select friends or the whole world for additional accountability but I found that I quickly started tracking very personal things and didn’t want to do that. It can have that diary element to it. A quantitative diary is still a diary.
The Life Log does, I admit, go a little beyond what day of the week it is and what planet you’re on. But not gratuitously, I think. You get a fair amount of bang for your extra buck of tracking effort as long as you’re careful -- and this is very important --not to go overboard.
Because a big part of successfully practicing this system, probably the biggest part, is guarding against the temptation to over-track and recognizing it and recovering from it when it eventually, inevitably happens. As I emphasize with shovelglove especially, when it comes to habits, overdoing it can be as big a danger as underdoing it, maybe more. We’re practitioners of systematic moderation, remember. So beware tracking-hubris.
For many of you, this extra step of keeping a Life Log will not be necessary. But it’s something to consider if you’ve gotten stuck, if you feel like chaos is creeping in despite your strong but sporadic efforts, and you are looking for some extra motivational help.
I lost all my weight on no-s and shovelglove without doing anything remotely like this, before I even created the original habit traffic light or habitcal. So it certainly is not necessary. But I have found the lifelog helpful for more personally stubborn problems like glass ceiling compliance or when I’m struggling to claw myself out of a very difficult situation, some mental rut, when I feel I urgently need to change something but am maybe not sure exactly what or how.
Because besides helping with keeping yourself on the hook for habits you’ve committed to, the lifelog can also help you analyze and learn where exactly you’re having trouble, what days, what times, what circumstances. And then you can think of ways to tweak and pivot to better address those circumstances. It’s a way of flexibly keeping yourself on the hook, a structure for providing just enough oversight and control, preserving the impulse behind your resolutions while allowing controlled tweaking to refine them.
Although I’m publicly describing this system for the first time, it’s not something I’ve just started practicing. I’ve been using and refining my own lifelogs going on six years now and I think I’ve learned a lot in the process -- including (crucially!) some humility about what I can and cannot accomplish, or even sustainably track. And I hope some of what I’ve learned will be useful to you.
Since it’s a very visual thing, rather than attempt to talk you through all the details of conditional formatting and dealing with spreadsheet functions, as I mentioned, I’ll stick some screenshots in the transcript with arrows and notes and a link to a dummy, sample lifelog that you can copy and use as a template to get started.
Thanks for listening. May the rest of your 2021 be more green than red, and may you attain some useful self-knowledge if you try this while avoiding tracking-hubris.
By Reinhard Engels
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