This Dumb Little Postcard Helps Me Build New Habits
How to track your routines when the idea of tracking anything fills you with existential dread
I have never been someone who enjoys organizing, de-cluttering, or doing anything administrative. I am comfortable with some level of chaos and my inclination to impose order on it is fairly selective. I want structure for big projects and tasks (running an organization day-to-day, getting long-term projects with a lot of moving parts done), but I’m ambivalent about the micro stuff.
So while I know that habit tracking helps habits stick, it’s always felt to me like one more administrative thing to do. Even opening an app has been too much of a chore. (The things that seem tedious to me are admittedly arbitrary and I have a very low threshold for irritation on that front.)
But last year, after reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I tried to figure out why it was so fucking painful for me to keep track of habits on a daily basis. Then I remembered something an ex-boyfriend of mine used to do: He had a to-do list that he wrote out on a blank pad every day, and every time he completed something, he drew a giant line through the item with a thick red Sharpie. It was intuitive for him, but the practice has some basis in behavioral science. There’s something tactile and satisfying about crossing off an item on a list that you just can’t replicate by clicking a tiny box on a mobile app.
There’s a specific term of art for that behavior and I can’t remember what it is, though I think I read about it in something behavioral scientist Dan Ariely wrote, but it has to do with the tactility of the experience and why it’s somehow more gratifying. (If any of you know what I’m talking about, let me know — it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember it and my aggressive Googling has been futile.)
So I switched to a paper calendar. And that didn’t entirely work either. Again, there was a stupid little friction point: It wasn’t portable enough that I could lug it around without it being a pain to update.
So here’s what finally stuck for me: I had a habit tracker printed up on heavy cardstock. (You can do this at Moo.com or any online custom printer. Mine are about the size of a regular postcard.) I stick in the planner I’m using to manage my daily tasks and drop it in my bag when I leave the house. I use a new one every month, so if I screw up one month, I get what feels like a fresh start and it’s less discouraging.
There’s some specific science behind that, too: Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman writes in her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, that people who are underperforming on things they want to accomplish tend to perform better when they have a reset moment. Milkman says the sense of having a clean slate “helps people feel distanced from past failures.” We tend to have an episodic notion of time and demarcate our lives in terms of events that feel like fresh starts — moves, job transitions, marriages, etc. — and any of these can precipitate the fresh start condition that’s more conducive to getting things done. (You may be seeing this now that people feel like Covid is starting to recede into the background. People are spending more on things like travel products and teeth whitening because transitioning back to “normal” is a clean slate moment.)
But a clean slate can also be something less dramatic, like the first of the month. So the note cards work in part because I chuck them in the garbage at the end of the month and pull out a clean new one. Each time, it feels like a reset.
If you have tips, please send them or share them in the comments. (I’ll post useful links, books, etc., at the end of the column where appropriate.) My gmail address is espiers@, and you can find me on Twitter @espiers. Please get in touch!
Elizabeth Spiers is a writer and Democratic political strategist who lives in Brooklyn. She publishes this column on personal productivity on Thursdays, and occasionally republishes essays about culture and politics from her personal newsletter, My New Band Is, on other days. She also writes a column about money for Slate called “Pay Dirt”, and about politics for several publications, including The Washington Post.