Successful entrepreneurs and leaders work hard to develop a full range of good habits, because they know that doing so will keep their lives healthier, more positive and filled with increased opportunity. One technique they keep up their sleeves for this--and that you can use, too--is simply to track what they're doing.

4 reasons to log it all

1. You easily can see your progress.

Even when we're moving in the right direction, it can be difficult psychologically to feel like there's any headway, especially if projects have been going on for quite a while. But when you track what you do, you have a concrete record you can use to prove to yourself that you truly are moving forward. That's a big reason why companies lean on metrics in the first place!

For instance, if you tell yourself you're going to improve how much you research or read, you can note how many minutes you're doing that activity each day and verify an increase.

2. You'll stay more motivated.

Science verifies that we feel motivated and happy thanks to dopamine in anticipation of reward. But if you don't have a goal post to run to, that anticipation is hard to come by. Because tracking habits lets you see progress, setting clear objectives and grabbing the motivation that comes from expectation becomes easier.

3. You can identify problematic circumstances or events.

When you're deep in something, sometimes you're simply too close to it to see all the connections. And no one is omnipotent. If you jot down what you do and how you felt or the result you got, you can look for threads and pinpoint elements that throw you off course. Once you know what your weak spots or flaws are, you can create a realistic action plan to boot them out of your life.

4. Accountability increases.

Writing down what you do gives you an opportunity to mentally check in and face your own behaviors. You have a chance to reflect and reconnect with the "why" behind your goals each time. If you share your records with someone else, they also can review what's happening. Then they can offer recommendations and/or encouragement.

How to track your own habits

Since we're in the tech age, there's a million and one apps that can help you track habits. Those can be fantastic, since they're convenient and often don't require any financial investment. The trouble is, they often are hyper-focused on just one area (e.g., reading, spending, what you eat). And sometimes you need a more comprehensive big picture to dissect everything that's linked together.

So I recommend that you go old school and grab yourself a regular notebook or binder that speaks to you. This will allow you to do all your tracking in one place, and you can make it more personal however you'd like (e.g., achievement stickers, colors, paper texture, etc.).

  • Divide the notebook into three main sections.
  • Write down what happens through the day as you go in the first section of the notebook. Bullet points work just fine here. You're looking more for sequence or chronology than tons of specifics.
  • Create a chart for the second section, following the basic method from James Clear. On the left, make a column that lists all the habits you want to look at. Then put the days of the week or numbers for the days of the month across the top. Graph paper is a great tool for this and will keep your tracking neat and orderly. But there are different templates you can print out as needed, too, or you can just quickly can draw out whatever lines you need. Check or block off each habit on the chart as you complete it.
  • Split the third section into specific habits you want to change or improve. Write details about those habits (e.g., date, feelings, duration, who was with you) in their allotted spaces.

The first section of the notebook will give you a broad context for your behaviors. The second section lets you see at a glance how you're doing, both for individual habits and collectively. Sections with a lot of Xs missing are the ones you probably need a hand with, or that deserve a little more focus. The last section lets you deep dive into what you're doing, do more reflection and look for specific patterns or correlations.

Once everything is set up and you've got some data, make a standing appointment with yourself--say, every Saturday or the last day of the month--to go back and analyze what you've got in depth. A good starting checkpoint is to look at the gaps in the second section and then look at what happened immediately prior to the misses.

As you track, remember, you're not doing this for perfection. No one can achieve that, so give yourself a break right off the bat. You're doing it so you can be better, so you don't end up stagnant. And realistically, that improvement likely is going to be incredibly incremental. So if you miss a day or fall off the wagon a bit with a particular behavior, don't beat yourself up. Just commit to start fresh the next day. The only thing you shouldn't do is quit.

Published on: May 27, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.