I used to take my health and general fitness for granted, as those in their 20s and early 30s often do. I have always been in generally good health. Though I intermittently started and stopped different fitness routines and the occasional recreational sports team, I mostly paid more attention to how my body looked than how it felt.
That changed on a sunny morning in the summer of 2017.
I blearily rolled out of bed feeling a touch dizzy, looked at the door leading to my ensuite bathroom and saw not one, but two doors fuzzily overlaid on top of each other. I blinked a few times and rubbed my eyes, hoping it would pass. Looked again, but there were still two doors. In fact, as I surveyed my room, there were two of everything.
My first thought was, “That can’t be good…” and unfortunately, it was definitely not. It was the start of a series of escalating appointments over the next four weeks that culminated in an MRI and eventually an appointment with a neurologist. On November 2, 2017, I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Leading up to my diagnosis and in the weeks following I would wake up each morning and do an inventory of my body. I checked for tingling, numbness, muscle twitches, if I could see out of both eyes clearly...and anything else that didn’t feel right. Some days I had one or several of those things, some days none.
MS is a tricky beast because it is different for everyone. There is no cure, only management of the wide and frankly terrifying spectrum of symptoms. As a perfectionist planner, not knowing what my path looked like was paralyzing. The life I had imagined for myself was in question. I felt helpless, scared, and a jarring lack of agency over what was happening in my body.
As Christmas came and went, I started to feel the pull of the fresh start of a new year. I was a do-er and needed to do something. I had settled into a medication but, beyond that, it was time to take back some of that agency over my body. I couldn’t control that I had MS, but I could take small steps to take care of myself.
I decided to try a 30-day yoga challenge. It seemed like something I could fit in no matter what my day looked like, with the bonus of being able to do it in the privacy of my home. This was for the best since those first few weeks were a comical display as I did my best to mimic the videos without falling over (too many times).
As my symptoms settled into remission and I got better at yoga, that feeling of agency started to flow back into me, drip by drip. 30 days came and went and I kept going. I got stronger, more flexible, and it felt empowering to be doing something with my body that I decided.
I tracked every day without missing and as the number of days in my fitness streak grew, it became a motivator for me to continue. 60 days turned into 100, then 500, and so on. Even on the days when I absolutely did not want to work out (especially even), I couldn’t break the streak!
I started the yoga challenge on January 1, 2018, and (as of publishing this - 1375 days!) I haven’t missed a day. I added outdoor running, HIIT, strength training and pilates, with yoga shifting to once a week.
My MS has been in remission almost that whole time and, at 37, I am in the best shape of my life. While my MS will eventually relapse, I am proud that I took control of what I could and every day I make an effort to make my body stronger. And I’ve kept that streak!
How tracking and streaks help build habits
When you first start a daily practice, be it fitness, reading, meditation, flossing, or anything you deem important to you, it’s easy to keep at it. You have committed and it feels good to have made the choice. But it gets harder over time as your resolve is tested with day-to-day demands or something changes the normal rhythms of your life.
You will have the, “I’m just going to skip it today, I will get back to it tomorrow”, thoughts (I know I still do). Unfortunately, when you skip once, it gets easier to skip again. Then all of a sudden weeks have passed and your daily practice has become something you occasionally do... if you remember.
Contrary to the popular belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit, it takes on average more than 2 months (66 days to be exact) before a new behaviour becomes automatic. How long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances (via James Clear, Phillippa Lally), but 66 days is a long time!
So what can you do to keep at it and establish those habits?
Daily tracking and streaks!
Daily tracking of whatever you are trying to establish and creating a streak is a powerful way to support a consistent practice on your way to a full-fledged habit.
Tracking and streaks motivate in two ways:
- The act of marking something as complete gives you a little dopamine hit. It’s similar to how crossing something off your to-do list. It feels good to check something as done and gives you a sense of accomplishment.
- The visual feedback of a streak, be it in a spreadsheet, notebook, or app, is encouraging. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to see progress and watch the numbers get bigger.
Since establishing my fitness streak, I started using tracking and streaks to motivate myself for other daily habits including reflection and writing.
How tracking and streaks help you reach your goals
My daily writing practice is one I started when I decided to work on writing, coaching, and speaking full time. I determined my blog articles would be a primary part of my business. It usually takes me 3 to 6 hours to write each article, so I knew if I want to keep up with my weekly publishing schedule (and not stress myself out!) I needed to write every day. I committed to an hour a day, set a writing ritual, and got started!
Tracking my writing, the expectation of the daily practice and keeping the streak, and the writing ritual have combined to create a rhythm for me that helps me keep to my goal of publishing an article every week.
Tracking becomes a signal of progress. It is proof of forward movement toward whatever you are trying to achieve.
How tracking and streaks will help you be intentional and make informed decisions
Tracking is also an act of self-reflection. It can be binary, as in, did I do something or did I not? But it can also be more nuanced. It is a way of noticing and paying attention to things that you want to prioritize and be intentional about.
For example, in my daily reflection, I track not only the daily answers to:
- What went well?
- What was tricky?
- What would I do differently?
- What am I grateful for?
- How was my mood today?
- How were my energy levels?
- Did I sleep well the night before?
These are important to me because they can be indicators of a change in my MS. Beyond that, they also give me information that I can use to make decisions about my self-care. If I have tracked several days in a row as low energy and poor sleep, I think about why that might be and what I will do about it. Maybe it’s been super hot out and we need to buy a fan, or maybe I need to take a day off after a hard week.
Another example is tracking what kind of fitness I do each day, be it yoga, a run, strength, etc. It helps me remember what I have done and decide what to do next so I don’t injure myself by over-doing something (as I get older this becomes more important 👵🏻😂). I also use Strava to track things like distance, speed, relative effort, etc. which are all things that are signals of progress and show me if I am getting better.
Regardless of what you are tracking, writing it down gives you a history of information and collection of data that you can look back on to identify patterns to help you make informed decisions.
How to decide on what to track and start your streaks
Deciding on what to track comes down to what’s important to you. Questions you can ask yourself include:
- What is something I want to achieve, but haven’t been making time for?
- Is there something bothering me that I want to change?
- Is there something I have been thinking about trying but haven’t committed to?
- Is there a change I want to make in my routine that I think will be helpful to me?
- Is there something important to me that I know I haven’t been giving enough of my attention to?
- What do I want to make sure I keep giving my attention to?
- What do I want to do more consistently?
- What goal do I want to work towards?
Examples of daily routines might include:
- Doing some kind of fitness every day for 20 minutes.
- Flossing every day.
- Meditating for 5 minutes every morning.
- Reading 5 pages of a book you want to finish.
- Dedicated, present time with your partner or kids each evening.
- 30 minutes of no phone time each night before bed.
- Take your dog for a walk twice a day.
- Creative writing for 30 minutes a day.
- Practicing guitar for 15 minutes a day.
Think about your goals:
- What goals have you set for yourself where it would be valuable to work on it every day, even if just for a short time?
- What are you already doing every day that you could track to get some additional feedback on your progress?
- What goals have you set for yourself that keep getting pushed to the bottom of your to-do list?
- Is there something you have been thinking about working on but haven’t started yet?
Where to track and keep your streaks
Where you track doesn’t matter. Pick something that is easy for you to access and that you will remember. The following are a few suggestions of tools I use to get you started.
- Daily reflection spreadsheet - I wrote all about this in my post, How a Daily Reflection Practice Cultivates Self Awareness and Joy.
- Streaks App - This iPhone app describes itself as “the to-do list that helps you form good habits”. It gives good visual feedback and it is very satisfying to complete something. :)
- Countdown - This is a simple app that either counts down or up. I like it because it gives me information on either progress towards something, or the amount of time until something, both of which can be motivating.
- Apple Fitness /Strava - There are a ton of different fitness apps out there. This is the combo I use because we are an Apple household.
I encourage you to start small and choose one or two things that you want to practice daily. Think about things that connect to goals you want to make progress on or to things you want to pay attention to in your daily life so that you can make informed decisions as you move forward.
Do you track anything already? Do you have any streaks? What streak are you going to start today? Tell me about them!