Habits in an Age of Solitude: Data Graphics

In the first part of the “Habits” series (1 of 2), I laid out some of my ideas related to habits, inspired by the ascetic orders and various faiths. I’ve grouped these thoughts into 5 categories: Clean, Move, Read, Create, and Rest.

In this second part (2 of 2), I go into the habit data that I ended up collecting in 2020. The data is in the form of habit points for different daily actions, which I then slotted into the same 5 categories.

In an effort avoid further confusing the crap out of the 1 or 2 people reading this, I split this article into into 4 general sections with some graphics:

  • Reasoning
  • Methods
  • Data Interpretations
  • Learnings

Reasoning

I never planned to have a stash of habit tracking data. I initially just used the habit tracker as a positive reinforcement tool to keep my motivation up. A single checkmark gave me a small, daily, emotional boost and multiple check marks in a row gave me a feeling of accomplishment.

I use a simple monthly habit tracker in my bullet journal, heavily based off a classic tracker template. It consists of 3 areas:

  • a: Year and Month
  • b: Day and Short Reminders
  • c: Habit Categories and Tracker

As I used the tracker, one checkmark eventually became hundreds, and 4 actions evolved to 12. I ended up with thousands of habit points by the end of the year— which gave me the idea: why not compile it, study it, and show it?

M: In the future I may create a separate article about my love for the bullet journal. A tip for would-be bullet journal users: if you are prone to subconsciously finding excuses to procrastinate (like myself) it is important that your setup works with a single pen or any writing tool. I know it’s tempting to beautify your journal — but once you misplace 1 of 3 pens that you use, it may create a subconscious hurdle for your brain to get over. If your journal works with any single pen, you have less hurdles and would be more likely to keep journaling.

Methodology

Every time I perform a habit that I am tracking, I give it a checkmark for that day.

1 checkmark = 1 habit point.

Since the main purpose of the habit tracker was positive reinforcement, I did not want to take into account intensity or duration of habits. I was aiming to play the long game: consistency over a long period of time was my target.

So, knowing a bit about myself and my procrastinating ass, I wanted to see how I can experiment to maximize this long game. I thought up the setup below:

How can I make my habits so easy that I cannot escape them?

  • Do not account for intensity. Was it half-assed? Yes? You get a check.
  • Do not account for time. You only did it for a minute? I’ll take it.
  • Do not account for how you felt about it. Not up to your standards but you actually acted on it? Check under your seat — check.
  • Unlimited continues. Oh you didn’t do it today? That’s more than cool. You’ll get it next time. No check but you still get positive reinforcement.
  • The only only thing that this setup really asked of me: did you act or try to act on the thing?

So it’s “easy mode”. Fair enough. But the interesting thing is what happened next.

For my Move habits, I started off with a humble 10 mins per day.
~ 3 mins stretch
~ 3 mins dance
~ 3 mins workout

Within a couple of months my Move habits ballooned to sometimes 90+ mins per day without any prompting.
~ 20 mins stretch
~ 40 mins dance
~ 20 mins workout

Why? I have some theories, but I wanted to dive into the data as well and see if there are other potential points of view.

Data: At First Glance

For 2020 I ended up with the following numbers:

  • 1664 habit points achieved
  • 2754 max habit points total

A value of about 60% achievement.

The monthly percentages throughout the year is as follows:

It’s good to see that while my achievement is 60% for the full year the following are also true:

  • I started at 6% in January
  • I’ve peaked at 93% in July
  • After peaking I’ve stayed above 60% from Aug-Dec, with an avg. of 74%

M: Note that February and March show a period where there is no data. I dropped the ball during those times. Missing 2 months out of 12 might be grounds to say that my whole data set is tainted, but for our use I think it’s adequate.

I created a more detailed graphic below with real numbers and also showing the context of increasing maximum monthly habit points over time:

Looking at the real numbers show some interesting points:

  • Habit points achieved are actually steadily increasing throughout the year
  • Monthly max habit points have also been increasing, resulting in a percentage dip from July-December

A further dissection of the habit points by category are provided in the next sections.

M: Also a further confirmation of my OCD-like nature.

Data: Clean

The Clean category consists of:

  • 1 daily action: Daily Clean
  • Max habit points for this category: 1 habit point per day

My cleaning habit proves to be one of the most consistent.

It makes sense now that I’ve realized that it’s been included into my morning ritual: right after making coffee I quickly clean as I wait for the drink to cool down a little. It’s now part of how I “reset” and is the cornerstone of how I start my day.

M: Quick note to myself. Test hypothesis: if action is hinged around coffee, it might have an increased chance of getting done.

Data: Move

The Move category consists of:

  • 3 daily actions: Stretch, Dance, Conventional Workout
  • Max habit points for this category: 3 habit points per day

My movement habits had a large impact in terms of habit points. It makes sense since I look forward to it because it helps me in so many ways everyday:

  • It’s become main way to meditate
  • It uplifts me: gives my body and brain feel-good chemicals
  • I feel physically ‘lighter’: my leg joints and muscles strengthened

M: Another interesting point is that my Move habits ramped up during the summer, which confirms my suspicion that I become super active during the warmer months. Big whoop, so does everyone. True, but I have data. I’m so cool.

Data: Read

The Read category consists of:

  • 3 daily actions: Technical Reading, Recreational Reading, and Miscellaneous Reading
  • Max habit points for this category: 3 habit points per day

Reading is part of my morning routine. It really doesn’t take that much time. Just a page or section from each book every day. You’ll be surprised at how much you remember since you have time to chew on smaller pieces of information.

Looking at the data reveals the following to me:

  • I added more books at around Fall, which makes sense since the weather is getting cooler
  • It took some time for this habit category to ramp up. It started consistently in April but only ramped up in late August. Compare it to the quick bloomers like the Move category.

M: This is another category that I’ve hinged around coffee. It’s confirmed: I might be on to something.

Data: Create

The Create category consists of:

  • 5 daily actions: Cook, Sketch, Paint, Art & Design Lessons, and Portfolio.
  • Max habit points for this category: 5 habit points per day

No surprises here. As a creative I lean towards creating. The only semi-surprise is for those who know me: yes I’ve started a journey in the simple culinary arts, no I’m not that good yet.

A couple of things when I view this data:

  • Guaranteed that I was creating something in the 2 months where data is missing (Feb & Mar). I can only go so long without sketching.
  • The ramp up in November is when I started fully committing to updating my portfolio. Other creative actions rose along with it.
  • You really see the effect of Christmas Eve/Day to my habits, but it’s a good sign that I ramped back up between Christmas and NYE.

M: It’s fitting that the Create Category accounts for so many points. Now the next category is a sour one, a story of a severe lack of points.

Data: Rest

The Rest category consists of:

  • 2 daily actions: Sleep at a “reasonable” time and go for an easy walk
  • Max habit points for this category: 2 habit points per day

Fully resting and recovering has been difficult. I started recording it in October with mixed successes.

  • November was a good stretch, but even now in Feb 2021 it’s been up and down
  • I need to prioritize Rest more. The lack of it is starting to become noticeable — I’m seeing correlation of how I felt about a certain month with how much quality rest I got for that month.

M: I think most of us are in this limbo state of “I stayed in most of the time, I didn’t do much. Why am I so tired?”. I’m guessing that physically maybe we have not moving as much, but mentally we have been running non-stop. I have had some successes but nothing is sticking yet; I will keep trying.

Data: All Categories

Here is an attempt to integrate all the categories in a single graphic:

M: Yep, the Create category beat out the Move category by 1 point. It’s odd but I double checked the numbers, it’s legit.

Learnings

So, was all this effort worth it? Yes.

Without a doubt the habit tracker 100% increased my daily “habit floor”. Below was my January 2021, a far cry from my January 2020 of 6 habit points.

So after going through all this data, what are some viewpoints that I have learned?

  • Positive feedback really gets me going. Most if not all of my self-talk and self-reflection is negative or strict in tone. While I am working on improving this negative self-talk aspect, positive feedback proves to be more help than hindrance.
    By starting off in “easy mode” for my habit setup, I stumbled on a positive reinforcement loop that led to increased confidence and boosted productivity. And then I keep seeing the checkmarks pile up: more confidence, more boost. Even boosting myself is slowly becoming a habit. This was beneficial for me, but I understand not everyone works like this.
  • Our minds can truly be easy to hack. We can be coerced to panic-buy, become addicted to drugs, products, feelings. But this same mental back-door can be used to garner more positive results. I looked at my tendencies honestly — both good and bad, and adjusted my habit strategies based on that. For example: I can be lazy but sometimes also a perfectionist, so I made my habit minimums insultingly easy. My minimum is 1 perfect push-up. I was so insulted with myself I end up doing 15–20. Slow, for spite. But y’know once in a blue moon I just do 2, which is 200% of my minimum so still good. I’m a complex man.
    As extreme examples, sport greats such as Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson are known to exaggerate or even completely fabricate stories of their would-be opponents insulting them — all for triggering anger or any “edge” over their competition.
  • Consistency above all else. Your body and mind will do its best to adjust to anything, given enough time. Consistently doing 1 perfect pushup or 1 single page of reading every single day will entice your body and mind to adjust to the point that it becomes so easy , so boring that you will do 2, 5, 10 — just to try it.
    Sure at some point you will hit a difficulty curve, or a more involved focus is required, but consistency is like telling your body and mind: “This is important! Urgent! Ugh so important!…MUY importante!” ad nauseum— at some point it will get the message.

I find it interested that what started as a tool to combat depression turned into a stash of data that was used for a potential design portfolio piece, which then inevitably became an honest reflection on some of my patterns of faults and strengths.

I am under no illusion — I cannot realistically keep the habit tracking at this level of involvement for the rest of my life. But I’m excited to see see how long I can keep the tracker going. Let’s end with a cliché quote on self-contemplation:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”
Socrates

— Written & Illustrated by Michael Salvador

I am an Illustrator and UI/UX Designer with an undying interest in Dance. I write as a means to empty my mind with hopes that it uses that room to grow.