How to use habit tracking to stop bad habits

Justyna Ilczuk
Justyna Ilczuk August 25th, 2022 2 min
A woman jumping in the air, looking happy.

Tracking a habit will help you get a real picture of how well you are sticking to the habit and will prevent you from fooling yourself. Additionally, having a streak will motivate you to avoid missing a day.

Habit tracking can work not only for the new habits you want to develop but also for the habits that you want to stop doing. Tracking them will help you stay accountable and you will get accurate records you will be able to analyze later. It's much easier to improve things you measure.

In the rest of this article, I will give you tips on how to use habit tracking to stop bad habits based on an example of a bad habit of “staying up late”. I've been using Habits Garden for several months to track my good and bad habits and as I really value getting great sleep, I decided to track it.

  1. 1. Track a habit or its inverse?
  2. 2. When to tick off the avoidance of habit
  3. 3. Final thoughts
  4. 4. Bonus tip

Track a habit or its inverse?

So if you want to track if you are “staying up late” then should you track that and mark “stayed up late” as a habit?

There are two basic approaches:

  • Streak of shame - track the bad habit itself
  • Streak of avoidance - track the avoidance of the bad habit

With a “streak of shame” approach you track your actual bad habit. Completing the habit for multiple days in a row would be bad, so checking off the habit would be shameful - hence the name “streak of shame”.

It's fine to track it this way, but because we usually associate streaks with good habits, this could be confusing. You would like to break the bad streak, not maintain it!

So you can flip your habit and say: “Avoided staying up late” or “went to bed early” and track that. Then marking it as complete would have the same mechanics as positive habits you want to develop or keep up.

Another advantage of tracking the avoidance of the bad habit is that by default the habit is “unchecked” which is equivalent to giving in to the bad habit. Sadly, this is often closer to reality than the other way around. It also doesn't leave you with an illusion that you are doing great if you simply just forget to track your habit.

When to tick off the avoidance of habit

When you track a positive habit, you can just check it off as you finish doing it, similarly to an item on a to-do list.

But what about an avoidance habit? Technically, if you track avoiding a bad habit for a given day, you shouldn't mark it as complete before the day is over. Imagine that you mark “going to bed early” as done at 10 pm and then get distracted for a couple of hours with the latest series and then stay up late… That wouldn't be ideal!

If you want to be 100% correct, you can mark the habit as complete or not complete for a given day on the following day. In some tools, it's a bit awkward or there is no option to do that for days in the past so the alternative approach is to just offset your habit by 1 day in a way you interpret it, not in a way when you set it. So marking “went to bed early” on Sunday would actually mean that you went to bed early on Saturday.

So in summary, here are the possible approaches:

  • • Mark it as done earlier in the day counting that you won't slip up
  • • Edit it the day after - not all tools support it, Habits Garden does but it gets a bit expensive (your precious diamonds!)
  • • Record it for a “previous day” - as long as you are consistent this works well!

Final thoughts

I hope this article will help you with stopping your bad habits. It might not be enough for some harder-to-break habits but combined with other techniques it should dramatically increase your probability of success.

Bonus Tip

You can also install tools that measure the behavior you want to limit directly. One example of such a tool would be WatchLimits which helps you monitor your watching time and set limits. For example, if your problem is binging on Netflix causes you to “go to bed late” (the bad habit), WatchLimits you would record your watching stats and even prevent you from watching too much (if you set limits for yourself!).

Having an additional tool that tracks your behavior is also helpful in case you forget to update the habit tracker for a couple of days. You will then be able to reliably fill it in for missed days without second guessing and maintain accurate records of your habits in one place!

Discover other posts to fight procrastination, form good habits, break bad ones and live a better life.

"Bad habits repeat themselves again and again, not because you don't want to change but because you have the wrong system for change."