Daily Habits vs. Daily Intentions

The way I track habits in my bullet journal might be a bit different than what you normally see. I’ve tried all sorts of different habit trackers until I finally found what worked best for me. The monthly habit tracker charts would usually go ignored after the first couple of days of the month. I even tried a weekly habit tracker but that didn’t work for me either.

I’m such a non-conformist type of nerd that it wasn’t until I tried tracking my habits on my daily bullet journal page did I finally find a system that worked well for me. But it’s not just a typical habit tracker … in fact, I don’t even call these things habits. Instead, these are my daily intentions.

Let’s talk about habit tracking

So let me back up a bit before we dive too deep into how I track these things. It took me many years to figure out that I’m a rebel. I don’t like being told what to do … even if it’s me telling myself what to do. I know, I know, I know! You’re probably wondering how I ever get anything done with that kind of attitude, right? Yeah, me too!

I have a slightly different concept of what constitutes a habit and what actually needs to be tracked. I don’t track things in my life that are routine actions – things I do because it’s just what I do. I’m going to brush my teeth every day no matter what, so there’s no need to track that action. But if flossing isn’t an ingrained routine like brushing, I will begin tracking my daily flossing until that action becomes a routine and I no longer need to be reminded to do it.

Science tells us that the notion that it takes 21 days to build a habit is actually wrong. The average is more like 66 days. And you know what that means…. 66 days as an average means that half the people of the world can build a habit in less than 66 days but the other half of the world takes much longer than 66 days.

Setting new habits

The other thing that science tells us is that establishing new habits is frickin’ hard (I don’t think they actually use the word “frickin’” in scientific journals, though)! However, the process of setting a new habit is made easier by attaching that new habit to something that is already an ingrained routine and making that new action dependent on it.

Back to the flossing example … I’m absolutely going to brush my teeth every single day, right? So the best way to get into the habit of flossing is to set a rule that says you can’t brush your teeth until after you floss. This is the type of thing you would track in your habit tracker chart — either in your journal or whatever method works for you. It could be a calendar you hang on the wall next to the bathroom sink and cross off each day you floss.

Eventually, that action becomes a new habit and just part of your daily routine. Once it’s an automatic thing, then you can stop tracking it every day. Pick a new habit you want to establish and repeat.

Don’t try to set a whole bunch of new habits all at once. Go small! Don’t set yourself up for failure before you even begin. If you work on just one new habit every 66 days … that will be 5 or 6 new habits every year!


Breaking old habits

Those same nerdy scientists have also studied what it takes to break a bad habit. Quitting cold turkey rarely works, especially if that old habit is something truly ingrained in your routine. Instead, it’s more effective to replace that action with a different action. Routine actions are embedded in our subconscious and we do things without even thinking about the act of doing them.

How many times have you been driving to work in the morning and suddenly wonder if you actually brushed your teeth before you left? Or is that just me? I brush my teeth immediately after I wash my hands, which happens right after I apply makeup, which happens as soon as I put my brush and comb back in the vanity drawer, which happens just before I finish styling my hair…. everything happens in a specific order because I’ve done it every day in the same order for years. So it’s easy to do any one of those things without actually noticing that you’re doing it because your mind is free to wander and think about other things. So it’s not all unheard of that I might forget if I did one part of that routine or if I did it without remembering that I did it.

So we know that to effectively break a habit we need to replace one action with a different action. Disruption is the key here. As habit expert James Clear says:

“You don’t break a bad habit, you replace it.”

One of the habits I’m working to eliminate relates to my social media usage. Over the past several months I’ve noticed that I am mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Instagram for no specific purpose. It’s a major time-waster and definitely isn’t contributing to my mental well-being. Instead, I want to use the time I’ve been using on browsing social media to do something more productive, like reading. I love to read! But I kept finding myself whining that I didn’t have enough time to read like I used to. Duh! That’s because I’m farting around on Facebook.

So in an attempt to curb my social media usage, I have removed the icons for Facebook and Instagram from my phone’s home screen. The apps are still on my phone, but they’re a few clicks and a scroll away inside the app drawer. No shortcuts within thumb’s reach. Instead, in the place where those shortcuts were on the home screen, I’ve placed my Kindle app and my Pocket app (Pocket is where I save articles I find online that I want to read later). So when my thumb habitually reaches for that Facebook, it lands on Kindle instead. Ha! Take that bad habit! You’ve been thwarted!

What are Daily Intentions?

As I mentioned above, the term “habit” riles up my rebellious nature. It’s such a buzz word that being overused in society today. The stigma of a “bad” habit and the exaltation of a “good” habit. And who gets to decide what is good vs. bad? In fact, who gets to decide what is a habit and what’s not a habit. OK…. let’s just leave that conversation for another day because I don’t need to get riled up and all soap-boxy on you.

SIDE NOTE: I’m sure you’re wondering why I used the term “habits” in the title of this blog post. Ha! Good catch! I use it because it’s what the search engines like and what you probably used in Google to find this page. So I’m bowing down to social norms in order to get you here so I can convert you to the dark side and start using new terms. Bwahahaha….

I prefer words like routine and intention. These terms are more personal and each person gets to decide for themselves what action is attached to those words. Yes, there’s the song that says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…” (thank you, Randy Travis). But when I use that term I think of it as an action that I’ve made the decision to take for a specific reason.

Intention is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out a specific action or actions in the future. Intention involves mental activities such as planning and forethought.

I also don’t think of tasks that need to be accomplished in a day as a habit I need to establish or need to record in a habit tracker. For instance, I want to write every day. Whether that’s just my daily Morning Pages or if it’s something more – like a blog post or a book or a letter to a friend. Similar to my desire, above, of wanting to read more, I also want to write more. But rather than include this on a habit tracker, I include it in my daily lists of tasks. The task isn’t accomplished at the same time each day or attached to any other action in my day and it doesn’t even involve the same type of writing each time I sit down to write — so it goes against every typical definition of a habit.

Instead, this is more of a routine task. I have made a commitment to carry out an action and I want that action to happen as close to daily as possible. I want it to become part of my the routine part of my life.

You’re probably thinking by now that I’ve lost my mind and that splitting hairs with these terms is just nonsense. Meh. Maybe so. But I’m sharing it with you because I imagine there are others in the world who also have a negative attitude toward the word habit, or even just being told what to do because of some random chart in your bullet journal. Use whatever word you want to use, of course. But be thoughtful about the words you use in your life and don’t just follow the crowd because that’s what everyone else is doing.

What do my Daily Intentions Mean?

Obviously, I’ve given this a lot of thought and most of this has come out of my daily Morning Pages practice (it’s a good place to examine what’s in your head and figure out how to make those thoughts into reality). I’ve settled on 5 intentions because it seems like a realistic number of things I can accomplish in a day. I can only hold so many things in my head at a time and I only have so much willpower and energy to devote to these things. So 5 intentions work for me. Be deliberate about the number you choose, too.

My Daily Intentions

These five areas of my life represent a holistic approach to health and well-being. When I consistently achieve each of these, I feel better physically and mentally. 

  • Be present
  • Get good rest
  • Eat healthy food
  • Move my body
  • Take my vitamins
The first one, “Be present” is a bit ambiguous and can mean something different from day-to-day. I know myself well enough to know that I am healthier – both physically and mentally – if I can be intentional about my day and how I spend my internal energy. Being present in the moment and being mindful of my actions and the world around me is the most important action I can take each day.

  • Stress Management
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Writing
  • Mindfulness

Stress management is a tough one for me because I tend to take on more responsibility than I need to and that ends up causing stress. So being aware of that character trait in myself and doing what I can to combat it each day is a good way to keep stress under control.

Journaling and writing go hand-in-hand and help me to keep my mind clear of clutter, but also to get my creative thoughts down on paper so they can be sent out to the world. I think of “journaling” as personal reflection that is for my eyes only and nobody else will see what I write. I think of “writing” as a productive task where the words I craft are published somewhere (like here on Stationery Nerd or in a book I publish.)

Prayer and meditation help to keep me balanced and in tune with my spiritual life. Someone wise once said that prayer is when you talk to God and meditation is when you sit quietly and let God do the talking.

Getting good rest, eating healthy and moving my booty – those are all self-explanatory, of course. But knowing that if I achieve at least one of those things in a day that I can call it a success. Sometimes I fail at all three of those and I’m just a Netflix-bingeing-popcorn-eating slug on the couch all day. But hey, at least I’m mindful of the fact that I was a slug.

I would say that the last one on the list – “take your vitamins” – is the closest thing I have to a traditional habit tracker type of item. Back in 2007, I had bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery) and part of the bargain of having that surgery is a very strict vitamin routine for the rest of my life. It’s not just a single multi-vitamin every morning with my coffee. It’s a regimen of vitamins and supplements that keep me alive and healthy with multiple doses throughout the day. I won’t bore you with all those details, but just know that this checkbox on my list is kind of essential to my well-being so I need it to be in my face every day as a reminder to stay on track.

My Morning Ritual

It’s not enough to simply check off boxes on a habit tracker. At least it’s not for me. I take seriously the fact that I consider these daily intentions. So each morning as I dive into my journal while enjoying that first glorious cup of coffee, I prepare for the day. I don’t plan ahead in my bullet journal. Each page is a new day and the tasks for that day are set down on paper that morning (sometimes it happens the night before, but that’s rarer). 

The daily structure of the page is the same, so I’ll often draw a few pages at a time to save time. But each morning I write the date at the top of the page and plan what needs to be accomplished. 

SIDE NOTE: This daily routine doesn’t actually happen every single day. There are plenty of days when I neglect my journal and don’t have a task list. It’s OK to skip days in your bullet journal. You are not a slave to that thing, do what works for you and the way you live your life.

On each day’s page, I draw 5 boxes. Then in the morning as I am filling out that day’s page, I fill in the boxes with the letter that represents the intentions I listed above. And while I write those letters I speak the intention out loud.

“Today I will be present. I will get good rest. I will choose healthy food. I will move my body. I will take my vitamins.”

Words have power. And when you hear your own voice verbalize the words you hold inside your mind the words become more powerful.

When was the last time you heard, in your own voice, something positive about yourself? How often do we utter self-defeating words like, “I am such a klutz!” or “I can never do anything right!” or “I’m not creative.” We say things about ourselves that we’d never say to our best friend or loved ones. So why do we say them to ourselves? We need to knock that off!

So by speaking my intentions out loud every morning, I am beginning my day by hearing, in my own voice, what is important to me and how I want to live my life.

I didn’t start these 5 daily intentions with speaking them out loud, like this. I began doing that a few months after I started including the 5 boxes on my planning page. I noticed a dramatic difference once I started speaking the words out loud! My success rate went from 30-40% up to around 80-90% (those are not scientific numbers, just a general guesstimate). Not only did I get to color in more boxes at the end of the day, but I also started to notice that I was feeling better and being more mindful of my actions.

How I Track my Daily Intentions

If you’ve been following along with me for a while, you know that I’m a highlighting-type of gal. I don’t use bullet points in my bullet journal <gasp> but instead, I just highlight a task to indicate if it’s done or not done. Green means the task is done. Gray means the task can be ignored — it was either not done and I don’t care about it anymore, or it was moved elsewhere to deal with on another day.

I use the same system for tracking my daily intentions. At the end of each day, I evaluate if I achieved the intention for each box. If I did, then it gets highlighted in green. If not, then it gets gray. Easy peasy!

Then I can leaf back through the pages to quickly assess if there is a pattern developing of not accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. Have I gone a whole week without moving my booty because I’ve been chained to my desk for too many hours in the day? Have I been neglecting my journaling habit or avoided meditation for several days? If I notice a pattern, I’ll make an extra effort to get myself back on track as quickly as I can.

Do you track habits?

I’d love to chat about how you track your habits. Drop a comment below and let’s start a conversation. Do you track habits on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis? Have you had success in establishing a new habit or breaking an old habit? What worked for you?

And most importantly… am I really the only one who has an aversion to the term “habits.” Please tell me I’m not alone!