The Minimalist Guide to Tracking Habits

Being productive doesn't have to be complicated, but you do have to ask yourself 2 key questions

Some of the best-selling books over the past few decades fall under the broad topic of productivity advice.

The popularity of titles such as “Atomic Habits,” “Getting Things Done,” and “Deep Work” suggests that many people have a strong desire to figure out how to organize their lives and be productive through set daily habits.

For a long time, I was a significant consumer of this kind of reading. I lamented my own struggles with procrastination and figured the solution must exist in one of these systems. If only I followed the right steps, I could unlock my potential and multiply my output—or so I thought.

Moving Beyond the Text

The problem, of course, isn’t in the books themselves. They’re largely great volumes with plenty of actionable advice.

The real issue was that I had missed the forest for the trees. I was so focused on the specific details of how productive people organized their lives that I missed the far more important foundations that allowed them to do meaningful things.

It took me a while, but I now see that answering the following two questions is more important than any technical details about tracking, organizing, or accomplishing tasks. They are:

  1. What is the most important, highest-value thing I can be doing right now?
  2. What truly motivates me to take action instead of merely planning or talking about it?

The advice I would give to my 22-year-old self would be to forget everything else about “being productive” and just master those two questions. I would tell him that no system in the world will matter if you haven’t done the internal work to answer them.

Once I made that leap forward in my understanding, I discovered that big books with elaborate systems no longer appealed to me. In my mind, the best system for tracking habits and tasks would be one that worked for me and was as simple as possible.

I found it far more interesting to observe my friends, colleagues, and other people I knew who consistently got things done in their life.

There are some problems in life where it’s best to look to the practitioners and observe what they do, rather than the experts and their theories about why it works. And I believe this is one of them.

3 Pieces to Tracking My Habits

In that spirit, I want to share what has worked for me and why it has been effective. If you ask 10 people this question, you’ll get 10 different answers, but you will, I think, begin to calibrate around an effective approach. And more importantly, you’ll find yourself inclined toward a particular method, and hopefully, will take the time to try it out in your own life.

My habit and task-tracking system has only three components:

A calendar, a visual tracker, and a piece of paper.

For me, all three of these would be paper-based and within arms reach of my desk—and that’s coming from someone who’s generally pro-technology and spends much of my time working on a computer. Sometimes the good old paper and pencil method is the simplest of them all.

My calendar is the only completely digital part of my system. There are too many benefits to sharing my calendar with others and being able to access it from my phone when I’m away from the house. It’s a compromise, but it works.

Each component of my system serves a different but significant purpose.


My calendar is where anything goes that I only need to remember on a particular date. This could be meeting someone for lunch, scheduling a two-hour chunk of time to work on a specific project, or just reminding myself to check our smoke detectors once per year.

Visual Tracker

If there’s a particular habit I’m working on, such as a new exercise routine, I don’t put it on my calendar or to-do list. Instead, I use a printable visual tracker and display it prominently on my desk where I’m able to check that habit off my list as I complete it. This keeps the habit tracking from cluttering up my other systems, and it also gives the habit special prominence in my life.

Piece of Paper

For any other task that isn’t a daily habit and doesn’t need to get done by a particular date, I write it down on a piece of paper that sits on my desk. It’s as simple as that. Compared to a digital list, a piece of paper provides a spatial dimension to my organization. I remember where on the page I wrote it down and can add other elements such as bolding, circling, or underlining with ease. And when something is really important, I write it on a sticky note or index card and put it front and center.

Create the System That Works for You

Is my system perfect? Of course not. Do I make exceptions to these rules? All the time. It’s through new, improved versions that I’m able to customize the most effective system for me. As a general framework, I’ve found it to be a simple, low-hassle way to keep track of the various habits and tasks that come into my life.

Tracking your progress doesn’t have to be an intensive, complicated system in order to work. I hope this article sparks useful ideas for how you can track your own habits, but even more than that, I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about the two important questions I shared above and just get started.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Epoch Health welcomes professional discussion and friendly debate. To submit an opinion piece, please follow these guidelines and submit through our form here.

Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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