A Better Habit Tracker
Most other habit trackers you’ll come across have many rows for tracking dozens of habits—ranging from the big important habits, all the way down to silly things.
You see people making cool designs, marking boxes with "X"es, or filling them with pretty colors.
But at some point, the focus shifts from doing the important things to tracking habits for the sake of tracking habits. 🤔
Eventually, you’re tracking so many habits, you also have to build the habit of tracking habits!
A better habit tracker:
- I wanted something simple.
- I needed something practical.
- I just wanted to focus the most important habits in my life.
The Five Habit Tracker is an exercise in limitation.
There’s a lot more to cover, but I also want to provide you with value right up front.
I’ve spent many, many hours designing and creating both hand drawn and digital versions of the Five Habit Tracker and I want you to have them.
Download the Five Habit Tracker
If you want to learn to draw your own habit tracker, I have detailed instructions later on in this article (WARNING: time-consuming!)
You can save yourself a dozen hours and download the pre-made digital Five Habit Tracker templates:
Table of Contents
- A Better Habit Tracker
- Why Track Habits?
- Track Only Five Key Habits
- Habit Suggestion #1: Wake Up Early
- Habit Suggestion #2: Write Every Day
- Hand Drawn vs. Digital Habit Trackers
- How I Track (Both Analog and Digitally)
- How to Draw Your Own Five Habit Tracker
- What Are "Mini Dates"?
Easy, Attainable, & Not Overwhelming
You can track five habits.
Five is a lot more manageable than 20, or 30, or 50.
Your system needs to be simple enough to be manageable, otherwise, you won’t use it!
Part of the reason you want to build better habits is because life is getting away from you. You want to your life to be what YOU make of it.
The last thing you need is a complex system and more overwhelm.
The Five Habit Tracker simplifies everything for you. Unlike generic habit trackers that have you track way too many habits, the Five Habit Tracker:
- Is easy to understand and easy to use.
- Makes tracking habits manageable—you only track five.
- Features a unique calendar view for each month that includes days of the week (no more wondering if the 17th of the month is Wednesday or Thursday).
- Uses a unique color coded design that helps you recognize patterns more easily.
Five Habit Tracker Explained
I need to quickly address the elephant in the room:
"SEAN—WHY DO YOU HAVE SIX COLORS IF THIS IS THE FIVE HABIT TRACKER?!"
I deserve that. I’m sorry.
I sincerely apologize for the confusion. I’m still technically tracking only five habits, there’s just a twist I’ll get to in a moment.
When I first started my habit tracker journal, I had no intention of sharing it publicly or talking about my process. After thousands of people liked the habit tracker photo I posted on my Instagram—with hundreds of comments encouraging me to write a blog post, I knew I had to share.
Had I known I was going to share my journal publicly, I would have made it simpler and less confusing from the beginning. Alas, that’s not how things happened.
Okay, so let me explain the answer to, "Why six colors for five habits?"
Here are the habits I’m tracking:
- 1) Woke up at 4:30 AM
- 2) Went for a run
- 3) Did my writing
- 4) Did a workout
- 5a) Had a mini date with Laci
- 5b) Went on a full date with Laci
The last two items are really just one item (dates with my wife), but I added an extra color for it simply for my own purposes of tracking whether or not it was a "mini date" or a "full date" (more on the “mini date” concept later in this post).
Mini date = blue, full date = purple.
In hindsight, I realize this adds confusion now that I’m trying to teach the Five Habit Tracker. However, it may end up being useful for you.
For instance, if you want to track a certain version or kind or status of a particular habit, you could tweak the color of it, but still use the same box.
Let’s say you wanted to build a running habit and for some reason you wanted to track whether or not you went for a 2-mile run or a 3-mile run. You could fill in the same box, but optionally use a different color to indicate the shorter or longer distance.
That’s just one idea. I’ll let you run with it (no pun intended)!
To keep things simple and to minimize confusion, I recommend the following colors:
- Habit #1 (Red)
- Habit #2 (Orange)
- Habit #3 (Yellow)
- Habit #4 (Green)
- Habit #5 (Blue)
Why Track Habits?
You have good reasons for wanting to build a habit.
Maybe you want to:
- Eat healthy
- Wake up early
I like this idea from Shawn Blanc:
The Progress Principle: When you can see the progress you’re making, it builds up motivation and momentum.
There has been much scientific research done to prove that when you see you are making progress, it builds up intrinsic motivation and it increases your overall work satisfaction.
All of these things will improve your life, and they’re worth making the necessary sacrifices, but it’s not easy to build new habits (or break old ones for that matter). That’s why you work to set yourself up for success as much as possible.
Accountability, rewards, punishments—these are all methods people use to keep up their momentum and stay on track.
But how do you know if you’re staying on track unless you actually track your habits?
If being consistent with your habit will bring about good things, being inconsistent with your habits prevents you from seeing those benefits.
You want to know exactly when and where you missed so you can identify problem areas and fix them.
When it comes to getting back on the horse when you miss, my friend James Clear puts it this way: never miss twice.
5 Reasons to Track Your Habits
I’m sure there are many more reasons, but off the top of my head, here are five reasons you might want to track your habits:
1. Discover Patterns
In using the Five Habit Tracker, I’ve discovered several strong connections between habits.
For instance, I virtually never run on a day where I don’t wake up at 4:30 AM. I can also see that on days where I get up at 4:30 AM, I virtually always go on a run, do a workout, and complete my writing for the day by 6:30 AM.
Knowing that helps me recognize the key to a successful day for me: waking up at 4:30 AM. This means I need to optimize my sleep and make sure I get to bed on time the night before.
2. See Where You Fall Off
Inevitably, you’ll slip up.
Understanding that mistakes happen is not the same as planning for failure.
What you want to avoid is failing and not knowing why you failed.
Tracking habits helps you recognize when and where you missed. You may not notice otherwise—or if you do, you’ll likely forget.
Record, recognize, recalibrate.
3. Keep Yourself Accountable
To put it bluntly: I feel good when I see the chains I’ve created in my habit tracker. I feel bad when I see that I’ve broken the chain of habits.
This habit tracker is primarily for me, but when I do share it with others or post it online, I’m baring my weaknesses and shortcomings.
Whether you use your tracker personally or share it publicly with a partner or on social media (or all three!), tracking your habits keeps you accountable. The data doesn’t lie.
4. Remember How Far You’ve Come
It’s easy to get discouraged when we’re not seeing the results we want in the time frame we want.
Tracking your habits helps you focus on lead measures instead of lag measures:
- Don’t look at the scale, look at the habit tracker—did you run every day?
- Don’t look at the word count, look at the habit tracker—did you write for your book every day?
- Don’t look at the fact that your spouse isn’t on board with your goals, look at the habit tracker—did you have a mini date with them every day?
Show up every day and the results will come.
5. Log the Data for the Future (You Don’t Know Why Yet)
Are you happy with how last year went?
Let me put it another way: would you be satisfied repeating the last 12 months?
Me neither. There are a lot of changes I’d like to make and a lot of mistakes I’d like to avoid.
But you know what I wish I had? I wish I had a record of my habits from last year. It would provide a lot of insight into why I didn’t get the results I wanted.
You may not know what you’ll do with the data now, but your future self will thank you.
Track Only Five Key Habits
"What if I have more than five habits?"
The Five Habit Tracker is an exercise in limitation and focus.
I’ve seen people using huge spreadsheets with rows upon rows of habits that are tracked across a grid of hundreds of tiny boxes.
If you’re trying to track 30 daily habits, the Five Habit Tracker is not for you.
Choose Five Habits That Will Make the Biggest Difference
We’re not trying to build the habit of habit tracking here. It’s easy to get carried away to the point where you’re spending too much time tracking the habits themselves.
- What habit you build will have the greatest impact on everything else?
- What one habit has a positive effect on many other areas of your life?
- What habits will create a cascading effect?
One example might be waking up early. If you wake up early, you tend to exercise more of the time. When you exercise, you feel better. When you feel better, you’re productive, and so on.
Choose five key habits that will have the greatest positive impact on your life right now.
Habit Suggestion #1: Wake Up Early
A productive morning routine starts the night before.
If you want to wake up early, you have to start thinking about it when you go to sleep. You may be thinking, “I really want to wake up early, but it’s so hard in the morning because I’m tired.”
You’re Tired Because You Went to Bed Late
You went to bed late because you got your work done late, and you got your work done late because you slept in—and that’s because you worked late the day before! You’ve trapped yourself in a perpetual cycle, and your productivity suffers as a result.
At some point, you have to change something—and it’s not something you change at 6:00 a.m. It’s not just setting your alarm for 6:00 a.m.; it’s preparing the night before.
The hardest part of making the shift for me was stopping my work when there was more work to be done.
When you have more work to do, you feel like you can’t stop, and that never ends. If you buy into that narrative, you’re just going to cement the pattern. You have to stop and say, “There’s more work to do, but I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m going to wake up early, I’m going to get it done, and I’m going to get ahead of this thing.”
Early-morning success starts with going to bed earlier so you’re not tired. Yes, it will take a while longer to fall asleep at first. The next night, go to bed early again. It will still take you a while longer to fall asleep, but not as long. Gradually, you’ll develop a pattern. Slowly, you’ll start to adjust. Preparing the night before might look like minimizing screen time, stopping work sooner, spending time with your family earlier, setting a reasonable bedtime, or starting your nighttime routine sooner. It can be a simple thing.
First Define Success by When You Go to Bed
For instance, I have a routine where I wake up at 4:30 a.m., run, shower, and sit down to start writing by 6:00 a.m. When I first started developing this habit, as long as I shut things down by 9 PM and got in bed by 10 PM, I defined it as a success. It didn’t matter if I woke up early. At first I didn’t. It’s hard when you’re not used to waking up early.
If you try to define success as this big, huge thing where you go to bed early, wake up early, and have a super-successful, focused block of ninety-minutes and get everything done, you’re going to be disappointed. It will not all happen at once. You have to start small and define success by accomplishing one thing at a time. After you solidify one habit, chain other habits to it.
This section on waking up early was an excerpt from my book, Overlap:
Habit Suggestion #2: Write Every Day
One of the most valuable things you can do for your career is build a writing habit.
I used to think writing was boring.
I thought writing was something only writers did and I didn’t consider myself a writer. Maybe you don’t either.
So why write? What’s the point? Who should write?
You should be writing. Yes, you!
What Are the Benefits of Writing?
The benefits of writing are immense:
- Writing helps you remember.
- Writing clears your mind.
- Writing influences your speaking and the way you talk.
- Writing solidifies your own ideas in your head.
- Writing helps you become more articulate.
- Writing is how you find your voice.
- Writing teaches yourself while it teaches others.
Most importantly, writing is how you make a name for yourself.
Writing is the starting point for all other mediums.
- Want to do a speech? Write.
- Want to sell products? Write.
- Want to record a song? Write.
- Want to compose a book? Write.
- Want to produce a feature film? Write.
- Want to make a great podcast? Write.
- Want to teach an online course? Write.
- Want to shoot a compelling video? Write.
What if you finally wrote that book?
What if you finally launched that course?
Fix Procrastination and Write With Ease
Maybe you write sometimes, but you don’t write consistently.
You feel like you can’t find the time.
Heck, even when you have the time, you can’t seem to find the right words.
Just a blinking cursor on a blank screen.
That’s why I made a course called 30 Days to Better Writing. With it, you’ll learn how to write effortlessly. I’ll show you how to make words flow from your fingers.
In fact, our members wrote millions of words collectively in just the first week!
Learn to unlock the message you have inside you—even if you feel like you don’t have anything to say.
How To Start Writing
The first thing to note is that you can’t improve what you haven’t written. You need to write poorly before you can write eloquently. Get over your ego and perfectionism and start getting some imperfect words on the page.
If you can talk, you can write. All modern devices have dictation that will transcribe your words. Turn on the microphone and start speaking. Watch as the words appear on the page.
Will they be perfect? No. Will it be flawless so you don’t have to do any editing? No. But now you have words on the page.
Get the words on the page—whether that’s fingers to keyboard or transcribing your speech. It bears repeating: you can’t improve what you haven’t written, so start writing.
Hand Drawn vs Digital Habit Trackers
Should you use a hand drawn habit tracker or a digital habit tracker?
I’m a huge fan of keeping everything synced between all of my devices. I like being able to access something I wrote on my desktop and mobile devices alike.
There are some strong arguments for keeping things digital:
- You can download a pre-made template and reuse it.
- It’s less time consuming than drawing a habit tracker by hand.
- It’s easier to parse data ("How many days have I done X?").
- It’s searchable for comments or keywords.
- Your information can sync across multiple devices.
- It’s one less physical thing to pack when traveling.
While these are great reasons, I still have a hard time deciding.
Journaling is all the rage right now and it seems like everyone is drawing their own custom habit trackers and planners.
There are also a lot of compelling reasons for drawing your own habit tracker:
- You can create your own unique design.
- You will remember things you draw for longer.
- It’s fun to make and color in.
- Turning physical pages still feels nice.
- Your journal sits on your desk as a reminder.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to one or the other.
In fact, I like to use both!
How I Track (Both Analog and Digitally)
Personally, I use a combination of digital and analog tracking.
For instance, I track my workouts with my Apple Watch, but I also fill in the boxes on my hand drawn habit tracker.
I also do most of my writing on a desktop computer with an app called Ulysses. This app helps me organize my writing and sync it across my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, etc. However, I also fill in the writing box on my hand drawn habit tracker.
I’m personally more motivated by filling in the colors by hand. I enjoy the physical act of drawing and it’s somewhat of a reward for me. Some days, when I’m not feeling particularly motivated, it’s the fact that I get to fill in the boxes alone that gets me to do what I need to do (like get out of bed early).
I get all of the benefits of hand drawn (custom, fun, memorable) while still capturing and syncing a lot of things digitally.
The nice thing about doing my writing on a computer, or tracking my workouts on a fitness device: if I ever forget to fill out the physical habit tracker…
- I can easily locate the data on my digital devices.
- I’ll never have to wonder when or if I wrote because my documents have timestamps.
- I’ll never have to wonder when or if I did a workout because my fitness tracker saves all of that information.
The journal stays on my desk as a nice physical reminder (and quick reference guide), but I can find just about anything I’ve tracked digitally as well for times where I want more information.
If you want to save time and use my digital habit tracker (or physically fill out the printable PDFs) get the Five Habit Tracker here:
To create your own unique Five Habit Tracker tracker, read on!
How to Draw Your Own Five Habit Tracker
Early on, I warned that drawing your own habit tracker by hand can be time consuming. But let’s be real: it’s also a whole lot of fun!
Plan to spend at least an hour or two on this. I recommend starting only if you have enough time set aside to finish.
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to buy anything fancy to make your own habit tracker. All you need is something to write with and a piece of paper.
However, I will say that having a dot grid notebook does make this process a whole lot easier.
Before you rush off to buy a new notebook, take a look around your office first—you probably have an unused notebook lying around that you can use that would be just fine. It doesn’t hurt to look!
Dot Grid Notebooks
The journal you see featured in my photos below is the Baron Fig Work Play II. The left page features a dot grid layout, and the right page features a blank page. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s smart. And… it’s sold out.
But don’t let that stop you! There are still plenty of other great dot grid journal options:
- Northbooks Notebook Dot Grid Journal
- Cheapest (also Amazon Prime)
- Dot Grid Field Notes Memo Book
- Best value
- Baron Fig Confidant
- Highest quality, but hard to get.
Feel free to use whatever pens, paper, notebooks, markers, etc. you have around the house.
But if you’re curious, here are the pens I use:
- Sakura Pigma Micron 59-Piece Artist’s Gift Set
- This is WAY overkill for most people, but I absolutely love having virtually every color of the rainbow at my disposal. I LOVE this set.
- Sakura Pigma Micron 6-Pack 05 Assorted Colors
- This is a great color ink starter set. All Micron pens included are 05 in size. You won’t get the exact same colors I have (from the Artist’s Gift Set), but you will get some varied options. It’s worth noting you can find other colors available for individual purchase, but buying individual pens does add up fast.
- Sakura Pigma Micron 6-Pack Assorted Black
- This is a great black ink starter set. It includes 005, 01, 02, 03, 05, and 08 tips.
- Sakura Pigma Micron 08 Black
- If you don’t want a set, this is a great go-to single Micron pen.
- Sakura Pigma Micron 005 Black
- To get this tiny details like you see in my photos, you’re going to need an 005 Micron pen. At just 0.2mm in size, you can add incredibly fine details.
Here are my other tools:
- Alvin Stainless Steel Inking Ruler with Nonskid Back – 12"
- I LOVE this ruler. It’s amazing how premium it feels for how inexpensive it is. The cork back allows it to slide gracefully and the aluminum body helps you make super straight lines.
- Westcott LetterCraft Large and Small Circles Template
- I use this stencil to make the circles inside each of the days.
Hand Drawn Habit Tracker Drawing Steps
Count out 14 dots width (each day will be 2 dots square).
Look at a calendar and count the number of weeks there are in the month you are tracking to determine your dot height:
- 4 weeks: 8 dots
- 5 weeks: 10 dots
- 6 weeks: 12 dots
Draw a box that is 14 dots wide by whatever number of dots high needed to accommodate the number of weeks in your month (my example below is 10 dots high because there are 5 weeks.
Draw out the horizontal lines (ideally using a ruler).
Draw out the vertical lines (ideally using a ruler).
Write the abbreviated names of the days of the week along the top.
Draw diagonal lines in boxes where days of the previous and following months fall to “gray” them out.
Draw a small circle at the center of each open day boxes (I use a circle stencil).
Draw the horizontal quadrant lines. Take care to draw around (not through) the circles you’ve made.
Draw the vertical quadrant lines. Take care to draw around (not through) the circles you’ve made.
Write the date numbers inside each of the circles (I use an 005 Micron for this).
Write the month and year at the top.
Now create your habit key (or color legend). This is the list of habits you are tracking.
In my case, you’ll see six boxes instead of five to account for the two variants of Habit #5 I’m tracking (I talked about this earlier in the article). In your case, you’ll typically have only five boxes.
Draw a stack of five boxes. Each box will be one dot square.
Use your pens or markers to fill each box of your color legend with your desired colors (example: red, orange, yellow, green, blue).
Write out a description for each habit you are tracking to the right of each colored box.
I’d love to see what you make! Share your creations using hastag #FiveHabitTracker.
What Are “Mini Dates”?
I wasn’t sure if I would add this section since it seemed a bit outside the context of this post, but I know that a number of people were curious and had asked about the "Mini Dates" seen in my habit tracker. I figured I might as well share more about it for anyone who was interested!
For the 8 years we’ve been married, my wife Laci and I have always made an effort to have at least one date night per week.
If you’re not already going on a weekly date with your significant other, you should be. A once a week date is a good starting point.
A weekly date alone is not a sufficient amount of quality time to spend with the most important person in your life.
As an entrepreneur, there have been seasons of my life where I’ve been consumed with my work. Too much of the past decade has been this way.
It’s easy to let relationships take a back seat to whatever your current obsession is.
I wasn’t satisfied with this continuing. I wasn’t satisfied with the amount of time (rather, lack of time) my wife and I were spending together.
She is the love of my life, and I enjoy sharing life with her. I enjoy talking to her, listening to her, and spending time with her.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
It’s one thing to say something is important to you. It’s a whole other thing to prove it with your actions. Actions speak louder than words, and talk is cheap. If you love someone, you spend time with them. You talk with them, you listen to them.
In busy seasons of life, I told my wife I loved her and I wanted to spend time with her. Those things were true, but unless I did something about it—unless I acted on it—it meant nothing.
You Will Never Find Time. You Can Only Make Time.
You make time for the things that are important to you. You make time for Netflix. You make time for endless scrolling on social media. You make time for whatever you do, and the things you do are what is important to you.
I wanted to spend more time with the person I loved most. That required sacrifice and discipline. It required giving things up and making time.
I realized I would never regret spending more time with her. Looking back, if I ever gave something else up to be with her more often, I would never regret that decision.
Every moment you have with the people you love is a gift. Never take it for granted.
They could get hit by a bus tomorrow, diagnosed with cancer next week, or die in some crazy accident.
How would you feel about the efforts you’ve made to spend time with the person you love if the worst happened tomorrow? What would you do differently if you could go back? Are you willing to make the sacrifices now to make time with them a priority?
These are the questions I asked myself and the things I thought about.
Yes, we had a weekly date night, but that wasn’t enough.
Something Needs to Change
Just yesterday, someone I knew shared that he and his wife had hardly spoken in 5 days because they had been so busy. Suddenly, they realized they hadn’t so much as said, "Hi, how are you doing?"
The fact that such a thing is common amongst couples is heartbreaking!
If you ever feel like two ships passing in the night, stop and reevaluate. You have made decisions and commitments that have resulted in reaching this point. Something needs to change.
For me, that change was a conscious decision to make time on a daily basis to spend time with my wife.
I came up with the concept of "Mini Dates".
Mini Dates: 30 Minutes of No-Agenda Time to Talk Each Day
Every day, we spend 30 minutes together. We talk about whatever is on our minds.
We have a dedicated time of day set aside specifically for doing this. Sure, we spend much more than 30 minutes together in a typical day, but these 30 minutes for the mini date are special. They are dedicated. They always happen no matter what. They’re set aside because you set aside time for what (and who) is important to you.
There’s no agenda for the mini date. It’s just 30 minutes of time spent talking. I can talk, she can talk, we can take turns, or one of us can take up the whole time today and switch it up tomorrow. What often ends up happening is something like 80/20. Usually, one person will have something going on in their life that day that they really want to share or talk about. The other person will do more of the listening. This tends to flip back and forth from day to day.
No More Bogged Down Dates
If you’ve ever felt like your weekly dates end up getting bogged down with logistics, mini dates solve that. We’re always up to date and have communicated most daily life matters.
What this means is when we go on a full date, we can get to the even deeper stuff. You know: the hopes and dreams stuff—the kinds of things you used to talk about when you first met. Your conversations can be more than surface level and cover more than just the business of life.
Never underestimate the power of listening.
If you do mini dates for a month, that’s 15 hours of quality time right there alone! If you’re listening at least half the time, that’s 7 hours spent listening to your spouse. This is going to make them feel loved and cared for. Your relationship will be deeper. Listening is a skill that takes practice.
Walk and Talk (Two Birds With One Stone)
Initially, Laci and I would sit on the living room couch and talk during our mini dates. This was good, but eventually, we thought it would nice to also go on a walk together. We could still talk just the same, but we had the added bonus of increasing our physical activity as well. Two birds with one stone!
As a result, walking during our mini dates results in moving an extra 30–40 miles per month (in addition to the running we do on our own)!
“Full dates” now feel more like a bonus. We still do a regular "full date" once per week on average. Instead of catching up on life, we get to talk about the deeper things like hopes and dreams.
While I track only five habits, I have six colors so as to differentiate in one block between whether a date was a "full date" or a "mini date". I realize that it’s somewhat confusing now that I’m writing a post the Five Habit Tracker for others, but it’s something I started doing before I knew I’d be sharing my concept.
Whew! That was… a lot.
If you made it all the way to the bottom, nice job!
I hope this post encourages you to make a positive change in your life. Start small, stay consistent, and expect big changes over time.
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[New Blog Post] Five Habit Tracker
Ended up being 5,800 words!
— Sean McCabe (@seanwes) February 21, 2018
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Thanks for reading!
I also recorded an hour-long podcast episode you might like if you enjoyed this post: seanwes podcast 350: Five Habit Tracker.