What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can’t Get Started)

It was 1978.

In the years that would follow, Dean Hovey would meet with Steve Jobs and design the first mouse for Apple Computer. But today, he was a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Product Design, and he was sitting in drawing class.

His professor, Jan Molenkamp, asked if Dean could draw the roof of Stanford’s famous Hoover Tower from memory. “Without looking, can you draw Hoover Tower’s roof? Can you recall its shape, color, and texture?”

Hovey was surprised. He wasn’t sure what to draw. Years later, he would write…

For the past three years, I had been a student at the University and ridden my bicycle or walked by Hoover Tower hundreds of times. Yet I couldn’t confidently state the roof’s shape or its color, or composition. While I’d seen it a hundred times — I really hadn’t. (Source)

Even though Hoover Tower was part of Dean’s daily life, he wasn’t really aware of it.

I find that our habits often work the same way. We fall into certain patterns and routines — sometimes good, sometimes bad — without really being aware of the factors that are driving our choices and actions.

More importantly, just as Dean Hovey couldn’t draw the tower without first being aware of it, you and I can’t master our habits without first being aware of the decisions and actions we are taking on a daily basis. Awareness is the first and most critical piece for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Without awareness, even the most intelligent and talented people can struggle to make the right decisions on a consistent basis.

This may have you wondering…

What can you do to raise your levels of awareness? How can you change your bad habits if you’re not aware of them in the first place?

Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here is one tactic that has worked for me…

For Better Habits, Measure Something

What gets measured, gets managed.
—Peter Drucker

If you’re serious about making change, then you can’t sit around and hope to magically become aware of the important things. Instead, you need to make an active effort to measure and track what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

This is much simpler than you might think and it’s also one of the best ways to kickstart new behaviors. Here are a few examples…

Exercise — I have a good streak going with weightlifting right now. I’ve trained at least once per week for over a year (which includes travel to Istanbul, Moscow, Italy, South Carolina, Portland, and a handful of other places). And for the last four months in particular, I have been in the gym at least 3 times per week.

It all started when I began tracking my pushup workouts. That simple action prompted me to track the rest of my training with a more watchful eye. It sounds so simple, but writing down how many days I was training each week helped me get my butt in the gym more consistently. (And along the way, I doubled the amount of pushups I could do.)

Further reading: 6 Truths About Exercise That Nobody Wants to Believe

Writing — Before November 2012, I thought that I was writing consistently, but I wasn’t. Eventually, I decided to measure my writing output and realized that I was unpredictable and erratic. I wrote when I felt motivated or inspired, which turned out to be about once every three weeks.

After becoming aware of how inconsistent I was, I decided to set up a Monday and Thursday publishing schedule. It’s been 10 months now and I haven’t missed a week. (You can look back in the archives and see every article I’ve written.) My Monday and Thursday posts might look like an old habit now, but the only reason I started writing on this schedule is because I measured my output and discovered my inconsistency.

Further reading: The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs and What is Your Average Speed?

Money and Business — According to many historians, John Rockefeller was the richest man in the history of the world. Recently, I read about his life and learned that Rockefeller was known for tracking every single penny across his massive empire. After reading about Rockefeller’s strategies, I was inspired to track my own finances even more closely.

What happened? I quickly became more aware of my finances and discovered a handful of places where I could cut costs and increase earnings. Furthermore, my increased tracking and measurement has helped me learn about things like tax efficiency and asset allocation, which I had previously thought very little about.

Notice that in each example above, I didn’t start by worrying about all the improvements I needed to make. I simply started by becoming more aware of my behavior. I tracked and measured. And by paying attention to what I was doing and how I was spending my time, ideas for improving my habits naturally presented themselves.

Your Challenge

It is all about paying attention.
—Dean Hovey

Nothing happens before awareness. If you aren’t aware of your decisions, then you can’t do anything to improve them — no matter how smart you are.

With that in mind, I’d like to challenge you to measure something in your life for the next week.

Pick something that is important to you and make an effort to be more aware of the things that drive your decisions and actions. Don’t worry about changing your whole life. Don’t judge yourself for not being as good as you want to be. Just pick one thing that’s important to you and measure it. Take stock of it. Be aware of it.

Your awareness and your habits go hand-in-hand. The simple act of noticing what you do is the first step for improving how you do it. If you recognize how you’re spending your time, then the next step will often reveal itself.


  1. You’ve got it right, James. When I realized just how rarely I was writing I knew something had to change. I applied the Seinfeld strategy and I’ve been writing daily for months now. It’s insane because now I can actually track how consistent I am.

    I also make it a point to write down everything I’ve accomplished each day on Evernote.

    • Good work on the writing, Vincent. Evernote is great for tracking things like that. And I’m happy to hear that the Seinfeld strategy is working well for you.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. James,

    I just set up a Evernote chart last week to track my writing. I was too sporadic and needed a dashboard to keep track. I have always done this with my workouts but never with my writing. I have a book to finish up and blog posts to start posting this week. Thanks for the reminder to track activity:))

    • Good luck with the book, Tom. It sounds like you’re moving in the right direction. Just keep that momentum going.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Wild. I’ve been coming across a lot of articles very similar to this and reading a book, “Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova” that talks about awareness or “observation” as she puts it.

    Maybe the Universe is trying to tell me something. :-)

    I need to pay attention to all three areas but I think the writing and exercise are at the top of the list for me. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • I haven’t heard of that book. I’ll have to add it to my list.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share, Ken. And good luck with your own workouts and writing.

  4. Great I ideas. I think I will track when I procrastinate on doing things like schoolwork and other “chores”. Thanks again James!

  5. I love this perspective on habits. I tend to lose motivation quickly when starting a new habit. I think this could be a good workaround for a loss in motivation. Sorta like BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits theory, something I know you’ve discussed before.

    • I like that idea, Dwayne. When motivation starts to fade, just be aware of your behavior. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Don’t worry about being filled with motivation. Just be aware of what you’re doing.

      Often, that awareness is enough to nudge you in the right direction.

      Thanks for reading and sharing. And good luck with your own habits.

  6. It always amazes me how unaware people are. Many even do things like shower and brush their teeth with no real recognition–just going through the motions. It may sound weird, but a shower is a great time to get in touch with yourself. I mean that in a spiritual and clean physical way. I learned years and years ago to really be one with what is around me. Really make sure I am present.

    15 years ago, I never noticed any interesting birds in the park. Ten years ago, I started paying attention to paying attention. I now catch the slightest flutter out of the corner of my eye, and I have taken up birding.

    There is a huge difference between awareness and letting go. I also recommend taking walks in the park where you zone out, too.

    James, you’re doing a great job!

    • Thanks Brian. I especially like the distinction you made between awareness and letting go. A good balance of focused time and free time is always necessary.

      As always, thanks for reading.

  7. Knowing when, where, what, and how you are is an invitation to the “Party of YOU”. Going through the motions of life is not very satisfying, is it, let alone productive?

    Living mindfully, intently, and self-aware is one of most wonderful things we can do for us. Thanks for this reiteration.

  8. Awesome! This is totally in line with what I have been thinking lately. I have gotten really into using a few different iPhone apps to track different aspects of my life, and it has been totally eye opening.

    I just wrote a post detailing the apps that I am using at my website . It may be helpful if you need some support with how to track. Thanks for the great article!

  9. Just want to say that no one could have said it better! You are right! Thank you for your suggestions. I have the tendency to “spin-on-my-wheels” and not go anywhere for a while. Plus being a perfectionist! By taking your approach, I am concentrating my efforts on the work, no so much on the result.

    I can not thank you enough! Keep on with your work! Many good things your way!

    • Thanks for the wonderful compliments, Gigi. It’s great to have you reading. I’ll do my best to keep sending useful ideas your way each week.

  10. Hi James,

    I’ve been very inconsistent with my posting schedule as well, so I’ve also set up a Monday and Thursday publishing schedule and plan to stick to it.

    I try to build a simple framework for each day, not skimping on exercise and most importantly, creative time. I trashed software tracking methods and simply try and sit down at the end of each day and track what I did (with good old pen and paper) … how to get better and what practices I should simply delete because I’m not the least bit motivated to do them, ever.

    And I’m also trying to be more aware of the world around me, and not so in my head. ;)

    • I think those are all good strategies, Craig. I went through a similar process where I tried some tracking via software, but ended up eliminating it. It seems to work for certain things in my world, but not others.

      Regardless, what is most important is that you keep experimenting and tweaking things until you’ve found a system that maximizes your happiness and success.

      Good luck and thanks for reading.

  11. This was a great read! I just quoted it and posted the link in my blog! I want to start talking about awareness a bit more from a health and fitness perspective now that this piece has opened up some new ideas for me. Thanks and great blog :) – Blake

    • Thanks for the link, Blake. I appreciate you taking the time to read and share. Good luck with the health and fitness blog. The more information we can get out on habits and health, the better.

      Keep rocking.

  12. Another solid post…and truth. In fact, in our work of helping people raise awareness and tracking the consistency of their behaviors, we’ve learned a couple of startling facts:

    1. People do the good things they think they are doing about 40% as often as they think they are.
    2. People do the bad things they think they shouldn’t do about 200% as often as they think they are.

    Simply shifting these two statistics back to their expected values represents a massive opportunity for positive change. It starts with identifying the behavior…and tracking it.

    • Thanks for sharing those stats, Travis. That’s very interesting. Keep up the good work with habit tracking.

      And as always, thanks for reading.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Rachel.

      And yes, tracking can be fun. It depends on how you frame it in your mind. I view my tracking almost like mini-achievements. I’m glad to hear that it’s enjoyable for you.

      Thanks for reading.

  13. I have just recently started a health coaching business. Initially I thought my focus would be on nutrition however it has become perfectly clear that the road block for people isn’t what they should eat but the habits they have formed that prevent them from doing so. It is tough work to change habits and the toughest part for most is that it takes time to do it! I love the idea of tracking something that is important to a person to change. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • It sounds like you’re doing exciting work, Lynn. I think you’ve discovered an important piece of the puzzle: that it’s the habits and psychology (and not necessarily the diet plan itself) that will make the biggest difference.

      Good luck getting your clients to master their habits. Hopefully my articles can help in some small way.

      Thanks for reading.

  14. Thank you James! It is such a pleasure to read your posts. You have encouraged me to start running again! I stopped running when I was 22 years old; today I am 49 and feeling better than ever. Although, I kept myself busy, doing ballet (as a hobby) and walking, I just felt I would never be able to have the strength to run again……until last week I said STOP THAT AND TRY IT LITTLE BY LITTLE, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO FAINT! Guess what! Today I run for 20 minutes non-stop. I feel good and proud of myself. We are the only ones the set our own limits but as you said in your previous posts if we make a plan and stick to it…the rest is history. Voila!!

    • That’s wonderful, Mariel. Welcome back to the world of running. It sounds like you’ve got the right approach and that you’re building upon your habit each week. Keep that focus on doing it little by little and you’ll get to where you want to be soon.

      Good luck and thanks for reading.

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