I Went on a Health-Tracking Hiatus for a Month—Here's What Happened
I've been tracking my health habits diligently for about a year now, and have tried to make oodles of improvements to my lifestyle in the process. Everything from getting up earlier, to starting a bullet journal, to going for post-work walks has made its way into my habit tracker at some point.
Admittedly, the whole experience had left me feeling confused. I couldn't tell if habit-tracking was helping me make progress, or if it had become a distraction disguised as progress.
To get to the bottom of my confusion (and the subsequent anxiety it created), I decided to take the month off from habit tracking. As it turns out, this is something that experts recommend even if you're feeling great about your efforts.
"Habit tracking can be a great way to increase awareness about a behavior and to hold yourself accountable to continuing the behavior," says Kelly Donahue, Ph.D., health psychologist and author of Everyday Self-Care. "Awareness and accountability are two key aspects of behavior change."
However, she adds, it's a tool that needs to be evaluated regularly for maximum effectiveness—especially if, like me, you feel like something's off with your habit-tracking efforts, but you're not exactly sure what.
"Too much reliance on a tracker can take away from the joy of the habit, or prevent you from fully engaging in other parts of your life," says Dr. Donahue.
So how can you tell if it's time for a habit-tracking hiatus of your own? If you notice that habit tracking is creating feelings of anxiety, depression or worthlessness, it's a good idea to hit the brakes.
"When your life seems to be filled with nothing but expectations and never-ending to-do lists, a health-tracking regimen can feel like one more burden," says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a California-based clinical psychologist and author of Aging Joyfully.
Ideally, using a health tracker should feel positive and rewarding, like having your very own cheerleader bot in your pocket. "When the use of a health tracker feels stressful, both the psyche and body feel the strain," says Dr. Manly. "A hiatus can give the mind and body a break from the routine, as if you're on vacation for a week or two."
I knew I'd feel relief during my habit-tracking hiatus for this reason alone, but the positive impact it ended up having on my health—and stress level—surprised even me.
It neutralized my inner control freak.
Control and perfection have always been my way of soothing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, and I discovered that habit tracking had became an extension of my unhealthy coping techniques.
When things weren't going the way I wanted them to, maintaining my habits gave me a quick fix of control, and it felt good—in the moment, anyway—knowing that no matter what went wrong that day, at least I didn't break the chain on my health habits.
The longer those chains got, however, the more they weighed me down emotionally. Yes, I was maintaining important health habits, like drinking enough water and meditating, but the hiatus helped me realize that I was doing so for the wrong reasons.
"For those of us who have an inner control freak who strives for perfection and ultimate control, a break from habit tracking can be a wonderful opportunity to learn to let go of the illusion that control and perfection equate to love and safety," says Dr. Manly.
Since I no longer had the option of using habit tracking to fulfill my need for control when the slightest thing went awry, it gave me the freedom to complete each health habit because they're, you know, good for my health.
On days when I didn't get enough steps in or decided to crack open a beer instead of hitting my water quota, I was proud of myself for taking my foot off the gas—and, ironically, felt better choosing the less healthy option.
"The inner control freak can be calmed when she remembers that she's safe and loved, even when imperfect," says Dr. Manly. (Mine's as chill as a Buddha now.)
It helped me figure out which habits were already on lockdown.
"When you take a break from habit tracking, you'll be able to determine if you've formed the neural networks in your brain to sustain the behavior without an external aid," says Dr. Donahue. If you find yourself returning to old habits, then you probably need to spend more time using the tracker.
Many of the smaller habits I was tracking—drinking enough water, taking my supplements, even cutting back on caffeine (gasp, I know)—were on autopilot, so it wasn't necessary to track them anymore.
This freed up the bandwidth necessary to figure out why the rest of the habits I was tracking still felt like such a grind (so much so, that at the beginning of the hiatus, I barely completed any of them). Not surprisingly, the habits I was lagging on were related to eating healthier and exercising more—neither of which are my forte.
...and which needed to be modified or dumped.
Recipe pictured above: Cobb Salad with Herb-Rubbed Chicken
"We may decide to start a new habit because it's the thing to do (joining a Crossfit gym or starting the Mediterranean diet, for example), and we can use habit tracking to establish the habit," says Dr. Donahue. "Then when you take a break from habit tracking, you can ask yourself if you actually like the new habit you've established, and if it's really serving you. If not, it's okay to let it go."
The one habit I gave up on entirely? Meal prep. I don't know if it was the perfectionism thing or the control thing, but I found myself spending so much time keeping my food (and kitchen) organized that it turned eating into a soul-sucking chore.
Going back to eating intuitively was a much better fit for me (though I'm glad I gave meal prep a sincere shot). "Life is about experimentation to see what works best for you at this moment in time," says Dr. Donahue.
As for the exercise habits I was trying (and failing) to establish, I found they were too ambitious for my current fitness level, which led to me avoid them entirely. I've since modified my fitness goals to better suit where I'm at physically.
It reminded me I don't have to strive to better myself every second of every day.
By pushing so hard to improve my health, the anxiety triggered by "keeping up" was, paradoxically, cancelling out my efforts. "We often strive for perfection and the 'ideal' way of being," says Dr. Manly. "Yet, there's a sound truth to remembering that constant pressure and over-striving create stress, which harms your physical and mental health."
Plus, so much of my focus was on tracking my improvements that I wasn't taking the time to enjoy the improvements—and what's the point of doing one without the other?
Now that the experiment is over, the way I go about tracking my health habits has completely shifted. I now use habit tracking as a guide, as opposed to a rigid list of health to-do's or a distraction from what's really bothering me.
When I don't get around to one of my desired habits that day (or, uh, any of them), I take the time to reflect on what was going on or how I was feeling that day. Anything that I feel could have been prevented, I take note of how I can try and do better tomorrow. (But if I don't do better, I'm okay with that, so long as I know I tried.)
"There's value in pausing and reflecting on how you're doing in this moment," says Dr. Donahue. "Realizing we're enough, just as we are, is the real freedom."