Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Young life: Why I’ve turned to habit trackers

I have always been a spontaneous person, but I’ve recently enjoyed using a bullet journal to hold myself accountable 
January 24, 2024

The allure of habit-tracking has been particularly potent for me in these past few months. Colourful bullet journals, period trackers, exercise logs—all are ways to gain some illusion of “progress” or “healing” from the mental health dip I have been experiencing. I record my nicotine and alcohol intake and I monitor both my menstrual cycle (which had been thrown out of whack following the traumatic summer of 2022) and the number of kilometres I can run before either my legs or lungs give way. 

The rise of toxic productivity culture, which glamorises hustling one’s way to the top (no matter the sacrifices), coupled with the sense that time is a precious, scarce commodity, has made Gen Z obsessed with tracking as many aspects of our lives as possible. We feel that we must optimise the ways in which we spend our time to become the best version of ourselves. 

#BulletJournal has 4.8bn views on TikTok, with countless videos of aesthetically decorated diary pages that break each day down into the minutiae. In these journals there are columns for your daily goals and lengthy to-do lists, with lines not only for the larger tasks like the weekly shop or tackling laundry, but for every detail of your wellbeing: hours of sleep, litres of water consumed, minutes of meditation, screen time and so on. How are we supposed to find the time to log our every move? Who is able to meticulously curate a life like that and actually stick to it? 

I love the idea of a grown-up star chart where I can award myself pastel blobs for going on a run

Me, I suppose. Or at least I’m doing my best to track four or five basic habits. I was the kind of child who had a VERY well-stocked pencil case at school, so the idea of a grown-up star chart where I can award myself pastel blobs for going for a run, eating three meals or forgoing nicotine is very appealing. 

I look for patterns, for correlations between mood, exercise and menstrual phase. My period tracker, Flo, provides helpful insights that—occasionally—validate my feelings. I wonder why I feel so agitated, why I haven’t slept well for a few days, and Flo helpfully informs me that I’m in my luteal phase—the week of misery leading up to a period. But sometimes it misses the mark entirely, cropping up with a notification saying I might feel “calmer than usual” when I’m experiencing a resting heart rate of 120bpm. 

Documenting my habits is helping me stick to good ones, and I wonder how long it will be before I feel the benefit of my new, loose exercise regime and a reduction in (though not cessation of) my vices. Impatient for progress, I dabble with the idea of going all-out and establishing a radically different lifestyle for myself—one in which every hour, every minute is accounted for in the name of productivity and proactive healing. 

However, I never lose sight of the reality that life is messy—not everything is quantifiable and progress isn’t linear. Fastidious habit tracking might enable you to spot patterns: correlations between drinking and low mood, lack of sleep and poor eating habits, for instance. But there are too many variables in the human condition that all uniquely compound one another for anyone to gain the sort of control that some young people crave. 

While I’m a partial convert, I will never be a full-on #BulletJournal influencer. I could never follow the 5-9 regime, which begins at 5am with a meditation and ends with a strict 9.00pm bedtime, ruling out post-work pints. Unlike the ambitious (and highly accomplished, I’m sure) young women who do follow a “clean girl” lifestyle, my time’s for sharing. A regimented lifestyle doesn’t leave room for consoling best friends through unexpected break-ups, spontaneous dates or late nights spent catching up with old friends. I want to live my life from moment to moment, not within the rigid lines of any bullet journal. 

However, a little more structure has been a useful way to keep the extreme feelings that come with depression in check. Ultimately, I’m using the to-do lists and diaries and apps as stabilisers. They are a temporary aid to help me get back on track with the basics (like showering regularly and eating three meals a day). As soon as I feel able to, I will remove the stabilisers and resume my fancy-free lifestyle. In the meantime, I’ll be noting down how much water I drank today in my bullet journal.