One thing I’ve been doing is keeping an elaborate Happiness-Project self-scoring chart. I lifted the idea from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. He recounts how he identified thirteen virtues he wanted to cultivate, then made himself a chart with those virtues plotted against the days of the week. Each day, he’d score himself on whether he lived up to his goals.
I’ve made a similar scoring chart—a kind of calendar with all my resolutions, in which I can give myself a √ (good) or an X (bad)
We’re much more likely to make progress on goals that are broken into concrete and measurable actions, with some kind of accountability. This approach makes it easier to take action, plus it makes progress more obvious—which acts as positive reinforcement.
So has keeping a score chart helped me stick to my resolutions? Absolutely.
Even without taking the process of score-keeping into account, just reading the list of my resolutions a few times a day helps keep them active in my thoughts. A phrase like, “Think of small treats for others” or “Show up!” or “Answer the phone with good cheer” floats into my mind at relevant moments.
Also, I think that rewarding myself for good behavior—even if the reward is nothing but a mark in a box—does make me more likely to stick to a habit. I crave the satisfaction of getting those checks! I’ve been trying to get over my need for recognition and praise, but it’s not easy, and that little bit of reinforcement makes a difference (even though I’m giving it to myself).
Keeping the charts has also helped me to understand myself better; I can see what resolutions I’m more likely to keep, and which ones I’m likely to break.
For example, I’ve found that I’m much better at doing something than refraining from doing something—for example, I find it much easier to make a thoughtful gesture than to keep from losing my temper. This self-knowledge has helped me figure out the best ways to tackle my bad habits.
Keeping a scoring chart improved my behavior, but I’m still quite far from perfect. I comfort myself with the words of Ben Franklin, who reflected of his chart: “on the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Gretchen Rubin’s website.