otion is a great tool for building and tracking habits. Small consistent habits can bring huge benefits in the long run. Notion makes building habits easy and fun. That's why I use it every day to keep track of the habits I want to install.
The system that I am going to share with you consists of three parts: a database of habits that we want to build, a database to track them on a daily basis, and a dashboard to organize nicely.
In this step-by-step guide, I will show you how to implement a habit-building tracker in Notion. It is based on the framework from Atomic Habits and neuroscience tips on the role of dopamine in habit forming that I learned from the Huberman Lab podcast.
I have used Notion as a habit tracker for almost a year and wove a bunch of useful and healthy habits into my lifestyle and identity. The flexibility of Notion coupled with the right theoretical framework were the key components that helped me a lot to install many useful habits. It helped me to write consistently, exercise each morning, do breathing work and even take cold showers.
First, I'll explain how to create the tracker and then share the framework and the tips. You can duplicate the template here, it's free. Let's get started.
## How to create a habit tracking system in Notion in 3 steps
We'll need 2 databases to arrange the habit-building and tracking process.
The first database will contain the habits and their properties, such as cues and rewards. It's essential to think about these properties as each one of them will help to make your habit-building consistent and successful.
The second database is for tracking purposes. Its entries are your days where you'll mark off completed habits and track the progress.
And finally, we'll arrange them into a dashboard and add several habit-building tips at the end.
Let's start building.
### Step 1. Create a habit-building database
1. Create a page in Notion, add a title, an icon.
2. Create an inline-table and name it "Habit building".
3. Add the following properties:
1. Name - a habit you are going to install
2. Status - a select property
3. Cue - a text property
4. Smallest step - a text property
5. Reward - a text property
4. Add 2-3 habits and fill out the properties based on habit building theory you learned earlier.
### Step 2. Create a habit tracking database
1. Create an inline database, name it "Habit tracking".
2. Add the following properties:
1. Name - today's date - I usually use a shortened version with the year, e.g Oct 17, 2021
2. Date - a date type property
3. Day of the week - formula - `formatDate(prop("Date"), "dddd")`
4. Habits from `Habit building` database - a Checkbox type
5. Notes - a text property
### Step 3. Arrange a dashboard
There are three parts. The upper part is used for tracking the progress. Next, you'll have your Habit building database to have an overview of the habits you are currently working on. Lastly, you can add tips to always remind yourself of the components that make habit-building successful.
Each day, you have to make a new entry with the date's name and check the boxes of the habits that you performed that day.
Let's first create a gallery view of the `Habit Tracking` database on the top of the `Habit Tracker` page and filter it where `Date` is `Today`. This view will show only today's entry.
To have a larger overview, let's keep the original tracking database but limit the number of entries to show only the last 10. Click on 3 dots of the database, go to `Properties`, and select `10 pages` under "Show on the first load". You can also hide the `Date` property as you don't really need it since the name of each entry has the date in it. We needed it for the formula to create weekdays.
Lastly, we'll have the theoretical part. Here you'll have the Habit Building database that you created earlier and a small callout with the tips. Feel free to remove it if you don't need. I like to keep it to remind myself how the framework works.
## Habit building protocol with neuroscience-based tips
If you haven't read Atomic Habits, I highly recommend it. The theory and the framework in the book helped me to understand myself better and therefore build a system around it to make installing new habits much easier.
Here I'll outline the main lessons that we are going to use as part of habit building. Additionally, I'll provide several more neuroscience tips that I learned from the Huberman Lab podcast. In particular, how dopamine plays the main role in behavior and habit building.
Cue - trigger
Craving - want
Response - do
Reward - receive
Cue is the information that triggers a behavior. Cues can be stored in many things: chemicals in the brain, environment, people, routine, etc.
It's the starting point that leads to craving, then the response, and eventually the reward.
If you want to build a habit, try to associate a space, routine, or any other piece of information with a habit. Contrary, if you want to break a habit, avoid a trigger by changing the environment or altering your routine.
Notion itself can be a great cue when it's part of your routine. Once I established a morning journaling routine, I could bundle up several other habits.
Dopamine release causes craving for the reward. If you are hungry, the feeling creates a cue, dopamine is released so that you go and seek food, i.e the reward.
There are two types of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic rewards motivate our behavior because they are pleasurable and unconditioned. Extrinsic rewards are learned in associations with intrinsic ones. For instance, money itself does not bring pleasure, but it helps our intrinsic rewards, thus, it is learned by association.
Intrinsic rewards are easier to be motivated by. Extrinsic rewards are more difficult to be motivated by **continuously** because once they fulfill our basic needs, there's less and less dopamine released upon receiving those rewards.
There was a study showing that money does not make us much happier when we surpass a certain income threshold. That's why focusing on intrinsic rewards can be more beneficial in the long run.
It's difficult to crave long-term and healthy rewards because they are very distant. The priority is given to primary rewards, such as pleasure, food, and sex. For biology, it's more important to get the reward now than later to increase the chances of survival. Thus the instant gratification. The longer it is in the future, the smaller are the chances of getting the reward. What if you get injured and get infected? The system is robust for survival, but not ideal for other types of rewards.
Craving and the reward are tied together. One causes the other. We'll discuss a strategy that can help to be always motivated in the Reward section of the article down below. In short, the key is to focus on the process, and not the reward. It's about the game, not the result. If you learn to experience pleasure from the process, it will create the craving for doing rather than for the reward.
At this stage of the process, a cue triggers a craving, dopamine spikes and you are ready to perform the habit.
Healthy habits usually require effort and time to get the reward. Instant gratification doesn’t. That’s why you need “motivation” to perform a healthy habit. So the goal is to make the process as attractive as possible so that dopamine release makes you motivated.
Every person is different and tactics that work for me might not work for you. Nonetheless, there are several strategies that can make the process less resistant and more attractive.
1. **Make the environment pleasant.** I built a nice work area in my apartment with a screen, pc, mouse, and keyboard I always wanted. It’s a pleasure to work in this kind of setup. Typing sounds nice, the screen is a pleasure for my eyes, the table arrangement and the room form a space for focused and uninterrupted work. However, a word of caution. These small things can add to dopamine release which can lead to certain habitual behavior which is good but it might prevent you from being able to work from a different place once you get used to this comfort level. On the other hand, if you want to break a habit, change the environment and you'll lose a lot of cues that trigger the craving and the response.
2. **Make the habit easy to stay consistent.** The biggest struggle is to break the barrier, change the state and start doing the habit. The easier the start, the less effort you'll need to do it consistently. Set the smallest step you can perform so that when you are not motivated, you do it anyway because it's so easy. For instance, when I don't feel like writing, I try to do it for 5 minutes anyway. Once I am in the process, I can do much more with less effort.
3. **Enjoy the process to increase dopamine.** Instead of relying on the reward, focus on the process instead. If you learn to **enjoy the process and the effort** rather than relying on the reward, you'll be able to perform and build any habit you want. The secret is again with dopamine. If you enjoy the activity, dopamine will be released and make the process satisfactory. Here are a couple of examples. I enjoy exercising each morning because it brings relief to my muscles and body. I enjoy doing breathing because I feel much better after it. I enjoy writing because it makes me learn something new and structure my thoughts clearly.
4. **Be consistent.** Even when you cannot go through the whole process, try to make the bare minimum. Repetition is more important than quality. To make the habit stick, you have to perform it for at least 60-70 days. Once you automate a task, you can work on the quality. It is okay to miss a day. The key is to start your next streak immediately. Once you miss 2 days straight, the chances are you are going to lose the grip. The habit tracker in Notion helps to be consistent in two ways. First, it reminds me of habits I have to perform. If you keep them in your mind there is a big chance that you'll forget. You forget twice and you have to start over. Second, marking off habits is satisfying. You don't want to break the streak. It's a small challenge that adds to consistency.
5. **Increment the complexity.** Once you feel comfortable, make the routine more challenging. The more you repeat, the more your brain circuitry changes. More neural synapses mean more automation and less effort. Increasing complexity promotes growth but does not make it super challenging. For instance, if I performed 1 Pomodoro a day, 3 times a week of writing for about 1-2 months then I can make it more often or increase the duration. Build the habit first, then challenge yourself.
To understand rewards in the habit-forming loop or in behavior in general it's important to understand how the underlying mechanism works in the brain. This section is based on my experience and on the insights I gained from Episode 39 of the Huberman Lab podcast. Go check it out for more in-depth knowledge.
Rewards are the ultimate goal of the motivation system. The motivation system is governed by a neuromodulator called dopamine. Dopamine influences a lot of things: motivation, craving, seeking, drive, and time perception. It's responsible not only for rewards, motivation, and craving but also for physical movement. Adrenaline and epinephrine that make us move and learn are manufactured from dopamine. It's a crucial molecule and it's important to learn how it works and how you can take advantage of it to make habit-building successful.
When we anticipate, crave, and receive a reward, there's a spike in dopamine which makes us feel excited and joyful. At the same time, the baseline of dopamine drops, which creates a feeling of pain. It makes you want more of it. When you finish an episode of the TV show, you want to watch another one, because you want to restore that decreased baseline. However, this makes things worse.
When we continuously receive the same reward, we won't feel the same pleasure from those things as before. This happens because there's a pain-pleasure balance in the brain.
An activity or a reward that surges huge levels of dopamine, pleasure decreases because there isn't more dopamine to release after. You deplete the storage. Watching another episode may bring pleasure but not as long and as much as the previous one. The more you deplete it, the more sad or depressed you can get after that.
When the level drops too low, you don't get pleasure from anything anymore. It's called anhedonia. I've experienced it, and it's awful. Everything feels meaningless. Nothing brings joy. Even essential things like food and sex. To avoid that, we have to learn how to modulate the dopamine level to keep the baseline on a healthy level and use it sparingly.
Here's a protocol from Dr. Andrew Huberman.
- Increase the baseline of dopamine and keep peaks under control.
- Do not chase or expect rewards and activities that surge levels of dopamine.
- Make sure dopamine peaks do not occur on a predictive schedule and too often. Intermittent schedules can keep you motivated and engaged.
- Modulate dopamine by breaking a pattern. Do things that you are used to differently. If you listen to music while exercising, and it's the part you enjoy, try exercising without it. If you want to break phone addiction, make the colors black so it's less attractive and pleasurable.
- Cold shower or ice bath can boost dopamine above baseline up to 2.5x times. It is sustained for 2-3 hours after the exposure according to a recent study.
- Dopamine is also associated with time perception. When we focus on the reward, time goes "slower". When we enjoy a process, dopamine is released and time goes "faster". I am sure you've experienced that.
- **Access the reward from the process and associate dopamine release with effort and perseverance.** Learn to recognize that effort is the best part of the whole process.
The last point is the most important. If you learn to enjoy the effort to focus, to overcome obstacles, to bring discipline and etc. then there's nothing that can stop you from achieving success. That is the key.
## Final thoughts
Habit tracking in Notion is simple yet effective. A proper system with only a couple of databases and a dashboard can help you to track and build habits that you've always wanted. The habit-building framework and the neuroscience tips should make the process even more productive.
Hope you learned something new. Feel free to share your feedback on our discord and leave a rating on my Gumroad page where you can grab the template if you haven't yet done so.