The last few months of Tidy Tuesday posts have explored many different core ideas and methods concerning personal data organization: identifying, filtering, and organizing data, staying motivated in the face of a big task, reducing incoming data, and even discussing backups and security. In almost every case, I’ve emphasized the absolute necessity of building habits to achieve your digital decluttering goals.

Tackling any organization project is stressful and challenging without the right habits, but with good behavioral tools at your disposal, you can make progress and succeed no matter how big the task is. I bet that most of you agree that good habits provide the foundation for data-taming success. But you might still have a lingering question: how do I build the habits I need?

Building good habits can seem like a daunting task, but luckily, there are many techniques you can try. The key is to find one that works for you, since everyone approaches goals and habits a bit differently. A method that works for me might be distracting and counterproductive for you, or vice-versa. Whether you prefer to use sticky notes, a habit-tracking app, an accountability partner, or something else, rest assured that habit creation is possible.

Build Habits With Routine Triggers

Starting a new habit from scratch can be challenging, even if you feel eager and motivated. Our busy lives present an endless supply of distractions and interruptions that cause us to procrastinate or forget our good intentions entirely. To work around this, attach your new habit to something you already do. This tricks your brain into accepting the new behavior as an extension of an established pattern.

Little girl brushes her teeth

The list below provides some examples of routine triggers most of us already do regularly:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Using the restroom
  • Eating a meal
  • Taking a drink of water
  • Standing intentionally (great if your watch or exercise band reminds you anyway)
  • Leaving home to go to work, or leaving work to go home
  • Sitting down at our desk or table to begin working
  • Beginning or completing an early morning wake-up ritual or end-of-day bedtime ritual

Some of these occur more predictably than others, but all of them allow injecting a new practice that only takes a few minutes.

For example, you could delete five emails every time you have lunch during a workday. Or, you could skip scrolling through social media during a bathroom break, and instead open the Photos app on your phone to edit, cull, and organize the most recent set of pictures and videos you took.

Cementing the new addition will take some focus at first. But it should only require a few repetitions before it starts to feel like a normal part of your day. The main limitation of this approach is that it doesn’t generally work well for large blocks of time. If you’re hoping to spend two hours on data organization tasks all at once every week, a time-blocked calendar might serve you better.

Build Habits With Paper

If your home, travel, or work environment allows, you can place brightly colored reminders anywhere you frequently find yourself. This works well in tandem with routine triggers, especially if you put notes in places such as a bathroom mirror. The sticky note method can grab your attention anytime you enter a room or other space, such as a cubicle at work, or a kitchen or desk area at home.

Sticky notes

Just remember not to overdo it or allow the reminders to become background noise. If you already use sticky notes all over your desk or monitor for scheduling or task reminders, it might not work to mix in a “Clean 10 emails!” note among them.

Start with only one new sticky note in an otherwise clean location. The point is to make your brain latch onto the note as something that doesn’t belong there, which will cause you to pause and give it a moment of extra attention. If this happens enough times—and you act on it by obeying your note—voila! New habit.

Build Habits With Apps

If you regularly use a smartphone or tablet, you can take advantage of a variety of apps to establish habits. These apps provide reminders for any kind of new behavior you can think of. They also provide a way to track your progress and help maintain a consistent pattern of success. Many of them also use some form of gamification to turn the experience into something that feels fun, or even competitive if you involve some friends.

Using apps on smart phone

Rather than recreate an ever-changing list of popular apps here in this post, I recommend that you check out this list of over a dozen habit-building apps and see if any of them look like a good fit. I’ve used four of them personally; I finally settled on Strides as a good fit for my workflow and user interface preference. They are all similarly functional and capable, though each has particular features and strengths. (For example, Beeminder actually makes you pay real money each time you miss a regular goal. Yikes.)

One important caveat to habit-building apps: don’t let them lose their value in an endless pile of notifications. (I like to refer to these as noisifications). If you already feel like you get too many vibrations, dings, or beeps from your smartphone, throwing another one into the mix won’t do you any favors—and certainly won’t give you success with better organizational habits.

Starve your distractions

Notifications can absolutely be useful, but always make sure you only allow the ones that add value to your routine. Twice a year or so, I objectively step back and mercilessly cut out every reminder and notification I possibly can from all of my phones, tablets, and computers. It’s a liberating experience. Your attention is a precious resource. Don’t give anyone or anything the opportunity to take it without a worthy invitation. (“Ready to level up in Candy Crush?” is not a worthy invitation.)

Build Habits With Friends

No matter what tools or resources you use, there’s one key element to building better habits: accountability. Having an accountability partner or a support system is an excellent and often overlooked way to stay on track and consistently work on your goals and behavior patterns.

Friends support each other

We all like to believe that we can change our behavior and overcome things like distraction, laziness, or even discouragement. But while we can do this some of the time, we’re all far more likely to succeed with someone else there to step in and help. A friend (or even a shallow acquaintance!) can provide a sounding board for ideas, a kind word of encouragement, or just that simple reminder that nudges us from procrastination into action.

Some habit-building apps such as WithPeers leverage this by sharing habit statistics among friends. This way, everyone stays aware of how everyone else is doing (or falling behind). But whether you use a friend-centered habit app or simply arrange a weekly text message or two-minute phone call from someone you know, adding that personal relationship element to your habit-building journey can make a tremendous difference. Even if you primarily rely on routine triggers, sticky notes, or apps, consider including a “habit buddy” to help ensure your success.

Do One Thing

Pick one data organization habit that you would like to cultivate—regular email deletion or photo sorting, or anything from earlier posts—and use one of the methods above to take steps to adopt it.

Give yourself some time to let the habit sink in; no need to feel discouraged if you don’t see immediate results in just a day or two. Building habits requires maintaining consistency and discovering how to reward your brain for performing the behavior you want to encourage. Once you convince yourself that a single new habit is achievable, feel free to layer on some more.

You can do it! A clean inbox, a culled photo collection, an organized hard drive—a tidy digital life is within your grasp.

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    Ready to get your data under control? You can do it!