What if I told you there was a single habit that could make you healthier, fitter, better looking, richer, smarter, and more frequently laid? What if I told you that habit had zero learning curve, took less than 10 minutes a day and was practically free? You’d probably ask if I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’m selling then punch me in the stomach. But it’s true: there is a single habit that once accumulated, makes all other habits possible. Keeping a journal.
We call them all kinds of things: training logs, food diaries, blogs, etc. You can do them with a pen and paper, in a spreadsheet, on a blog, or just with a bunch of post-it notes. However you choose to keep track of something, just the fact that you have to think about that thing every day puts you miles ahead on the path to mastering it. And having a written record of that something makes you even more likely to succeed at it. In sport psychology, the journal is the tool we try to get our clients on as soon as is practical. Keeping track of thoughts, feelings, trials, errors, stories, successes, perceived weaknesses, and noted improvements improves confidence, motivation, focus, and self-worth. Couple that with what you did and what you ate and you are looking at a surefire plan for sport performance.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it though, journaling is hard. It was my only New Year’s resolution and I was struggling after January 3rd. I have tried pen and paper, blogs, spreadsheets, email, notebooks, moleskines, 3x5 cards, fountain pens and sharpies. I have tried writing in the morning, evening, between clients, and right before bed. I have tried voice memos, iPhone reminders. If I had a 4S, I’d even try bugging Siri all day long. I’m a writer; I love to write and I love the power of words. I know how important this habit is and I have struggled more with this habit than any other one I’ve tried to accumulate. But from three months of trial and error, I have learned these tips.
- Start small. Track one thing that matters to you. I want to track 1,000,000 things but struggle to track 1 consistently. You can build on success, but you need to get into the habit of just writing something down every day first. Sometimes I have resorted to opening my journal every day just to write the date and the words: “wrote in journal.” You gotta start somewhere.
- It won’t be perfect. Don’t try to make your journal, blog, or diary pretty. I had a training log that was so beautiful I cried after writing the CSS. But I couldn’t write more than 7 lines per training session or it would overflow and mess up the pretty. It became so hard to think of what to fit in there I never used it. Result: fail.
- If you have a pre-bed routine, piggyback on it. I don’t have a pre-bed routine and only go into my bedroom to pass out at the end of the day. Not an ideal time to reflect and it only ended up messing with my sleep hygiene.
- Don’t pre-plan what to write. You aren’t always going to be eating three meals a day. You aren’t always going to be doing sets and reps of exercises. You aren’t always going to be tracking the same things. When I tried the spreadsheet route, I started thinking and planning my day in terms of rows, columns, and cells. This was hard, so I stopped. Use a medium with a lot of flexibility.
- Put it in your way. The last date I wrote in my journal was the date I found a drawer I could put it in.
Update: I wrote this article two weeks ago and since then have redoubled my journaling efforts. I am happy to say I have seen a great deal of success by **gasp** taking my own advice. I also got some great tips from clients of mine who have been journaling for years or even decades. Here is what I have worked out for myself and is working for me at the moment. I will try to do a follow-up article in a few months and we'll see what stuck.
- Private Blog. I started a private blog, picked a theme, and copied the "post by email" link into my iPhone address book. I don't care what the blog looks like; I never even go to the actual page. Whenever I want to update the blog, I just send an email to the link in my address book. If the update is longer than I want to write, I write a short version and go back later to give more details. If I have a goal, I send it as a quote to my blog. If I have a picture or song that inspired me, I post it. I can also either write what I ate in an email and send that to the blog or take a picture with my iPhone and post it. I don't get hung up on the details, I just record what I'm doing. Most importantly, the blog is the place where I aggregate all my habits.
- Small Moleskines. I bought a three-pack of the smaller moleskine notebooks for "cumulative habits." These are things like Grease the Groove where I need to record every time I do a set of pull ups or presses during the day. At the end of the day, I just email a summary to update the blog. I have another notebook that I take with me to the gym when I do O-lifts skills training. That way I can record the details of each rep and how I did as well as any other skills I am working on at that time. The last notebook doesn't have a home yet.
- iPhone Notes. Every day I take roughly the same supplements and do roughly the same lifts for Even Easier Strength. I have these "repetitive habits" listed as a note on my iPhone. When I take my pills, I email the "pills" note to my blog. When I do my Easy Strength, I email the "Easy Strength" note to my blog. A lower barrier to entry means I'm more likely to do it, record it, and therefore do it again.