Building Routines (or, How I Became A Daily Journal Writer)

The following was written for my subscription newsletter, This Could Help. I’m posting it here, as well, because I wanted to give a sense of the sorts of things that go out to my newsletter subscribers on an “irregular but with impact” basis. Hopefully after reading you will consider signing up. Also, this particular idea was a revelation and a huge success for me so, I hope it can help many others as well. Enjoy!

I have always had mixed success with keeping a journal. I could probably build a small shelter with all of the half finished notebooks that contain those fits and starts. It is also the case that I have tried many software solutions as well. Part of the problem, certainly, is that I have not been able to form the proper habit of, each day, writing the significant things down. But, counterintuitively, I have found that another big part of the problem is the amount of guilt I feel when I try for a few weeks and then fail. That guilt keeps me from giving it another go. I tell myself that, if I try again, I’m only going to fail so why bother trying at all.

Not to jinx it (knocks on wood furiously), but I have now managed to keep not only one, but TWO journals going simultaneously and without missing a day since December 16th, 2013. That is longer than I have kept any one journal continuously and daily in my whole life! (Does little happy touch down dance).

So, what made the difference for me? Well, a combination of things as I think back on it.

  • I did it intentionally for long enough that eventually it became involuntary. In other words, habits take a while to forge but, once you forge them, then it becomes involuntary in the way that blinking and breathing are involuntary. It’s just that thing you do semiconsciously just the same as the many other things you do semiconsciously.

  • I built the routine on top of other routines. Like I said, I keep two journals. The first one I use as sort of a daily log — tasks I completed, meetings I’ve had, things I’ve done, etc. So, for instance, I already had a routine when I completed a task — I marked it done on my task list. “Great.”, I thought, ”A good place to install a new routine”. So, I made a new step when I completed a task — I marked it done AND I wrote it down in my log. When I had that simple routine down I installed others one by one. When I have a meeting or appointment, I mark it down in the log before starting my car to drive away. I write down ideas right away before I lose them, etc. In other words, I broke down the big routine into a series of smaller routines which I then added bit by bit until I had a completely new routine.

  • I realized that any routine, even unrelated, was appropriate to build on. For instance, my second journal is a Levenger 5 Year Journal. It gives you a few lines for each day over five years. I use this for recording my feelings at the end of my day. This was not a task or a meeting so I had to find another routine to build on. After a short thought session I found it — brushing my teeth. See, I brush my teeth every night before going to bed. Therefore, I built the new routine on that. Now, I write in my journal and then brush my teeth. Thus, writing in the journal became a subroutine of my existing pre-bed routine.

  • I used tools that were a pleasure to use but also perfect for the purpose of the routine I wanted to install. I’ve mentioned it before but, for my Daily Log journal I use a Hobonichi Techo. Not only is it a beauty and joy to use, the perfect size for my small handwriting writing, but since it is designed as a planner it becomes an automatic “Seinfeld Calendar”. Don’t miss a day and break the chain! And, if for some very unusual reason I miss a day, I go back the next day and put something on that page — anything — to keep the routine going. In the log, there are some whirlwind days in the past few months I just did not take the time to log anything. So, the next day, I made sure to go back to the previous one and write down as much as I can remember.

  • Per the above, I allow anything to “count”. There are, at least, 5 entires as I flipped back through the ones in my 5 Year Journal that are a single word. There is one that is just a doodle. Guess what? Yep, that counts. That is how I felt that day. I didn’t feel like writing more than that and the fact that I didn’t communicates that feeling too. There are no rules. Rules stifle routines. The only rule is to put something on that page.

But, as the title of this letter suggests, this is about more than my (finally) keeping a daily journal (Two. Did I mention TWO???). I now know that many of these techniques would work with any routine/habit I wish to form. And, now that I have added these new routines to existing routines, I’m going to see what other routines I can add on top of these and what other existing routines are available for me to build on. For instance, my pre-bed routine would be the perfect place to add another subroutine — perhaps, ten minutes of meditation before I write in my journal and brush my teeth.

See what I mean?

The fact is, we all have existing routines. We all have a set of steps we do every morning, just before bed, or otherwise in our day. These are all opportunities to build in another step and form a new habit. So, if there is something you’ve wanted to do regularly for a long time but have yet to achieve it, this could help.

Take care, until next time…

Sincerely, me.

Extending Dash/Plus

Joshua Ginter shared his wonderful review of my Dash/Plus system with me earlier today. It’s great and you should check it out. He even covers the Dash/Plus app a bit too.

Yet, he ultimately decides it won’t work for the way he takes notes. Mainly because of a couple of things my original system doesn’t address. He states:

Much of the jargon scribbled across my books are semi-coherent thoughts which merely record my thinking at that point in time. They don’t necessarily need action or fit within a simple or defined list system.

And that’s true. The system as I first conceived it did not take such things into consideration. That was even a hole that affected me for a while. So, over a year ago, I added a couple of new metadata items to cover exactly that for me.

  • Idea — I change the dash into a lightbulb.
  • Diary/Thought — I change the dash into an asterisks.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and just never bothered to share this tweak with the rest of the world. The reason: It never really occurred to me that it might be useful to others. Crazy, I know.

The thing is that the Dash/Plus system is such a natural part of the way I work that I forget that other people use it as well. It is like breathing or blinking. Consciously, I know I do it and that others do it as well but I’m not really aware I’m doing it until I stop to think about the fact I am.

Here’s the other thing: I kind of expect that someone will take the basics of the Dash/Plus system and extend and change it in ways that work for them. Please do. I welcome it. Even better if you write about it and let me know what you’ve done so I can share it with others. I’m sorry I failed to do so myself until now.

Things I Learned In 2013

With the close of the year, here is a not nearly complete list of the things I learned this past year:

  • If you decide to do something, you can do anything. All you need is to get past that comma.

  • The first part of your life is spent finding out who you want to be. The second part of your life is spent finding out who you really are.

  • You do not discover the future. You create it with the actions you take today.

  • The fanciness of your process only reveals your resistance to the dirtiness of the work.

  • If you find yourself unusually productive in one area of life, ask yourself what tasks you are avoiding in the others.

  • "Work, without love, is slavery." — Mother Teresa

  • The secret to making kids that travel well is to start them traveling young and keep them doing so.

  • Schlag is a Viennese term for homemade whipped cream that is seeing a certain renaissance as of late (in order to differentiate it from the canned stuff).

  • We don’t buy things, we buy into things.

  • One should strive to use all things until their usefulness is no more.

  • I’m not sure I will ever be as emotionally fulfilled by digital technology as I am by a good pen and a nice blank page of paper. Nor will it hold, for me, the same feeling of possibility.

  • Chindōgu is the Japanese art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that seem like a solution to a particular problem but cause so many new problems it is effectively useless.

  • So much of modern tech is beginning to feel like Chindōgu to me.

  • Sometimes, you have to come up with the completely crazy idea that could never work to get to the slightly less crazy one that will.

  • It’s worse than we could ever imagine.

  • One of the most dangerous ideas in a free society is one in which we believe that rights are granted, not guaranteed.

  • Fight fear, with facts.

  • “Fear is just excitement without breath.” –Fritz Perls

  • Most of what we call truth is merely consensus.

  • Unlike other trees whose roots are deep and thick, California Coastal Redwoods, some of the tallest of trees, are thin and wide. They stand tall by binding their roots with others near and far.

  • The first approximation of others is ourselves.

  • How much better “how to” posts/sites would be if they led with “what for”.

  • "Why?" would be good as well.

  • The GORUCK Challenge taught me more about myself in 13 hours than I learned this entire year. Especially the first item in this post.

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