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

The following was written for my latest book, This Could Help. This should give you a sense of the sorts of things that are in the book. 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 post 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.

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.

Random Notes and Recent Thoughts #2

I’m suffering from a horrible cold virus. My third or fourth in as many weeks (I’ve lost count). My thinking, during such times, is both hazy and exausting. Therefore, please accept some of these brief and imperfect ideas that warrant more expounding than I have the energy for right now.

  • We all write our own eulogies. We write them with the way we live in each moment. By our acts of kindness or the things we do that delight others. Those things that make an impression on those closest to us. For, if we were to pass tomorrow, it is these things they will stand in front of others to share and remember.

  • Those that claim to have no choice always do. What they don’t have is a choice they want. And those that are doing something they don’t want because they feel they have no choice have, in fact, chosen.

  • There is no such thing as good debt. No matter how many financial advisors will tell you otherwise. I wish I had learned this before the age of 35. For instance, believing that a mortgage that was less than the value of the home was an investment — "good debt". Or, that a student loan is somehow good debt because it sets you up for the possibility of higher pay or a better career (when the first 10-20 years of said job is spent paying back that debt). Does no one do the math and figure out the only ones making money from this equation are the people that write the paychecks and the people who service the debt? I think if the past several years have revealed anything it is this fundemental fact and the lies that prop it up.

  • On every task list should exist the following: One thing that makes your life better. One thing that makes the life of someone else better.

  • The more complex your tool, the more likely it is to fail you in some way eventually. And, said failure likelihood will scale in parallel to the added complexity. And, because one’s expectations for said tool also scale in the same parallel, the disappointment from the failure is compounded.

  • People who love what they do for a living don’t ever dream of retirement — early or otherwise. Why wait to start the life you want when you can build it now? And, those that call bullshit on this are either a) happy and don’t want others to be so they can feel even more superior or b) as unhappy as the rest and looking for people to share in their sorrow. The truth is that you build the life you wish to have by the choices you make and, if you build a life that makes you happy, you can do it until you die.

  • This guy gets up and does the work he loves every morning. So, your excuses are invalid.

On catching up…

…I largely won’t be while I’m traveling. It’s called a vacation for a reason. I will be driving for hours most days and enjoying my time with family and friends when I’m not.

Reading back through my ious streams will not occur. Feeds will be marked as read without further reflection. Tweets and posts happening anytime in the past will be ignored. If I do take the time to look at things it will be with an eye on what is happening in the present.

I have found that the important things always have a way of finding their way to me if needed. That the things I truly care about I will take the time to seek out. The rest can be safely ignored. (This is also true while not on vacation. I simply give into thinking otherwise too easily as my time allows for it.)

Habit Forming

Yesterday, I went on my first run after ten weeks of not doing so. Yep. Ten whole weeks.

About, eleven weeks ago, I went on my last long run of training for the Minneapolis Half Marathon. I set out for a two hour run and went 12.5 miles. It was a bit of a slog after I hit a wall at about mile nine. But, that was the same place I hit a wall in my first half-marathon so that was OK. I now know where that wall is. After I made it back home I was a bit sore but still felt like I had a bit more “left in the tank” and felt good about my overall time and pacing.

Then, after a few days of recovery my shins were still pretty sore. I began to get worried so I decided to go for a very short run to work out the kinks and see how I felt. Well, every step felt like my shins were on fire. I barely ran a mile like this and, at the point of tears from the pain, I walked home. I spent the next two days massaging with a couple of rollers, icing, modifying my nutrition, and just about every other tip I could find to see if I could fix it. The day before the marathon, I decided to try that same short run to see if I could make it. Same problem. I was certain it was shin splints. This is a common injury for those who have tried to increase their running distance too fast (as I had done). And, though I had paid the registration fee and picked up my race packet, I decided right then to bow out of the race. It was for the best.

I knew it would take a few weeks of babying my shins to heal. Resting, icing, massaging, stretching, etc. All of which I did. It was going to be a pain in the ass because I really had worked hard to form a routine — a habit — of running. I knew a couple of weeks off meant that I would spend every two to three days with the urge to go for a run. I also knew that, once I got back out there, I would need to take my time and be careful not to make the same mistake twice. All I would have to do is to fight that urge until I was well rested and healed. Then just give into it when the time came. It would still be there if I healed up soon enough. Which was the plan.

But then, two to three weeks became three to four. I always put it off to tomorrow. Then each tomorrow became just another tomorrow. And, each time I said tomorrow it became easier to say it again when tomorrow came. And, soon enough, I had formed a new habit…

A not-running habit. A tomorrow habit.

I had spent a good month or so when I started running coaxing myself to put on the shoes and get out the door. But, each time it required less and less coaxing. Until, eventually, I did it naturally because I had formed a running habit. Not running was not an option becuase I got a nagging feeling every time the time came to run.

Well, what I discovered is that one can form habits in the opposite direction as well. And, they work just like forming any other habit. The more you say no the easier it becomes to say it again.

This is true in other areas of our life too. That task on your list you keep putting off will become easier and easier to put off until, eventually, you form a “putting that particular task off” habit. That dream you keep talking about pursuing but never do, eventually becomes a “talking about it but never chasing the dream” habit. You get the idea.

The only way to break any habit is to eat that frog and replace it with a new one.

So, yesterday, I decided I needed to replace and rebuild my running habit. I refused to let it be just another tomorrow again. After so much time off, I would need to form the habit all over again. And the only way to start was to strap on my shoes, get out the door, and go.

Getting Things Done Elsewhere

I found the intersection of the following two posts that popped up on my radar interesting. Both should be of interest to "knowledge workers" and those who work at home.

The first, Things I’ve quit doing at my desk, offers some great tips for making your desk a workspace of purpose by employing some basic ground rules. All of the ideas are great but I found this one resonates with my own thinking and other things I’ve recently read:

If you’re like me, your best thinking happens when you’re not at your desk: taking a walk, going and asking another person for help, drinking a coffee, in the shower. Your desk is for executing; do your thinking elsewhere.

Then, shortly thereafter, I read this post from Randy Murray that aligns with my personal experience as well:

Having difficulty focusing and getting your work done? Pack up and move to somewhere new to work.

I have found that even moving to a different place in my house has the same effect for me.

Sometimes, the best way to get things done can be found by getting away from where you normally do them.

A Trusted System

I did not go looking for a notation system that worked for me. Instead my dash/plus system was simply an extension of something I was already doing. For as long as I can remember, I had been in taking notes in a outline-like style, with a dash proceeding each point. Therefore, since I was already in the habit of doing this, extending the functionality of that dash seemed the most simple and natural thing for me.
Also, for as long as I can remember, I have been making lists of what I needed to do on paper and placing it to the right of my workspace. I remember doing this as early as using such a list to enumerate my homework for the evening in high school (perhaps the preceding dash started here too). Eventually, I moved to doing this at work and for my tasks at home. Thus, my today card was born.
My point being that we are often quick to look outside ourselves for the answer to finding a trusted system that keeps us on track and drives our day. And, while one can certainly adopt ideas and make them one’s own, I would argue that the first, easiest, and most trusted of places to look might be an extension of something we already do. Something that can evolve and grow as we do.
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Ruminating

While we largely think of the word ruminating as the art of thinking deeply about something, it has it’s origins in the act of digestion. Specifically in ruminant animals like the cow.
From Wikipedia:

A ruminant is a mammal that digests plant-based food by initially softening it within the animal’s first compartment of the stomach, principally through bacterial actions, then regurgitating the semi-digested mass, now known as cud, and chewing it again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called “ruminating”.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that another common phrase used for thinking deeply about something is “chewing the cud”.
So, to recap, ruminating is the processing of nutrition that has already been processed once and needs to be further processed to be fully digested.
Now that we know the origin, and the process, of the meaning as it relates to food digestion, I’d like to take this opportunity to suggest we better apply this action to the digestion of information.
The thing is, that we are bombarded by so much new information that we simply “swallow” it and move on. Perhaps we think about it in the moment and think we have absorbed something of value. But, like a ruminant beast, such processing can not have the same deep nutritional value as ruminating on those same things. In other words, learning something, letting it settle in, then spending further time processing it again at a much deeper level.
So, instead of exposing yourself to the constant stream of new information and knowledge this age affords us, consider spending some time “chewing the cud” of knowledge you already have. Spend some time ruminating on it — breaking it down — and by doing so make it more digestible and, therefore, nutritional.
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Glowing Rectangles

Many of us spend much of our days in front of some glowing rectangle. When we wake, we grab one right away. We stare into it hoping to get a jump on whatever responsibilities and expectations were dumped on us overnight. We might then turn on another as we drink our morning coffee, hoping to get “caught up” on information that is mostly meant to distract and not inform. Most of us work all day in front of one, our tasks directed, next steps informed, and labor performed inside the glowing rectangle on our desk. Even those who work in fast food or retail are largely directed by a glowing rectangle telling them who ordered what and what is expected next. We kill time in lines and waiting rooms with the rectangles. We are entertained by them. We sometimes bring our rectangles into bed with us. Because, increasingly, our books are in there.
I’m no different. I grabbed my first rectangle very shortly after waking. I will likely stare into several throughout my day. For work and for pleasure and as a way to simply pass the time. Heck, my regular gas station has them built into the pumps now. My guess is that when one is distracted by the local weather or the two-for-one beef jerky special they tend to buy more gas. In fact, I’m staring into a glowing rectangle right now. Tapping away at the illuminated screen. Convincing myself that this is the best way to write about them. That, if wisdom is born of knowledge and experience then, right now, this rectangle is supplying both.
Yet, I’m going to present myself with a small challenge this week. One you may wish to take on yourself. It is a modest change but one that, hopefully, will lead me to see if if makes difference enough to expand. I’m going to avoid glowing rectangles as much as I can for one hour after I wake up and one hour before I go to bed. If I need to write or work or wish to read, I have plenty of non-glowing rectangles for that. And, if that is not enough, I have plenty of other non-glowing shapes that would benefit from my increased engagement. I know that my soul might benefit from staring into the dark circle that is my morning coffee for some quiet contemplation.
I’m going to see if this makes any positive difference for the week ahead. And, if it does, perhaps I’ll next try a bit more.