Stay on Track with a Treadmill Journal

Nobody knows more tricks and hacks to keep themselves working towards their goals than writers! From getting fired up to start to knowing when to quit — and all the struggles to keep on going in between — writers need every dollop of motivational help they can scrape up.

One trick that some writers use is a “treadmill journal”. Unlike a typical journal, a treadmill journal is a single-purpose journal that records only a few scant piece of information per entry: the time and date, how much writing you plan to do that day, what specific thing you plan to work on, how it went, what you plan to work on tomorrow, and when and for how long you’ll work tomorrow.

Gregory Martin, a writer who teaches treadmill journaling in his writing workshops, describes its purpose like this:

I call my daily writing journal a “treadmill” journal because I like the analogy to exercise. It’s hard to romanticize a treadmill. But you can’t get in shape if you jog a few miles every few weeks, and trying to write a meaningful piece of literature is like training for a marathon (“Want to Be Productive?” The Writer, April 2007).

Treadmilling for non-writers

The treadmill journal is primarily a motivational tool — looking back, you can easily see your progress (or lack thereof) and feel either inspired or shamed. Either way, you’re driven to work to keep up your progress, and by making a commitment to doing a specific task at a specific time tomorrow, you’re reinforcing that drive.

It’s also an analytical tool — you can see fairly easy where you’ve historically had difficulties. If a writer finds that there’s missing days after every entry saying “tomorrow: work on characterization” or “revise tomorrow”, they’ll know there’s something blocking them that they need to work out.

As both a motivational tool and an analytical tool, the principle behind the treadmill journal seems readily applicable to the kinds of projects that non-writers do. So long as you can break your project into clear actions (and if you can’t, it may not be a project you are ready to tackle!) you can use a treadmill journal to keep on track and highlight problem areas to work on.

“It’s hard to romanticize a treadmill”

The beauty of a treadmill journal is its ugliness. This is not a place for pouring out your heart and soul in elegant prose. Instead, a treadmill journal is a workaday thing, a bookkeeping tool. It says simply, in plain, unadorned language “This is what I’ve done, and this is what I will do.” Like a treadmill at the gym, it’s a way to keep in shape, not a way to show off your chops. Just like there are no extra points for style when you’re working out on your treadmill, there are no bonuses to be gained for having a beautiful treadmill journal.

Grab a notebook — the Moleskine if you want, but a 10-for-a-dollar back-to-school-sale spiral notebook will work just as well — and start writing. Create a separate journal for each project you’re working on — having two or more in the same journal will make it hard to see at a glance if you’ve been keeping on track with all of them. Each entry should contain the following entries:

  1. Today’s date.
  2. The name of the project you’re working on. No need to get fancy here — an abbreviation is fine, so long as you know what it means.
  3. What you will work on today.
  4. Start time. The time you start working on your project.
  5. End time. The time you finished working on your project.
  6. How it went. A quick evaluation of your day’s work.
  7. What you’ll do tomorrow. Your plans for the next day. You might not end up working on this — maybe inspiration takes you in a different direction. But you should have a clear idea now of what you intend to do tomorrow.
  8. The time you’ll start and stop working tomorrow. This is a commitment, so make sure you select times where you have no other commitments and expect minimal interruptions.

For instance, here’s what you might write if you were working on a big business proposal:

Feb 28, 2008
Proposal for Sloan Co.
Create PowerPoint presentations
Start: 2:15pm
End: 4:45pm
Finished slides, but need table from Jim for slide 8.
Tomorrow: Insert table from Jim, send presentation to Beth for approval. Write up index cards for presentation.
Will work: 2 – 4pm.

Getting nowhere?

If you miss a day here and there, that’s probably OK. If you find, though, that several days have gone by and you haven’t made a new entry, you need to recommit yourself — or figure out what the hold-up is. Although sometimes we really can’t move forward (we’re waiting for information, resources, or materials that we can’t go on without, for example), usually we get stalled because of some self-created sticking point — we’re nervous or apprehensive about some aspect of the project that makes us resist working on it.

Gaps in your treadmill journal should be read as pointers to explore what it is, exactly, that we’re sticking on. Since you’ve committed to a particular task, what is it about that task that you are resisting? In some cases, the answer might be to simply create a different task to commit to, but if it was important enough to write down in the first place, most likely you’re going to have to take on the old task eventually.

Ideally, your treadmill journal should read like a treadmill runs — no ups and downs, no big hold-ups, just that steady, unstopping flow of entries, day in and day out. The treadmill should, really, go nowhere — even as you run and strain towards your goals.

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