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Stay on Track with a Treadmill Journal

Stay on Track with a Treadmill Journal
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:

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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.

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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:

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  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.

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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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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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