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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.

More by this author

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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