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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 January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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