Adventures in Journaling & Habit Forming

So since January 1st I’ve been using the Five Minute Journal, after I heard about it on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

By the end of Christmas drinking and wedding season, I needed it.

I kept drinking because I was scared that if I stopped, the cumulative hangover would literally kill me.

I kept drinking because I was scared that if I stopped, the cumulative hangover would literally kill me.

The last wedding I was just spent. Amazingly drinking all those depressants had given me the “mehs”. I went up to my hotel room and realised that I was utterly sober and just wanted to leave. I calculated the number of units I’d consumed and reasoned that I could safely drive at 4am. Lay there in bed staring at the ceiling and maybe got a few hours sleep. I waited way past my calculations as well just to be safe.

So safe to say I needed some positive habits to kick off the year. And probably best for this experiment I was pretty wiped to begin with.

To explain how the journal works, you start off by writing some notes as to why journaling is important to you, what your obstacles to journaling are, and how you’ll overcome them. Then, each day you’ll start with three things you’re grateful for, and three things that would make the day great. Finally, you write a daily affirmation. In the evening, you write up three amazing things that happened, and two things that you could have done to make the day better.

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First of all, it’s hard. First thing in the morning, to think of all the things you’re thankful for rather than “FML, I just want 5 more minutes in bed.” We’re hard wired to look for threats. You know, a threat is far more likely to kill us than a treat is. Those sabre tooth tigers didn’t fuck around back in the day, constantly hunting humans for food. Delicious nourishing berries, if we missed them, didn’t kill us straight away. (Although we might die of a slow starvation.)

I genuinely think the point of this whole thing is not to have things to be thankful for, but rather to start reprogramming our brain to search for the good and positives in our lives. Rarely is everything 100% shitty, or 100% brilliant. The problems, worries, perceived and very real problems we have tend to be more pervasive in our thinking. This is a deliberate and conscious exercise is disrupting that pattern and finding things to be thankful and the amazing things that happened that day.

One thing it has forced me to deal with is that very often I don’t know what will make me happy in a given day. When bluntly faced with this question, I’m stumped more often than not.

Honestly, there’s a part of my brain that’s looking for the magic pill. That all elusive one thing that will make me 100% perfectly and permanently happy. “If only…” pops into my head, more than I would have realised it did.

So a benefit of this short lived experiment (still ongoing) is that I’m setting smaller expectations of my day. Now this could read as a very depressing thing to write, or defeatist. It’s not. It’s learning to appreciate the little things. It’s learning (very slowly) to be self reliant on my happiness, and not make it conditional on something outside of my control happening (a new prospect calling, for example, or Munster to win!!)

This seems potent right about now.

This seems potent right about now.

Historically I’m shit at living in the moment. I’ve looked back on a lot of times in my life and said “you should have enjoyed that more”. Now, of course I realise that we all look back on certain times with rose tinted glasses. Our memories are notoriously inaccurate and we forget large parts of what happened. We even make up shit that never happened. They’ve done studies where they’ve shown people photographs of themselves at parties and other events and the subject has made up a memory of being there. But journalling has helped me appreciate the moment more as it’s happening.

At the risk of this blog post becoming an Instagram motivational account, I'll add this pic as well.

At the risk of this blog post becoming an Instagram motivational account, I’ll add this pic as well.

Has it made me absolutely zen like? Fuck no! It’s not a miracle cure. Nothing fucking is.

See it’s never one thing. Never is. It’s a combination of hundreds and thousands of small incidents that bring us on or off course. Journaling, I’ve found, has helped me sharpen my focus on all the small actions that add up.

And it helps put things in perspective for me. Now I know we joke about first world problems and everyone’s problem to them really is the biggest problem in the world but there’s definitely an element of focus. Are you counting your blessings or counting your troubles?

Journaling this month has coincided with reading Bressie’s book. Now, I don’t know the guy, nor his pain and his struggles, but one thing that hit home in the early chapters was that he didn’t appreciate what was good in his life. He was a successful rugby player and musician, the types of careers most dream of. Now I don’t know if the anxiety causes the inability to appreciate what’s right in your life or if lack of appreciation causes/adds to the anxiety and resultant depression. What I can say from my perspective is taking the time to look for things to be appreciative of and happy about has kept me on an even keel. Particularly at the end of a not so great day where I’ve to shift my focus from my worries/struggles/demands to what went right.

See we’re all weird. If we smile, we get happier. Our body’s are constantly searching for clues as to how we feel, so they reason if I smile, I must be happy. So we can smile first, and then be happy. Doesn’t make sense but it’s shown to have an impact.

Journaling has helped me start to develop better habits, and the daily check ins point out what irks me or what I’m not accomplishing. So in addition to journaling I started adding daily positive habits to my life.

Week one, believe it or not, was not to go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. I hated doing them at night. Still don’t quite revel in it. But I’d be so pissed off coming into a dirty kitchen or looking for the frying pan to make breakfast only to be annoyed.

The dishes gave me a sense of accomplishment. That’s been built up now, taking on just one very small new habit each week so I don’t burn out my willpower but gradually, incrementally, make my life run smoother.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that I am in no way as organised or as scheduled as I’d like to be. I just didn’t realise it until this year, even though it’s obvious in hindsight. Being my own boss I get to set my schedule, but there’s definitely more scope for a better one.

I know I like to blur the lines between work and play. I don’t want my job to be something I escape from. But, if I’m never fully relaxing because a task is hanging over me then I’m not giving 100% am I? If I have non negotiable time scheduled for something it gets done and gets done right. So February is all about setting these times up.

For example, Thursday is programming day. But it gets worked around. It’s important. It’s enjoyable. It’s challenging. But it’s not given the priority it deserves. It might get done early in the day, or later. Shit, there’s been times I’ve finished it off at 8am Sunday morning before the programming video goes up! Now, though, it’s getting scheduled as part of my two hours dedicated work time, which now takes place in Starbucks instead of at home. At home it’s too easy to throw on some Netflix and get distracted with domestic chores (Which, if they were just scheduled, would get done and cause less stress!)

So I’m going to continue journaling and building small habits. There’s an app in beta testing but I’ve found that writing on paper stops me checking instagram again. My advice to you would be to give it a go for a solid month. It’s not going to change anything overnight (nothing really does) but I’ve found it very valuable. Oh, and for god’s sake, do your hollow holds!

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