How often have we started something new – say, learning a language or an instrument – and given up when we hit some kind of plateau? Progress slows, and it becomes hard to see the value of further work. The result is a trail of broken self-promises.
One of the best ways I know to preserve those early accomplishments is a journal. Every day you work on the new task, you write a list of accomplishments, challenges, and observations about that day’s work. As you get used to writing the journal, you’ll find it gets easier to boil everything down into just the most meaningful points, but early on it’s better to write to much than too little.
The effects of the journal are:
- You record what you’ve accomplished the same day you accomplished it, before memory fades
- You can track your progress, especially when the task is measurable (such as exercise)
- You keep better track of what needs work and what you can safely avoid reviewing for a while
- You can identify patterns more easily
- When you’re not making much progress, you have a way to realize how far you’ve already come
Another approach to the same idea, but from a different angle, is the work journal or work log. This is a notebook or file you use to timestamp every activity you do over the course of any given work day. The most direct benefits of a work journal aren’t that different from a progress journal:
- You have records of all the work you’ve done – great when you have to summarize your accomplishments
- You have all the information you need to fill out a timecard
- You can keep track of patterns you discover throughout the day
Using the Journals
Depending on the particular application, a file or a physical notebook might be more accessible.
For workouts, I like to carry a small pocket notebook in my duffel bag to record my actual workout. Then, I take that notebook home and plot the data on a spreadsheet. With a few very basic macros, you can track your progress in any format – nothing so satisfying as that little green box that tells me it’s time to add weight.
For my work journal, I prepared a small Python script that timestamps individual entries automatically, then stores them all in one big file. A second script lets me pull any date range into a separate file for easy reading.
For everything else, I alternate between my pocket notebook (in case I make progress outside my home) and cheap composition-bound notebooks. My guitar notebook, for example, contains a list of drills I’ve done, songs I’ve played, and things I’ve noticed during any given practice session. If I find myself jamming at a friend’s house unexpectedly, records go in the pocket notebook until I can transfer them to the right notebook. Meanwhile, my Chinese notebook contains a list of any new words or sentences I learned and any notes on my practice or review.
When progress seems stagnant, all I have to do is flip through the notebook and see how many things have become natural. When I see that I’ve more than doubled the weights I started lifting, or when I see the work I put into songs I can play off the top of my head, or when I see all the Chinese characters that are have become simple to read, I marvel at how much better I’ve become, and I find the energy and will to keep plowing through.