I’ve tried keeping a journal since high school. And for years – decades – I would go through little spurts of diligence. A month here, a week there. I’d forget about where I put my journal, buy a new one, find the the first one a year later. And what I wrote wasn’t much better in terms of organization. Some read like a memoir, some like a captain’s log, some like a packing slip.
A few months ago, I returned to the idea of journaling, but I knew I couldn’t be all willy-nilly about it. For one thing, I wanted to change when I sat down. Instead of scrawling something before bed, I moved it to the morning with my first cup of coffee. And instead of long-winded observations that, admittedly, read as if written by Scarlett O’Hara, I developed a template to complete each morning. In more than three months, I haven’t missed a single day.
But I’ve also noticed other benefits. My productivity has gone up. I’m getting more done. But I’ve also noticed a significant decrease stress and stress-related behaviors. I’m more focused. Not perfect, but better. And I attribute it to this little morning ritual.
Here’s my formula: O.P.A.G.A.R.S.
Observations – Literally a sentence or two about the day before. I don’t dwell. I might also write a weekly objective – a page count in a book I’m working on or an exercise goal. Keep is short. Keep it crisp. No need to ruminate.
Priorities – Literally my priorities. Not a long list of to-dos, but a short list (3-5 items) of things I need to get done before I go to bed. Short-hand. Bullets.
Attitudes – My emotions and my wandering mind often get in the way of me doing the things I need to or being the person I want to be. I identify three to five things I want to pay attention to each day. Examples: digital distraction, being a victim, being passive. Keep the list short and remember it all day.
Gratitude – I used to think I was grateful. Now, I know I am. I write down three to five things I am grateful for that day. Specific things – a good morning walk with the dog, amazing experiences with my kids, my wife and I having a good talk the night before. It’s the same thing we do as a family over our dinner prayer. Specificity is key to being really grateful.
Affirmations – This is a little strange, but it has done wonders for me. I pick a medium to long-term goal – being a successful writer, for example – and write it down 15 times. It looks like this: “I, Craig Heimbuch, will be a successful writer.” I write in the first person, but use my name. It’s part meditation, part hypnosis. I picked it up from this interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It harkens back to my mom making me write my spelling words 15 times a piece and the first few times are work, the last few are automatic, but I can feel a shift in my brain – usually between the seventh and twelfth copy. It also gets me to do things like write this blog, contact my agent when I’ve been meaning to and work on stories that have been in the back of my head. Again, a little weird, but try it and see if it works for you. I usually write the same thing for a month before changing it up.
Resistance – If you haven’t read “The War of Art,” stop what you are doing and read it now. If only the first third, in which Steven Pressfield examines the forces of resistance that stand in the way of a person doing the things they need to do. I write down three to five words of things that might prevent me from getting my priorities accomplished for the day. Examples might be: YouTube, worrying about bills, a bad attitude, checking e-mail or social networks constantly. The point is to identify them early in the day so you recognize them for what they are and move passed them when they arise.
Success – Here, I define in three bullet points how I will define success for the day. These three things will be the traits of a day that will allow me to go to sleep with a clear conscience. It could be accomplishing certain tasks or not arguing with my wife or helping someone without being asked. The point is that the rest of the page were about looking forward, this is about preemptively looking back at the day to come and deciding what will have made it a good one.
It seems like a lot, but I’ve timed myself the last week and this whole thing – which fits on a single side of a page in a journal – takes me about eight or nine minutes to complete. And by doing it in the morning, I’m accomplishing my first goal of the day and starting things off right. It’s better than watching Sports Center and is a good excuse to sit down with a cup of coffee.
Do you write a morning journal? What do you write? I’d love to learn more. If you don’t, try this for a week and let me know if you see a difference.