I don’t know about you, but I can be pretty hard on myself. In my mind, acknowledging a problem and solving it should be the same action. I forget the adage about knowing being only “half the battle.”
When we’re criticizing our current state, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. Journaling is the tool that keeps my critic in check. In fact, it is the only tool I’ve found that helps me focus more on progress and less on perfection.
When focusing on improving a specific area of your life, set-backs and speed bumps can feel insurmountable. It’s easy to forget that slow, steady forward movement is often the most sustainable. It’s easy to focus on the backwards step in the formula “three steps forward, one step back.”
Frequent journaling – I recommend daily – will offer you the best vantage point of your small wins. The kind of slow, consistent progress that builds into long-term, sustainable change.
I discovered a recent eye-opener last week while exploring my older journals that really brought this point home.
A few years ago I suffered a horrific back injury with two herniated discs that resulted in constant, mind-numbing pain. I lost feeling in my right leg and could barely walk. When I wasn’t totally hopped up on hardcore painkillers, I was in acute agony. I couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. I had epidural steroid injections, acupuncture, and cortisone. Nothing helped. Running, my natural therapy, was out of the question since I could barely walk.
I put up a good fight, but the constant pain and loss of self-sufficiency wore me out after awhile. It’s hard to think about anything else when you’re dealing with that sort of disability.
Slowly but surely, I got better. I read about it day by day in my journals over the course of a year. I went from struggling to climb the four stairs onto the bus, to “only” taking 6 Percocet per day, to relying solely on 16 ibuprofen a day (a real victory!), to walking for 10 minutes on my lunch break.
Then I was off ibuprofen altogether, then I was walking to work again, then I was (gasp!) running in tiny spurts during my daily walks.
At the time, that progress was lost on me. All I could see was the days I had to take ibuprofen to stop the sciatica. Or the fact that my three mile runs were now 30 second trots. It didn’t feel like progress. I felt like an invalid.
Last week I was frustrated enormously since a bout of illness has left me unable to keep up my running routine. I truly felt that I’d spiraled backwards to the starting line. Back to the beginning. But reading about setting my alarm 30 minutes earlier, to allow the painkillers to work so I could crawl out of bed, made me realize that I was in much better shape than I thought.
Seeing my slow and steady progress on the page helps me remember where I’ve been and appreciate how far I’ve come.
Using the Tool
Journaling is a useful tool for all kinds of efforts, from the minor to the dramatic – changing your daily habits, losing weight, choosing a career, finding a mate, learning a new skill.
To really harness the power of documenting your forward movement, you can consciously use your journal to track your progress in a certain area of your life. Imagine how powerful a tool you’d have at your disposal if you wrote daily about your weight loss efforts, for example. Or your attempts to learn a new language.
You’d easily be able to track your milestones and have them in front of you when you lost steam or felt discouraged. When you were in the backwards step of the “three forward, one back” dance.
I’ve found physical evidence to be the number one motivator for me. When there’s something I want to accomplish, I create a list of milestones – measurable accomplishments. And then I write daily about my progress toward them. Celebrating each new level. “Today I ran one full mile without stopping!!!” “Today I finished my first 5K race.” “Today I registered for my first marathon!”
This style of journaling reminds me of the closet in my house growing up, where my mother measured us with pencil against the doorjamb. At six feet tall, it’s hard for me to believe I was ever a tiny person.
When my parents recently sold the house I grew up in, I paid one last visit to my growth ruler on the closet wall. It was powerful to see the little dates written next to the charcoal lines on the paint – a visual representation of exactly where I’d been and how far I’d come.
Journaling can provide the same type of measuring tool, though the “growth” more figurative. It can keep our successes fresh, re-energizing a discouraged soul while helping you to appreciate the progress you’ve made.
Next time you decide to make a change, try tracking it frequently in your journal and see if it helps you keep perspective. You may be surprised at how motivating your own story can be.