Do It. Right Now.

courtesy Joel Montes de Oca via Flickr CCMy Middle Daughter (who is celebrating her quarter-century mark today) has been working on establishing a “5-Minute Journal” habit for herself. Like any good Personal-Development-Blogger-Dad I saw this as both an opportunity to bloviate to her and come up with a useful practice post.

The Problem

“I really like the journal,” she said – I’d given her a pretty Spring edition of the Field Notes brand, with the first few pages outlined with the elements of the 5-Minute Journal process. “But I always forget to do the end-of-day parts.” That’s the “Awesome 3” – three good things that happened that day – and the one thing that, if you could make time go backwards, you would change. Being a geek, I like to call those “Tardis Moments” or “3MIT” (“TIME” spelled backwards).

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m already in bed, and it’s sitting downstairs…and it just doesn’t seem like I can get up and bother with it.”


“Ok,” I said. “So the barrier is inertia. Beds are comfy. We need to make the journal as convenient as your bed. How about keeping it at your bedside table?”

“Oh, I tend to write in it later in the morning, so I keep it in my bag…”

“Ah, there’s the problem,” I smiled. “The idea of the 5-Minute Journal is that you do it right away, first thing, with a mind untrammeled by the events of the day.” Now, of course, this is me writing about the conversation after the fact to illustrate the point; I wasn’t nearly as concise. I am pretty sure I actually did use the word “untrammeled”, though. “Just keep the book by your bedside table all the time, and that way there’s no way for you to avoid it.”

Science of Solution

That is part of the science of habit, called “triggers.” It can be a bad thing – like eating a cookie every time you pass a cookie jar. But it also can be used to your advantage by hooking the habit you want to cultivate to a habit you already have – like waking up, or turning off your light.

So the way it would work is:

Wake up triggers: I write in the book.

and then on the other side, when she wants to go to bed and reaches for the lamp, she remembers:

Can’t turn off light until I write in the book.

The key, though, according to many people who write much smarter stuff than me about habits, is that you make sure the trigger and habit are right next to each other. It has to happen right away. If you try to associate waking up with writing in your journal an hour later…the two won’t be connected.

It has to be very conscious and deliberate at first, but over time this gets easier, and the new habit becomes almost automatic. Do it as consistently as possible, every time the trigger happens. The less consistent you are, the weaker the bond between trigger and habit. The more consistent, the stronger the bond. – Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Application is not Permanence

I know that this can work, because I used it to develop my own 5-Minute Journal habit. It worked wonderfully – but you will notice that I’m using the past tense. That’s because, to be fully honest, I haven’t been doing it for a while now.

Part of that is because I’ve been trying other morning routines and such – but more to the point, when I stopped making “reach for pen and notebook” the first thing I did in the morning, it no longer had the trigger, and the habit faded. Not completely – I’m confident I can re-establish it – but habits are tools that are only useful if you maintain them. They’re not simple machines like levers and pulleys – they are made up of complex moving parts that require constant vigilance to maintain.

But if you pick out your trigger and your habit and you do it now it will get easier. I promise. We are hardwired that way; isn’t it about time that you made that work for you?

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