Personal journal

I’d like a journal-type tool to keep track of life stuff.  I kept a daily journal at work for the last several years, expanding it toward the end to include a closing one-liner each day just for me with a productivity grade (did I earn my pay today?), exercise, and caffeine intake.  While its very direct benefits in filling out weekly time sheets and annual preparation for appraisals no longer apply, (yay!) I think such a log may help:
– As a way to look back to see patterns in health and exercise over time.
– As a motivational tool (Rats – 3 days in a row with ‘D’ for productivity – I better get my butt in gear.  Wow – 4 days in a row with ‘A’ or ‘B’ productivity!  Let’s see if I can make it a whole week!)
– As something to search back through to see when (if?) I did something.

Platform, design, requirements

This is a green field development – I can design it however I want.  Some requirements:

  • accessible from anywhere – any computer, phone, tablet
  • orthogonal with my project notes – about me: health, priorities, struggles
  • very likely to record grades, exercise durations/types, etc in several dimensions without becoming burdensome
  • ideally the above grades etc would be parsable if needed
  • no more complicated than necessary (as simple as possible but not simpler)
  • preferably free, but that’s not a hard requirement

Some general thoughts:

  • actively want to log exercise, especially in light of new jog/walk program
  • might provide some of same pleasure as writing in my project notes
  • by keeping grades, might be able to motivate myself, improve, and see improvement
  • include a weekly recap?
  • integrate with to do lists to keep me on track?
  • include thoughts/ramblings (like “how do I best ___?”) maybe in a single place rather than spread across daily entries?  maybe a way to make resolved items disappear (but not be deleted)?
  • Maybe I really need 3 documents:  Daily journal; table of grades, activities; single thoughts/plans/improvements/whatever page organized into topics?
  • What about integration with To Do lists and maybe even calendars?

After some web research, no tools jumped out as ideal.  I’m not very good with decisions, but really wanted to get underway.  Google docs didn’t raise any red flags, so I’ve started out with that as the platform.  If it doesn’t work out, there’s always version 2 🙂

For grades, activity durations etc a spreadsheet with a line per day and a pre-filled-in date seems like the least bother.  I suppose I could have a couple of free text fields for daily ramblings.

For the general ramblings, I picture something like my old work journal.  That started each day with a boldly formatted date, inserted with a single click via a Word macro.  There are no such tools in Google docs – bummer.  I don’t know what I’ll write here.  If it’s not much, the free text fields in the spreadsheet might be sufficient.

For higher-level organization/prioritization neither the cron log nor line-per-day spreadsheet formats seems appropriate.  The “What Matters Most” ideas from a Franklin Covey seminar I took years ago still resonate, and I guess I’m looking for a central place for ideas like those, including areas I need to work on improving.  Probably things like “spend more time cleaning the house” rather than “improve SMT soldering skills”.

While I bridle at the thought of multiple docs, the ramblings, hard data records, and WMM really are pretty disparate things.  And the WMM is mostly for occasional review, so there would really only be 2 docs to touch daily.

To Do lists

I’ve believed for a long time that the way to get things done is to take your sensibly, realistically prioritized to do items, put them in specific time slots on your calendar, and then live by that calendar.  It doesn’t really feel like somebody telling you what you should be doing each hour, since you put the items on the calendar and you made the priority calls about which ones to do first.  But believe as I may, I’ve never been able to force myself to implement it on a regular basis for any length of time (despite several tries).  Just a personal flaw.

I’m probably now willing to cut myself the slack of no longer feeling guilty about not using that patently superior technique.  But I’m still keenly interested in knocking stuff off the to do list(s).  And of course there’s the question of how to physically manage the list(s).

For home to dos I’ve kept a paper list in a very prominent central location (the kitchen table, despite significant mess-related drawbacks to that location) for years.  It’s two columns hand written on 8.5 x 11 paper, with new entries at the end of the list, and items varying from Exercise! to Get trash bags to Finish board layout for recording preamp.  Items are well crossed off when done, providing satisfaction while making the list easier to scan.  One or more large stars mark urgent items.  When the paper is about full, I start a new one, with the still-undone items copied.  There’s some value to actually writing those items down (again) by hand.

The downside is that I have to be at the table to add to the list.  The real blessing is that once I’ve managed to scribble something down I can stop worrying that I’ll forget about it.  (That’s GTD’s using a trusted system to remember things for you.)  Of course the latter benefit doesn’t have anything to do with it being a paper system.

What really bothers me about the paper list is that I can’t explain why it works and I stay with it while online lists haven’t worked out.  I’m perfectly willing to go with a low tech paper system – but it’s really troubling when I can give apparently valid, rational reasons why on an online system would be much better.

I tried to use the task list feature in Outlook when that was the required company email client at work, but it just never gained traction.  I’ve also got a pretty complete list in the online Toodledo system that syncs with a GotToDo app on my phone.  That has it all – browser access on the PC, access from my phone, and it’s free.  But that one has languished as well.

So the mystery of why the paper list works remains.  Maybe sitting down and doing a formal pros/cons analysis or talking it out with a sounding board (Lauren would be fine) would provide insight.  I’ll do that soon – there’s an item for it on the list on the kitchen table.

Update:  While this post was still being completed, I really wanted to get under way, so I started a spreadsheet in Google docs.  It’s been going for a week now, and is up to 15 columns.  Surprisingly, it’s not very burdensome.  Seeing what I have and haven’t done in black and white is a pretty good motivator.  I really hate to see those entries in the aerobic exercise column that say “none”.  And I’ve put in some checkmark nag columns (like ‘spend 15 minutes each day doing some kind of shop/bench/basement cleanup’ and ‘review to do list and plan for tomorrow’) that are helping build some desired habits.  There’s one column for what I’ve done today – the new implementation of my old cron log – that seems to be sufficient to avoid needing a separate doc.  Good.

There’s a separate document that will be home to What Matters Most stuff – perhaps even modeled after their suggestions – though I haven’t started that in earnest yet.  Hmm – better go write that down on the kitchen table.  (Done.  That was easy – one of many benefits of being home all day 🙂

I’ll update this in a month or so with whatever comes of it all.  Hmm – guess I should put something on my calendar to remind me to do that.  I really need a good mechanism for ‘ticklers’ like that.

Update 4/29/12:  I made a Google Docs spreadsheet for a Daily Log.  Did split screen view so column headings are always visible.  Made a sticky note on each heading with clarifications about how to use it.  I’ve been pretty good about keeping it up, and it provides a little reminder/motivator for stuff like exercise:  I hate to have to fill in that I skipped today.  Current headings:

  • date, day of week
  • sleep: A=all I wanted, B=pretty good, D=not enough
  • productivity: A, B, C…
  • aerobic/cardio exercise – like running, cutting grass, dancing
  • did I do my daily stretch routine?
  • strength training – like pushups
  • free text field for what I did today, comments
  • health – how I feel, any special problems
  • caffeine – how much
  • itchiness – 0 to 4 for chronic itchy rash – looking for patterns
  • shower today?
  • shave today?
  • plan – did I look at to do lists and try to do important stuff?
  • 15 minutes of cleanup – trying to institute a new habit (not very successful yet)
  • time mgmt – especially leaving late for stuff

I’ve been quite good about keeping it up.  Aside from weekends away, I’ve only missed maybe 2 days since I started it.  It’s effective and I’m pleased with it.  It also provides a way (by adding new columns) to track/encourage new habits I may try to build.

On to-do lists:  Still trying to move away from paper lists.  I’ve shifted how I use them:  One use is an extremely quick way to capture something I want to do – sort of an inbox holding list.  Stuff there should be added to Toodledo at earliest convenience.

Second use for paper is a to-do-today list.  Gives me a single place to look for tasks both urgent and important whose time has come.  It’s a short list, remade almost daily, and crossed off stuff provides both satisfaction and visual clues about how I’m doing.  I’m considering something like identifying which/how many things I have to get off the list to get an A (or a B) in productivity for the day.

Another experimental paper list use is for quickies.  These are things like ‘take checks to bank’ or ‘oil hatchback hinges on prius’ that are both quick and atomic.  They’re almost too simple to bother making a Toodledo task, and the list is usually short enough that it doesn’t get out of hand on paper.  That list gets scanned daily to make the daily list.

I’m still not nearly happy with the systems, but they’re a start, provide some degree of daily guidance, and are helping me learn more about myself and what works and what doesn’t.  And of course there’s the interesting puzzle of what things a better task organization system would help, what what part it’s just my laziness.  All work in progress.

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