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Benjamin Congdon
Benjamin Congdon

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A Gentle Nudge

Earlier this year, I was persuaded to start paper journaling. Paper journaling is unlikely to replace digital task management for me, but there definitely are some benefits to an analog, offline journal.

The paper journal that I keep nominally follows the Bullet Journal method, but only loosely. I’ve tried a couple different techniques over the year. Some, like retrospectively writing down what I did in a given day, felt tedious and redundant given that I already capture that type of information in other ways.

One technique that I’ve found to be useful is “habit trackers”. The idea is simple: each month, make a list of 4-5 things that you either want to do or abstain from doing each day. Then, take a page in your notebook and made headers for each of these activities, and a row for each day. At the end of each day, mark which activities you completed. For me, I used this to track habits that didn’t need to get done everyday, but would improve my sense of productivity and personal satisfaction if I did do them.

I’ve written before that some tasks really don’t belong in a task tracker like Todoist. For habits that are already on “autopilot” (for me, running daily), having a daily repeating task just clutters my dashboard. For habits that are less of a slam dunk (for me, meditating daily), I find that I’m actually less likely to do them if they appear as anitem on my todo list. (“Procrastiworking,” anyone?)

Since habits are tracked as completed or uncompleted at the end of the day, there’s less of a sense of guilt for not doing something, but you still get a little dopamine hit for crossing off an accomplished habit. You aren’t shamed into deferring a todo item to tomorrow; you simply didn’t do that habit today. This practice also bakes in a bit of end-of-day reflection, which can be helpful for other reasons.

This was on my mind as I was reading Michael Lopp’s Being Geek. When I read his essay on what he calls “The Trickle List”, I noticed it closely resembled my discovered system of habit tracking:

My first excursion into the word trickle was a productivity article called Trickle Theory. The argument was simple. You can do more than you think with small, consistent investments of your time.

To understand the Trickle List, you need to first look at the headers at the top of the list. These are the heart of the list and how you define them is how you define what you want to do.

The items on your Trickle List don’t need to be huge, in fact, as we’ll learn in a moment, the bigger they are, the less likely you’ll do them. What they need to be is aligned with where you’re headed. However small, they need to be a daily reminder that you’re headed somewhere.

Lopp’s “trickle list” emphasizes a couple points which makes this type of habit tracking successful:

  • The habit should be useful to you personally, not a vague aspiration.
  • The habit should be small.
  • The habit should be measurable as a “yes”/“no”.

At its best, the “trickle list” gives your frantic “daily self” a gentle nudge from your more rational “long-term thinking” self.

Personally, I find reevaluating my habits monthly to be a good cadence. If I’ve accomplished something everyday for the entire month, I probably don’t need to include that on next month’s list. Similarly, if I have a habit that I only managed to do a handful of times during the month, I probably need to evaluate why I wasn’t successful. Is the habit too big? Am I just not motivated enough? What environmental factors prevented me from doing what I’d planned?

The result is two levels of reflection:

  • The daily reflection of “what could I, given the limits of my schedule, done better today” and…
  • The monthly reflection of “at a meta level, what types of activities do I want to encourage myself to do”.

I’ve started to think more about this notion of “gentle nudging.” Where else in our environment does it make sense to add moments of pause or slightly change our environment to slowly bend ourselves towards self-improvement?

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