At the end of 2017, I was going through an existential crisis.
It wasn’t the first one; I’ve long dealt with end-of-year doldrums where I wrestle with questions about what I’ve done with my life over the prior 365 days.
This one was particularly difficult, however. My father had died in July, and while I knew I’d been a model son and brother during that ordeal, the rush to the end of the year kicked up familiar feelings, made more complex by my father’s passing. What did I have to show for myself? What had I accomplished? More importantly, how did I contribute to the world?
I felt I had nothing to account for my time here except wispy memories. There was nothing tangible to validate me.
All this was a falsehood, of course. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done anything—it’s that I didn’t remember it all. Any of it, really. Not the mundane, not the terrifying, not the glorious. It wasn’t an accomplishment issue. It was a recollection error.
Sitting there in my darkening living room, three things became crystal clear to me: first, the feelings I was experiencing were painfully familiar, part of an annual recurring pattern that colored my mindset from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Second, I didn’t want to experience them again. Third, I had the physical tools to change the pattern, right there in my apartment. The key was setting a process in motion that would keep me on track, which was a frightening realization all its own.
The decisions I made that day have been instrumental in helping me grow. They’ve been foundational steps as I’ve improved my artistic development, and they have helped me become more spiritually centered. Most importantly, they’ve helped me gain a sense of security in myself that I’ve not experienced before.
Now, before you turn away, bear in mind that complicated problems don’t have to have complicated solutions. Keep in mind as well that simple steps are not necessarily easy. In fact, I’ll assure you this is not an easy path to follow. I’m moved to write this and present it to you here, in this venue, because it’s working for me. I’m being compelled by the universe to share it with you, in the hopes it will touch some of you. If that resonates with you, then read on.
I decided that day in late December to fully integrate into my life three disparate elements. I’d been using each of them with varying regularity (read: half-hearted commitment), but hadn’t seen before how they could fit together. Those elements?
>> Daily planning/goal setting.
>> Daily journaling.
>> Daily documentation.
I, perhaps like most of you, have always had an awareness of the power of goal setting. I’ve known the mechanics, and the difference between long, intermediate, and short-term goals. I’m also an inveterate list maker, likely a Virgo characteristic, but necessary in my former profession as a writer/editor working on multiple projects with varying deadlines. What I hadn’t realized was I was sacrificing one—the power of goal setting—for the short-term benefit of the other. My professional life benefited greatly, but my personal life, as evidenced by my annual end-of-year meltdowns, suffered.
That was a hard-won lesson.
I decided to make my personal goals just as important as my professional ones. I use a daily planner—in my case, a Franklin Covey model. I like it because it gives me the space to list my projects and also provides room to write notes. (I’ll show you the importance of that a bit later.) While I use and recommend this planner, you can find your own, so long as you have something you like and you’re comfortable using. The key is using it. You’ll keep the planner open so the checklist is visible all day.
On the planning page, I’ll list everything I need to get done that day. The planning steps are noted by priority; I use an A, B, C system where A is high priority and C can be easily shifted to another day. (A note on prioritizing: if your task has a hard deadline that day or you’ll be embarrassed by not getting it done that day, it’s an A priority. Anything else is a B or a C. I include that tip to keep your stress levels to a minimum.)
Every item listed to be completed is a small step toward a greater goal. Franklin Covey uses The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, written by Stephen Covey, as a core for its goal-setting process. I really like that because it helps establish personal values as a foundational element for setting goals. It’s been helpful to me.
And let me tell you something, folks. There are not many things more satisfying to me right now than checking stuff off that list and seeing the progress I’m making. Don’t underestimate that sensation.
Journaling is an especially powerful thing for me, because as a writer, it’s sort of like daily exercise. It sharpens the craft, and keeps the spelling/punctuation/grammar musculature in shape. I’ve also found that this kind of daily practice clears out a lot of psychic debris. When my father was dying in mid-2017, the only things that kept me sane were the morning pages I’d write every day, and the chance to go to the gym in whatever hotel my mother and I happened to be staying in that week.
But as I wondered about myself at the end of 2017, I realized the last journal entry I’d made was the day my father died. I’d turned away from it, purposefully, since then, as I absorbed and processed all the emotions and feelings that came up after his passing. Our relationship had been complicated; we never really understood one another, and I realized at the end of the year that I’d been afraid to get back on the page. I felt stuck in an emotional mire, and one of my own making. It was time to get back to the morning pages.
I’ve worked Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program several times at various points in my life. Here’s how she describes the morning pages:
“What are the morning pages? Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness…They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.”
During my father’s illness, the pages gave me opportunity to sort through my feelings, plan contingencies, and vent emotion. I generally wrote them in the hospital chapel first thing after checking in at my father’s room, giving my mother time with him. The pages helped clear my mind and kept me focused. The beauty in them is that they are private; there is no wrong way to do them. More than once in my life I’ve filled three pages of a journal with the words blah blah blah repeated throughout the page. Even those tantrums served a purpose.
I recommend the pages to you whether you’re a writer or not. I firmly believe, as does Cameron, that we are all creative beings, and I believe there is artistry in all things. I also believe the pages will help you find clarity, as they did for me when I started them again on Jan. 1, 2018. I’ve been at them steadily since then. (And yes, the morning pages are one of the things on my daily to-do list.)
A note on the pages: They are not designed to be read by anyone but you. Do not be surprised, however, if you get flashes of unexpected creativity within them. Story ideas, song lyrics, poetry—they may all find their way onto your page. If those things don’t appear, it’s alright. If they do, be grateful.
Three hundred sixty-five days is a long time. I am not blessed with a photographic memory, and I long ago conceded that I need to write things down to remember them, whether those things are snippets of dialogue for a story or that I need toilet paper on my next grocery run.
As I mulled things over at the end of 2017, I knew I hadn’t skated through the year in a cloud. But I could not, for the life of me, recall many specific details. It was then I made what is likely one of the most important choices in my life.
I would document in my planner, simply and quickly, everything I’d done every day. That way, when Thanksgiving rolls around and I get that nagging wonder again, I can look back through my planner pages and see what value I brought to the world.
This serves two purposes for me, as it will for you if you decide to implement it. First, it lets me describe any details that may need to be recalled later. Rather than just looking back on the checklist and seeing I did a workout that morning, the notes will tell me that it was a ridiculously hard one that day and I burned 672 calories when it was done. Second, and most importantly, it will let me know when I didn’t quite accomplish everything I wanted to get done, and why. In the notes section I can describe how the day got away from me, perhaps, or how something on the list took longer than expected, or that I just vegged out watching Netflix longer than I should have. The notes, the documentation, hold me accountable to myself. They help me keep on track toward accomplishing my larger goals.
I now make them part of my evening routine before going to bed. At the end of the day, I go through my to-do list and note what’s been accomplished and what hasn’t. I’ve come to label some things “big things,” while other actions are daily routine. It’s a comfort to me to see accomplishment in my actions, even though I may not recall it next month. I know I can look back at the notes and see what I was able to get done.
I then plan out the following day’s to-do list. If there are things that don’t get finished one day, I schedule them for the next, after making a note why I didn’t get to it.
Every 90 days or so, I look back on the quarter past and see if I need to make adjustments or enhancements to my process. You may or may not need to do that, but I recommend you at least look back over things to see precisely how much you’ve achieved. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your level of activity. This past 90-day milestone, I decided to integrate a wall calendar into my process to give me a more visual representation of what’s going on in my life with meeting and class schedules. Some of it is definitely repetition of what’s in my planner, but it works as reinforcement for me and plays into my needs as a visual learner.
A Note on Timing
What you’ve read up to now may seem like a lot, and it does call for a daily commitment. You may be running all this through your mind, mentally checking your current schedule, wondering if you have time to integrate these actions into your already-packed schedule.
If you want to.
What I’ve found is the morning pages take about half an hour. The daily documentation at the end of the day, along with the next day’s planning, takes about the same amount of time. That’s about an hour a day. It’s up to you, but could you find an hour a day if it could help you achieve more, worry less, and find some security and harmony in your life?
I bet you could.
I hope you do.
Author: David Munoz
Image: Author’s own; Pixabay
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina