In my post How to Strengthen Willpower Through Practice back in May, I mentioned how useful I’d been finding a practice I call “decision logging” in terms of building willpower, and I promised to give proper attention to the subject in the future. Here, after some delay, is that post.
Decision logging (“d-logging”) is a practice we can use to become more aware of what decisions come up for us during a normal day, how we are making those decisions, and what in our lives is influencing those decisions. The payoff of d-logging is that we become much more aware of what’s going on in our own bodies, minds, and environments–more mindful. Mindfulness is a powerful and central factor in improving willpower, because willpower means being able to make good decisions, and making good decisions requires understanding what’s going into them.
D-logging takes effort, but is very simple to do. All that’s required is to commit for a day at a time (preferably multiple days in a row for a total of at least a couple of weeks in total) to jotting down brief notes whenever
- You notice you have a meaningful decision to make
- You notice something going on with yourself that may influence your decisions
- You have any insights into your own behavior or thinking
By “meaningful decision,” I mean a decision that deals with an area in which you’re trying to improve your willpower or motivation. It’s not important to d-log about how you pick what to wear for the day or which radio station to listen to unless those are concerns of great importance to you.
The kinds of things that go into a d-log include:
- Physical sensations, like hunger, fatigue, or comfort
- Ideas or judgements about what’s going on, like “Everything seems to be going wrong this morning” or “I wish I could remember to be a little more relaxed about driving”
- When and how meaningful decisions are coming up
- Anything else that might influence how you make those meaningful decisions
Writing these things down brings them to the forefront of your attention and causes you to see them clearly for at least a moment or two, and seeing them clearly makes it much easier to deal with them. For example, if you’re frustrated about problems you’re having with your car and later in the day find yourself treating coworkers badly, you may find through d-logging that it’s the car that’s really driving your decisions about how to deal with people. Once you recognize this, you may come to the conclusion that taking that frustration out on the people you work with isn’t what you want to do, and you can focus on dealing with your feelings about your car in a more constructive way.
You can d-log on a computer, on paper, or by any other means that suits you (I often use an Alphasmart), but actually writing things down is essential–it’s not enough for this practice to just kind of mentally note them. It’s also essential to be completely honest with yourself and not to leave things out because you feel preoccupied, anxious, embarrassed, or frustrated about them: those are often exactly the kinds of things that are most helpful to recognize.
Of course privacy can be a concern. If you need to, you can toss out what you’ve noted very soon after it’s written down–even immediately. It is very helpful to be able to look back over your decision logs and learn from them, but if your concerns about privacy would prevent you from doing it otherwise, it is true that just writing things down does that most important job of focusing your attention.
Plan to keep your log on days when making notes repeatedly throughout the day will be doable for you.
To d-log, start each day with a fresh file or piece of paper and put the date at the top. Jot down the time whenever you write something down after not having any entries for a while. This helps put things in a time framework, so that you can look back and notice how something you felt at 10:00 in the morning did or didn’t influence something you did at 2:00 in the afternoon.
No one else has to see your d-logs, although if you have someone you feel you can tell anything to and want their help, it could be enlightening to share. You might want to explain what you’re doing to various other people if you’ll be needing to do it around them a lot, but in some cases such an explanation may result in someone asking to see what you’re writing, and since your d-log is meant to be completely candid, this could be a problem.
Over even a relatively short time–days, or weeks–d-logging can help build practices of mindfulness and of thinking through decisions that we’re used to making automatically, acting on habits we may or may not like. The importance of understanding our own thoughts and feelings and how they bear on their decisions is hard to overstate.
If d-logging is highly impractical for you, fortunately there are other routes–though they may be longer or more difficult–to developing mindfulness, especially doing mindfulness meditation.
D-logging will take a certain amount of attention and commitment, but it’s not hard. One beautiful thing about d-logging that’s not true of many approaches to developing willpower is that you can use it to improve willpower in any number of areas at once. Normally if you want to work on self-motivation, it’s important to focus on one specific area, since lack of focus tends to make motivation fall apart. D-logging is different because you’re not concentrating on promoting a particular goal, but only on understanding yourself and your thinking better. Yet this kind of thinking tends to have immediate, noticeable results on achieving goals.
Don’t be too concerned if you start d-logging on a particular day and don’t do a good job of following through. Any of this practice you do, even if it’s not for a full day, helps, and it’s always possible to try and do better the next day.
While d-logging is particularly powerful in terms of developing willpower, there are also other kinds of logging and writing that can bolster motivation, and I’ll cover some of these in future posts.