Journaling: Slavery or Salvation?
Balancing your Checkbook
“I’m sorry sir, but there are insufficient funds in your account to cover your check.” I looked back in disbelief. “How can that be?” I asked.
How indeed. When I first opened a checking account over thirty-five years ago, I didn’t understand about journaling my money. But the painful reality of “bounced check” fees soon taught me that it was necessary to write it down, or else I would be overwhelmed by my own forgetfulness.
The human brain is exquisitely proficient at forgetting parts of reality that its owner would prefer were not true. As a child, I found that I often would forget an unpleasant chore that my Mom had assigned to me, and actually have the gall to be surprised when she confronted me about the uncompleted task afterwards. My mind had erased it completely from my memory, right up until the time that I was in trouble that is.
A checking account is a zero-sum entity. At all times, you can only take out what you put in. Because humans are so terrible about journaling their money, banks have devised various ways to protect the delinquent journaler. There are “overdraft protection” schemes that will transfer money from your savings account into your checking account when you “forget.” Others will present you with a pre-approved loan to cover your mistake. In each case, it is the fact that the memory of the check writer is undependable that makes protection necessary.
But what if there were no protection? The choices would be: 1) journal every check you write, and every deposit that you make, while keeping an accurate running total; or 2) bounce checks, paying separate fees to both the merchant where the rubber check was written, and to the bank upon which the check was drawn. I can tell you from personal experience, when your funds are low, and your baby and wife are in need of food and shelter, paying nonproductive charges for returned checks is unacceptable, just as it is completely preventable.
Managing Your Money
It is important to differentiate between writing your checks down, and managing your money. The former is a necessary step in accomplishing the latter, but it is only that. Even if you write your checks down, you can still run out of money—if you don’t organize your finances, and make good spending choices.
By buying good quality, reasonably priced products, rather than “top of the line” merchandise, you can stretch your dollars. By being patient and buying with cash rather that using credit, you can buy two or three times as many things for the same amount of money.
Planning and organization are critical components of managing this important part of your life. But once again, people are far too often negligent in this area. They look at the monthly payment for a purchase and it seems small. Several items later, the monthly payments have become overwhelming, and the unfortunate people are struggling to put food on the table. They may have to get another job, and they certainly are finding far less joy in life than they could be having. Many Americans today are up to their ears in debt that was completely avoidable.
People and Food
What does all of this have to do with losing weight, and keeping it off? As it turns out, the same human failings that make money such a problem for so many can also make the managing of food just as much of a challenge.
In a similar way as a bank tracks our money in our checking account, our bodies count the calories that we eat and expend. You have an input and you have an output, and you have a remaining balance. When we are overweight, the difference is that we want to lower our excessive balance of calories, stored as fat in our bodies. However, our calorie account is also a zero-sum entity, just like our checking account is.
The only way to know what is going into our calorie account is to write it down! When we accurately journal our food, we know what we have added to our calorie account. If we do not journal, we can only guess, and we will all too often “bounce a check” when we do that.
It is perfectly possible to overeat, and still write down everything correctly. I know, because I have done it. However, I knew I was doing it, and afterwards I knew exactly how much over the top I really was when I was eating. Rather than living through a chaotic mess, where I had no idea what I had done, I was left with an accurate picture of the process from which I could learn for the future. At least the “bounced check” (when I visited the scale) came as no surprise.
On the other hand, when you are properly working your eating program, journaling your caloric input will be a very important tool that will assist you in avoiding the “bounced check.”
The Perspicacious Plotter
Dotti and I recently watched a movie named, “The Fire Ships,” the second of the Horatio Hornblower series of movies. In one scene one ship's captain said to another, “Sir, I believe you are trying to insult me.” In reply the second captain said, “Sir, I commend your perspicacity!” Unfortunately, this sharp verbal exchange led to plans being laid for a duel to settle the matter of honor.
While having an acute insight and a good understanding may lead you into unfortunate paths on occasion, as it did the insulted ship's captain, by and large, it is the perspicacious plotter who will most often have his plans come to fruition. By having a plan for your eating that is founded upon sound eating principles, and then tracking what you actually eat in your journal, you can then accurately compare what you planned to do with what you actually did. You KNOW if you followed your plan exactly or you did not. Otherwise you are just guessing, and a “bounced check” awaits you.
A very critical component of setting and using a goal is the tracking of progress, and the ability to compare the ideal (your goal and its associated plan) against the reality of what you have actually done. If you write down everything that you eat, then you positively know whether or not you ate what you had planned to. If you write down all of the exercise that you have done, you can easily compare your activity level with what your plan calls for. Documenting your activities is so important that it can overwhelm all other factors if it is not done, because we forget that which we don't want to face, and extra unplanned calories are not things we are eager to be held accountable for. It is far easier to just forget them. But, the perspicacious plotter must KNOW what he has eaten in order to understand the reading on the scale.
A Cry For Help
What happens if your plans seem to lie in ruins about your feet? You have set up your plan, and you feel that you have followed the plan down to the last item, but the scale is saying that you have been off base. You can find nothing wrong with what you planned to eat and nothing at all wrong with what you have actually eaten. So, you want to get some help from an outside expert.
Someone else can look at your written plan objectively and give advice on that, even if you have not written down what you have eaten. However, it is completely impossible for someone else to figure out what you may have done wrong with your actual eating, unless you have accurately documented the food that went into your mouth.
When you have an accurate record of what you have eaten, that record can be gone over meticulously, and analyzed in many ways. Things that we might overlook, an outside expert might very well spot as being a problem area, if it has been written down. Without the written record, the expert is helpless to provide guidance in what you need to change to get better results.
Driving the Subjective Stampede Into an Objective Corral
In so many areas of our lives we run into the problem of subjectivity. We are biased observers in nearly everything we see. Our minds naturally tend to create defenses for everything that we do. They must! If we beat ourselves up for all our failings we would sink into a pit of depression and never arise from it.
It is healthy to have the view that we are basically "okay." Then we can proceed to make changes to improve ourselves, because we view ourselves as worthy of being improved. That is the same as how we would view adding a new room onto a house as being a good idea only if the house is in good shape and worthy of being improved.
Note: When we view ourselves as being basically not okay, we need to reach out for some help. Why? Because each of us has tremendous abilities and inner resources that can never be completely exhausted. Each of us (that means you!) has the potential of being truly amazing! All we need to do is just open up the door and let our inner genius out. With all that potential sitting under the hood, you and I must accept the fact that we are worthy of any effort required to improve our condition, because it is true!
The problem with viewing things subjectively is that it can (and does!) distort reality. It can make you think that something that you are doing is just fine, when in reality that very something is undermining your dream of being thin. You may honestly think that you are right on track when you are not.
If your brain is working against your goal in this way, how can you succeed? Here is where journaling saves the day! When you are counting up what you have eaten, since you wrote everything down, you can see in objective black and white that you have, or you have not, eaten too many calories for the day, the week, or the month.
A good journal can be a wonderful troubleshooting aid when your results do not track what you were expecting. Without your journal, you have nothing but your subjective—okay faulty—memory to identify what went wrong. (In this case, living in denial is not only possible, it is nearly mandatory.) With your completed journal in hand, you have a bountiful supply of objective information to show precisely what happened.
Think About It!
When you write it down in a book, you can see what you are doing in clear form. You have a running tally of how much you have eaten today, and you see that what you just wrote down fits in well with your program, or that it does not. Each time you make an entry it is a "sanity check" on what you are doing today.
The main reason people hate to journal is for this very reason! When you are living in denial, by definition, you don't want to know the truth. When you are journaling accurately, you DO KNOW. One of the most important things about journaling is that it keeps you informed about what you are actually doing. And if you really want to lose weight and to remain at your goal weight for the rest of your life, you HAVE TO KNOW what you are eating each day. There is no other way.
I work in a job that has many potential dangers. The machines that I maintain produce electrical energies of hundreds of thousands of volts. Their interiors are contaminated with arsenic, phosphorous, and other dangerous elements. They have many large computer controlled moving parts that are capable of pinching, crushing, and striking in various ways. They have pumps that have temperatures as low as 10 degrees above absolute zero. There are sources of heat as high as 1000 degrees C. There are pressure differences as great as those upon the walls of a capsule moving through interstellar space, whose interior is at our normal atmospheric presure. In the buildings where these machines are housed, many other even more hazardous materials are used. Living in denial in this environment would be deadly; yet I go to work each day in safety, because of knowledge.
When you know how to deal with high voltage safely, it poses no danger to you, provided you act upon your knowledge. Each of the hazards in my job can be safely dealt with, but only with a complete knowledge of what the hazards are, and how to safely meet them. Ignoring those hazards and moving about in ignorance would be nearly certain to kill you.
When you live in ignorance in a dangerous world, you will ultimately pay a big price for it. The larger the danger, the more important is the need for knowledge.
Whether or not you view weight loss and weight maintenance as a matter of life and death, you at least view it as important, or I am sure that you would not be reading this. In this world, it is a fact that, for those of us who have a problem with weight gain, paying attention to what is going on is mandatory in order to successfully control our problem. We MUST KNOW what we are eating or we will eat too much. There are too many possible ways to fail if we do not have knowledge. We will stumble into problems over and over again, and be left wondering what went wrong.
Journaling keeps us informed, and it makes us think about what we are doing, all day long. Unfortunately, we need that. Fortunately, we have our journals to give it to us!
The Pain is Only in Your Head
There are those who look at journaling as pure drudgery. At heart the reason is not the writing, but it is the accountability that is the real problem. When a compulsive spender, who is trying to crawl out of massive debt, goes to a counselor for help, the very first thing that he will be directed to do is to write it all down—every last penny he spends for any and everything. And he hates it! It is the one thing he doesn't want to do. Why?
There is something that drives us to do destructive things like over-spending, or overeating. It is not a healthy impulse, and it is not a weak one. We feel better at some level when we let that impulse have a free rein, and we feel stressed when we try and put that destructive impulse into a box where it can do us no harm. By writing everything down that we eat, we are telling that impulse that we are going to be in charge, not him. You can almost hear him roar his anger when you tell him that. But there is nothing that makes you feel more proud than when you can shut that monster up tight in his box and keep him that way.
What is required of you when you journal? About fifteen minutes a day. This is not a heavy burden. The average American wastes 6 hours a day watching television. There are also numerous other things taking up large parts of your day that will return far less value to you than journaling will. You can easily spare fifteen minutes each day, and you won't miss the time that you spent at all.
It isn't as if writing your check down, while you are standing in line, holding up the flow to other shoppers for a moment, is a pleasant experience. However, it is a necessary one, and after you are done, you feel good about doing what you know needs to be done. Not only that, in another 15 minutes you have forgotten all about it, and are busy doing something else. But the reward of not bouncing your next check goes right along with you.
So it is with journaling. You have to take a moment and jot down everything that you eat during the day. There is that snack at break time, and the lunch at the office. There is the Starbuck's Coffee you picked up on the way to work, and then the meal at the restaurant in the evening. Before bed you had a little snack and then the day was over. Each eating event is also a writing event. But with system and routine, the writing event is no big deal.
If you make it easy to journal, you cannot in honesty say that it is a real burden. You may not "like to journal" any more than you "like to write down your checks" but you bite the bullet and do it, because you know that you do not want to face the results of having that "bounced check." You do it because you love the results, and you hate the results if you don't.
There are many things that we do in life that are mildly, or even very, unpleasant, because we prefer the results that we get from doing them. When the alarm goes off, who wouldn't rather roll over and go back to sleep instead of getting up and facing a busy day of obligation? That tough choice is far more inconvenient than journaling your food could ever be. But day after day we crawl out of bed, wipe the sleep from our eyes and do what must be done. We don't say, "I don't like it, and so I am not going to do it for the rest of my life," simply because we find it disagreeable. You do what you must do, if you are going to get the results that you want.
Since we already have a track record of getting things done that we would rather not do, one more small task added in will actually be nearly invisible in the stack of other things. But the results will be right out there where we can see them every time that we look into a mirror. Don't fall into the sneaky lie that your inner negative impulse is trying to snare you with. It is NOT a question of whether you like to journal, or if you want to journal. It is only a question of if you will journal. You can journal: easily! You know that you need to journal, just like you need to balance your checkbook. It's as optional as breathing when it comes right down to it. Get out your pen and paper, and keep that negative beast in the box.
I Am Going To Do It...But How?
We are once again going to return to the analogy of an ax and cutting a tree. When you sharpen the ax, the cutting is not just easier, but it is tremendously easier. In journaling, "sharpening the ax" corresponds to setting up a system that makes sense to you, and that is easy to use.
Keep it simple. Don't make each act of journaling into a big production, and a time consuming process. If you do, you will just give ammunition to your "Negative Impulse Beast" as he tries to shoot his way out of the containment box. The more difficult that you view the process, the less likely you will be to continue it. So, we make it easy!
Start with a journal book. The form is completely in your hands. I created a journal sheet that I put on Dotti's web page that you can download if you like and print up. I take the sheet down to Office Max and have it printed up into a book large enough to handle 200 or 300 days. They bind it for me, and I am all ready to go. If you prefer, you can create your own sheet and do the same with it. Or you can take a bound book of completely blank pages and write a day's worth of material on each sheet. (That is what Dotti is doing right now.)
Today many of the finer bookstores have a wide selection of "blank books" and journals that range from gold edged sheets bound in hand crafted leather, to paperbound lined sheets. There are also journals that you can purchase that are tailored to weight loss. Of course you can just take a three-ring binder and build your own from scratch.
The important thing is that you have a "home base" where all of your weight loss activities are going to be kept: one page for each day. At the end of the day, at a bare minimum, all of the food that you ate will be written there. You also should track anything else that you have made part of your weight loss plan: water, exercise, food groups eaten, vitamin supplements, etc.
If you use an electronic method of journaling, I highly recommend that you print out a copy of it, and place that into a binder. Having a written record for future reference can be helpful, and it can even be fun to look back and read about what you were doing one or more years ago.
I have one warning about electronic journaling. If you have to go and boot up your computer just to write down what you ate, you may put it off. If the electronic method causes you to avoid writing it down at the time you eat it, then avoid that method entirely, because it will set you up for failure. If on the other hand, the electronic method makes it easier and more likely for you to journal, then by all means use it! Whatever is simplest and easiest to use, that is what you should do!
Everything should be written down the very same way each day. This will make it a habit that will tend to run itself after a while. When you eat breakfast, you write it down in the same place, at the same time each day. In just a short time, writing it down becomes just another part of the breakfast process.
When you eat lunch and dinner, do the same thing as you did at breakfast. If you always do it the same way, you will get to where you feel as if you left something very important out when you don't journal what you ate.
The "Journal Light"
You have a beautiful journal all set up and you are writing all your meals and snacks at home in it with no problem. You are getting used to it, and it is all working great. But then you go to a restaurant. You don't want to carry around that bulky journal with you. A big three-ring binder will look a little funny under your arm when you are in your formal dinner attire. What now?
It is important to have a portable method of tracking your eating. There are several options:
Copyright and disclaimer
Disclaimer - - This essay is not meant to be a substitute for any professional advice, guidance, or counseling. We are not doctors. Any information contained hearin reflects our own opinions and experiences. It is not intended in any way to serve as or take the place of medical advice from a physician.