The Value of Daily Thought Work

Best Practices

In the Launch Program and in my Thinking Lab courses on “Developing a Central Purpose” and “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure,” I advocate doing “daily thought work.” This means that you schedule 15-30 minutes every day to “think on paper” about a specific topic, and you keep it up for weeks or months.

You may be wondering why you would do this. Why wouldn’t you do all of your thinking up front, or only when you saw a need? Normally that’s what you would do. But daily thought work is critical for longer-term projects that involve one or more of the following:

  1. You anticipate that your motivation will be inconsistent (e.g., you want to undertake a major writing project, but you only seem to be able to write when the spirit moves you)
  2. You will be putting in place new habits (e.g., a new scheduling system or a new eating plan)
  3. As part of the work, you’ll be clarifying and reprogramming your value hierarchy (e.g., you’re choosing a central purpose or replacing a malevolent view of other people with a benevolent one)

The common factor in all of these undertakings is that you will need to use your existing motivation while building new motivation. This is a little tricky. It involves a lot of self-awareness. Plus, it cannot be done just by thinking about the issues — you need to experiment on the basis of your thinking. You act on your preliminary conclusions, observe the results of that action in the world and in your mind, and then adjust accordingly.

Experimenting on yourself

When you’re engaging in this kind of self-development, you first need to decide what you can do right now, given your existing knowledge, skills, and motivation. On this basis, you make a plan for the day. Then you attempt to follow through on that plan. Depending on whether you succeed or fail (and you will sometimes fail), you gain access to important new information about yourself.

In some cases, you’ll see that you’ve grown. Maybe you can do more than you thought, or you see a more reliable way to be successful. In other cases, you may discover that you overestimated what you could do. You need to adjust your approach to build up your skill. All of this is discovered through experimentation on yourself.

For example, I have been working on raising the quality and output of my writing. At one point it seemed that I could improve both speed and quality by drafting on the computer and then doing a second pass later. But I found that approach sometimes failed completely. In desperation, I switched back to writing longhand in pencil on loose sheets of paper. I now see that I can keep the reader’s context in mind much better when I am writing longhand. And of course, that builds in a second pass. I have a new improved method to experiment with.

Scheduling the mental work

When you are experimenting on yourself, you need to maintain a certain temperament. You need a value-orientation through the ups and downs. You need to be clear-eyed about your knowledge, skills, and motivation at any moment; you need to see and celebrate your growth in any of these areas; and you may need to dissolve old baggage that pops up and interrupts the process.

These are all mentally demanding activities. They add up to systematically gaining self-understanding on an ongoing basis. This is exactly the kind of work that “thinking on paper” is perfect for.

Given that you will need to do this kind of thinking regularly, it is much better to do it pro-actively, on a schedule, rather than hope that you will remember to “think on paper” when issues arise. Scheduling the thinking guarantees that you have the time to go in depth. It gives you the benefit of hindsight to identify issues worthy of more attention. And it gives you a daily motivational reset button, so that you don’t let discouragement from one day passively infect the next.

It is much harder to remember to do this kind of thinking ad hoc when you’ve just had a success or setback. Often it just doesn’t occur to you to stop and analyze the situation in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you don’t even recognize an issue until later, once the consequences have played out.

This is why daily thought work is such a value.

With this overall context established, I can answer a few other practical questions.

What exactly do you think about during daily thought work?

Your specific goal and your progress toward it guide what you need to think about on a daily basis.

Regardless of your goal, you can always adapt standard prompts. For example, here is a list of Daily Prompts from Ian McKenzie (Ian’s Messy Desk):

  • What were the significant events of the day?
  • In what way was this day different from other days?
  • Did I have any significant conversations?
  • What did I read today? Did it say anything special to me?
  • How did I feel during the day? What were the high and low points?
  • Was I worrying about anything today?
  • What gave me particular happiness or joy?
  • What did I accomplish today?
  • Did I fail at anything and what lesson did I learn?
  • Did I gain any insights into myself or someone else?

On any given day, you would pick a couple of these that seemed relevant to your long-term goal and your current situation. My article “Using Prepared Questions to Activate What You Know” in the Thinker’s Toolkit includes additional prompts you can use.

In contrast, sometimes your goal requires in-depth thinking on one topic. I talk about this in my article on Tackle Tough Long-Term Issues with Three Pages a Day. When the thinking over time needs to be cumulative, you usually have a meaty issue with many aspects. In these cases, you re-read the previous day’s work and pick up where you left off. You systematically work through known issues.

For example, in the self-paced mini-course on “Developing a Central Purpose” in my Thinking Lab, I give guidelines for what to think about and specific assignments. These tasks range from “Getting More Emotional Impact from Good Things that Happen in Life” to ruthlessly analyzing the motivation behind your existing goals and reflecting on past accomplishments. Over six months, you explore many different areas, one at a time, 20 minutes a day, with one day following on from the previous. Eventually, this self-reflection adds up to a deeper clarity about what you want to create with your life. It is highly exploratory rather than streamlined, so that you cover the necessary ground.

This is general guidance. You can get creative in making each day’s thinking fresh and productive, especially when you’re reusing an old prompt. What brings the benefits is your active self-reflection and pro-active problem-solving — not the particular questions you use to prompt it.

One of the benefits of my Launch program is that I provide specific assignments for daily thought work. Everyone is working on a similar timeline, so I send out daily thought work suitable for where you are. First you clarify your goal. Then you settle into a schedule. Then later in the program you will likely have setbacks and discover surprising old baggage. At certain times you will feel deadline pressure.

Participants are sometimes amazed that I know what they need to be thinking about. If your thought work concerns a problem that just happened, I seem like a mind-reader. If you uncover a problem that’s about to happen, I seem like a fortune-teller. But it’s not magic. I just understand the normal, predictable motivational challenges, and then I get you to think about the issues pro-actively.

How is daily thought work different from journaling?

Journaling is a catchall term for any kind of daily written self-reflection. Some people’s journaling may be exactly what I mean by daily thought work. But not all. Some people simply freewrite in their daily entries or just record events of the day. That is not what I call daily thought work.

Daily thought work is purposeful. On the positive side, it is designed to celebrate successes, reinforce motivation, and direct you to the best use of your time — so you can achieve your goal as fast as possible. On the negative side, it is designed to help you identify gaps in knowledge, lack of skill, and motivational obstacles — so that you can figure out the steps needed to fill in the gaps, develop the skill, and reprogram your motivation.

If you have tried journaling, but didn’t get any value from it, you probably didn’t have a clear overarching purpose. Without that goal-orientation, journaling can devolve into haphazard rumination and wishful thinking. In contrast, with its built-in purpose, daily thought work creates a structure to foster the personal growth needed to achieve many major goals.

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