By Sarah Skwire
Today is 50 days until my second degree black belt test. I know this because after the previous test in June, I decided to see how long I had to get ready. On the day I happened to count, the total came out to the pleasantly even 130 days.
For a long time, I’d been saying to myself that the trick of fitness in general, and of my martial arts practice in particular, would be to do one thing every day to improve. It probably didn’t even matter too much what that one thing was, since there were so many things–cardio, strength, flexibility, core, balance, etc–that contribute to improving martial arts performance, SO MANY of which I needed to improve. I knew what I needed to do, but I was having trouble doing it.
Although I was always dedicated about attending classes, I was sporadic about doing things outside of class to support that work. I’d go through streaks of regularly stretching while my youngest daughter took her bath, and then I’d get sidetracked one night and would drop it for weeks. I’d run consistently for two weeks, then have to skip a run or two because of meetings and would drop it. I had been on a very good schedule of weight lifting, but a shoulder injury sidelined that. Like everyone else, in other words, life kept getting in the way.
But I knew that, life or not, in 130 days I’d be expected to perform at the top of my game. And more than that, I wanted to perform at the top of my game. I needed to find a simple way to stay consistent.
A friend of mine in college always used to say that you could solve any problem with office supplies, heavy artillery, or a large enough plastic bag.
So I bought a planner.
I got a really small one–it’s about 4×6–with a page spread for each month and a small box for each day. It didn’t have any dates in it, so I could start right where I was. (I hate starting planners in the middle. So much wasted paper flapping around. And I hate starting mid month because of that depressing white void at the top of the page..)
I labelled it with months and dates. Then I put a countdown every 10 days of how many days were left until the test. On the front of it I wrote “130 Days” and a somewhat belligerent and accusatory “What did you do today?”
And then I started to fill it in.
I used it to track anything I did, any day, that would further my goal of performing well at the second dan test. I recorded class attendance, time spent assisting in instruction, stretching sessions (no matter how brief), runs, physical therapy, and so on. When I travelled and did lots of walking, I recorded that. When I spent hours doing yard work, I recorded that too.
And when my body told me that I need to take a day doing nothing, I wrote down “rest” as well. (That was a big deal for me, acknowledging that sometimes even I need to take a break. Maybe that’s another blog post for another day.)
I’ve learned quite a bit from having a planner dedicated to a single goal. A few blank stretches remind me that I get knocked out of my routines easily, so it’s better for me to find time to fit things in than to say “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” Travel throws me for a loop, so I need to have a plan before I go about how I can keep working toward my goal even when I’m not at home. It’s best when I don’t use this planner to schedule ahead (though sometimes I do). This is meant to be a record of what I have done–not of what I intended to do. I’ve learned that writing down what I’m doing helps me feel like I’m making progress, even when I’m feeling stuck on a plateau, or frustrated about not being able to make it to class one day, or just generally feeling old and creaky. I can look at my planner and see how much I’m doing and how hard I’ve been working. I’ve learned that I’m sufficiently nutty to be motivated to add new things to my routine just to be able to write them in my planner.
I know that the trend now is for bullet journals, where you track everything all in one book–daily calendar, shopping lists, work out schedule, movies to watch, favorite quotes, and so on. And I’m as seduced as anyone by the elegantly laid out bullet journals I see on Instagram and on my friends’ Facebook pages. But I don’t want to make earning my second degree black belt just another part of the daily run of stuff I do. It’s more important to me than remembering to stop by FedEx, or pick up more tea on the way home from work. I wanted to set it apart.
Having a dedicated space where I record my work towards this goal reminds me that it’s more important, and reminds me to treat it that way. Work and family and kids and illness and everything else still go one, and still call on my time, energy, and attention. But now there’s a little book in my bag or on my desk belligerently asking me, every day, “What did you do today?” and reminding me that it matters.
Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund and Senior Editor at AdamSmithWorks.com. Her academic research primarily considers the intersections between literature and economics, but ranges widely from early modern material to popular culture.