Using Science For Better Health (1)

       There is a simple, yet incredibly powerful, tool that scientists have used for hundreds of years to revolutionize the world. I use it to revolutionize my life. It's called a field journal. I like to call it The Notebook That Changed The World. Using one is simple, and the results are astonishing!

       The word "journal" can throw some people off. It often brings thoughts of a diary, where feelings, emotions, past problems or whatever may be on someone’s mind is written down. Although many self-help gurus recommend journaling in this manner, the results from the data that’s been collected on this technique have been mixed. It works well for some patients, doesn't have much of an effect on others and is downright counterproductive for some. A field journal, however, is a very different thing. Let me explain.

       The biggest difference between a typical journal and a field journal is simple. In a typical journal people write about a topic or whatever may be on their mind, and move on. In a field journal they jot down highly specific details, and those details are reviewed again later so that the information can be analyzed in hopes of finding answers and solutions.

       When I pulled out all the data I had collected over the years to make a new wellness plan, I realized that I had never properly tracked the results of any of the methods or activities I was reviewing. I had an epiphany. I was never going to know what was, or was not, working unless I started tracking the results. I couldn't believe I had never thought of rigorously using a field journal in my daily life before. I was a science geek not using the power of science. How ridiculous. Oh well. It takes some of us longer to figure things out than others. I'm just grateful I finally realized what I needed to do.

       Figuring out what I needed to track was simple once I decided what my priorities were and started scheduling them into my week1For me, using a field journal means quickly jotting down the medications and supplements I’ve taken, what I've eaten, the resulting feelings from exercise and wellness activities, a general note or two, and an overall mental health score for the day. I only have to write down medications and supplements on the rare occasion that they may have changed due to my doctor changing them, or I made a mistake and missed a dose. I added a checkbox that indicates that they were identical on my nightly summation sheet (see below). It’s a time saver.

       I track the data in two ways. The first is to write notes in a small notebook I carry with me everywhere I go (see below). I briefly wrote about how I use this technique to avoid overtraining last year in, Overtraining With Mental Illnesses.2 At the end of the day, I put the notes I’ve made in  the appropriate sections on my nightly summation sheet (It’s in Jpeg format below in case anyone would like to click on it to print it off). This whole process takes less than ten minutes out of my day, but the return on that ten-minute investment is staggering. I have hard data that I can use to improve my life!

       A friend saw me writing in one of my little notebooks one day and asked what I was doing. I explained. She expressed concern that this may be too analytical and scientific for her. She just wanted to “live.” I completely understood her concern, but I paraphrased what Dr. Sapolsky says about science because it’s true. He wrote, “I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.” A field journal is at the heart of scientific endeavor, and it has certainly reinvented and reinvigorated my life!

       One of the best things about a field journal is medical doctors, psychiatrists, therapists and coaches LOVE data. It gives them something to work with and analyze. I've never heard of one of them not loving data. In my experience, they are overjoyed when I can give a quick overview of exactly what has happened since we last met. No matter what mood I may be in, or what symptoms I may be experiencing at the moment, I can give a clear picture of what has, and has not, been happening with the current course we have taken.

       A field journal also allows me to give details that I would have otherwise never been able to give. No one's memory is good enough to remember exactly how they felt two weeks ago after a particular activity, having eaten certain foods while taking certain medications and supplements. Using a field journal means that we don't have to try and remember because we already know. Also, it's much harder for our current emotional state to influence the information we give. The words were written days and weeks ago. The information is already in.  In short, they allow the experts, whose advice I seek, to help me in ways they would have never been able to otherwise.

These are a few lessons I've learned about using a field journal that I remind myself of often:

1.  Be as objective as possible. I try to pretend a trusted friend was observing what happened, and record what they would write. I was amazed how different, and how much more accurate, what I wrote down was when I started using this simple technique. As Sherlock Holmes stated, "You see, but you do not observe." Forcing myself to try and see things from an outsider's perspective helps me to observe things that I would never have otherwise.

2.  Don't make rash decisions when analyzing the data. It is so easy for me to jump to conclusions, most of which turn out to be wrong. That is why, as a general rule, I don't make any changes until I have a minimum of two weeks of data in, or I've tried something many times.

3.  Don’t use lazy thinking. There is a logical fallacy called post hoc, ergo proctor hoc that I have to be on guard for. Post hoc, ergo proctor hoc is when we believe that because B follows A, then A caused B. For instance, if I start eating large amounts of pineapple and start feeling better, it's easy to assume that the pineapple caused it. It could be that there were more sunny days during that time. I could have had a few better runs. I may have had more time for wellness activities. I have to be careful to look at the whole picture and figure as many of the variables into the equation as possible. I can't fall into lazy thinking when analyzing the data to improve my life.

4.  Don't make medication adjustments without the help of a medical doctor. I did change doctors at one point because we had different goals. He was concerned because my symptoms have always been on the severe end of the spectrum. I have had psychotic breaks and have been admitted to four mental wards. This led him to the belief that I should have stayed on extraordinarily high doses of medicine, to be safe. I respected his judgment, but I disagreed. I decided to get another opinion. After searching, I was able to find a doctor who was willing to give me another chance at lowering my doses and even change to safer versions that have fewer side effects. She is amazing and has helped me to do things that many believed would never be possible for me. In other words, even when I wholeheartedly disagreed with my doctor, I didn't try to adjust the doses myself. I went in search of a doctor who could hold my hand as we made the changes together. I am not a medical doctor, and my emotional states do not always allow me to think rationally about medications. I must trust my doctor, or I'm doomed! She's the expert, not me.

5.  Be diligent. My decisions are only as good as the information I base them off of. If I skip three days or use lazy thinking, I'll be basing my decisions on bad data. Bad data leads to bad results. It's that simple. It works if you work it. It's worth it!

6.  Use a pen. Scientists never use a pencil when making notes in a journal. The temptation to change data after the fact is too great. Once it is written, it is done. Whatever mood or symptoms I may be experiencing, when I go back over the data, there is no changing it. It is what it is.

       With all the scientific studies I had collected over the years, I wasn't able to make lasting changes until I had a plan.3 But, I wouldn't have had any way of knowing if what I was doing was working without data, without a field journal. The simple truths are often the ones that are overlooked, bypassed and scoffed at. I certainly overlooked this one, and science is one of the greatest passions of my life.
(These are the little journals I carry in my pocket everywhere I go.  I like the slightly bigger, hardback type, but I can't always fit it in my pocket. On those days, I carry the smaller, soft one pictured on the left. I quickly transfer the notes I jotted down during the day onto the nightly summation sheet below.)
(This is the nightly summation sheet I use to write down the notes I've taken throughout the day. I keep them organized by month and always have at least the last six months in three ring binders. I never know when I might need to go back and check something. That has helped me countless times. Click on the image to print it).
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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a fantastic resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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