Establishing routines and baselines: Recording daily schedules
I don’t know about you, but I’m not the world’s best at noting down every activity I do during a day.  I get engrossed in the thing I’m doing and I often get interrupted, so it’s not very easy to record my activity moment-by-moment.  Yet, for many of us, this is something we ask for from the people we’re working with.

Luckily, there is some research on daily diary methods.  Unluckily for most of us, the best ones (ie most accurate and least intrusive) are electronic!  Useful if you’re funded for some research, less helpful if you’re trying to do this in your everyday clinical setting!  Basically, the research findings show that an electronic, automated and usually random alarm that reminds the participant to record their activity (and usually pain) then-and-there provides more complete data than a paper diary.

I’m definitely no computer programming expert (actually I don’t know anything about programming – I just use the darned things), so I don’t have access to either the technology or the programming to be able to use an electronic diary.  One day perhaps.  So I rely on paper recording.

Various diary formats are available, and it depends on what you’re wanting from the diary recordings as to the best format to use.  The main things to remember are:

  • Not everyone follows the instructions! If the effort of completing any daily recording is too high, you’ll see the person quickly scribbling in the diary in the waiting room – not quite what you hope for!
  • Keep the demands reasonable.  If you would find filling a diary of everything that you do difficult, it’s likely the person you’re working with will too.  In practical terms this means making the purpose of the diary very clear (so importance is high), and the recording process as simple as possible (so confidence that it can be done is high).
  • Cuing the recording to regular activities helps.  So it’s a good idea to anchor filling out the diary to mealtimes, for example.  Of course if the person doesn’t have regular mealtimes, this isn’t going to be easy – but just by tying the recording to specific times of the day may be sufficient.
  • Tickboxes are easier than writing words.  If you can, make the recording process as simple as possible – it’s easier to tick a box for a category of activity, for example, than to write down “Grocery shopping”.
  • Recording something draws attention to it. And is this what you’re wanting? If you ask a person to record pain intensity, and you’re really aiming to increase activity, you’re focusing the person’s attention onto pain rather than onto whether they’ve completed the activity.  I personally rarely record pain intensity, and I don’t talk much about pain intensity after the first session.  I don’t aim to alter pain intensity, so I don’t focus on it.  If I want to focus on distress or thoughts or ‘up time’ – these are what I’ll ask the person to record.

With someone who finds it difficult to record anything, the initial focus could be on simply recording how often a target behaviour occurs.  For example, I’m working with a woman who has very low confidence for managing painful flare-ups, so she does very little on high pain days.  She’s also quite low in mood and becomes highly distressed.

I’ve worked with her to identify two activities that she can do everyday – putting on makeup, having coffee with her children.  We’re only recording (with a tick!) the number of times in a week that she completes these two activities.  By focusing on an activity she wants to do, and only recording when she is successful, her attention is on what she is doing (rather than the entire list of things she’s not doing), and she gradually seeing only the successes, rather than recording her failures.  We add the total number of days in a week that she’s been successful, and increasing that running total is our goal.  I’ve limited the number of activities she’s recording – too many, and she’ll be overwhelmed and feel demoralised.  Once she’s managed these two activities consistently every day, we’ll add another activity to the list.

Another approach is to use the ‘Plan to, Did do’ diary.  In this approach, popularised by Sullivan in the Progressive Goal Attainment Programme (PGAP), the participants make a plan for the day either the night before, or in the morning.  At the end of the day, they note down their actual activity pattern beside their planned ones.  At the bottom of the sheet, some of the strategies the person used to do their activities can be listed – both the planned ones, and the ones they actually used.

And my final adaptation is to use a colour coding arrangement on a spreadsheet with one client.  To help her identify the balance of activities she carried out during each and week, she completed her daily activities in a spreadsheet, and used colours for ‘self care’, ‘family’, ‘paid work’, ‘exercise’, ‘relaxation’, ‘household management’.  By doing this she was quickly able to review her week to see how closely she’d followed her planned allocation of activities over the week.  This allowed her some flexibility within each day, with the focus on her weekly balance rather than her daily schedule.

I’ve listed some interesting papers on the use of electronic recording

Allen, K. D., Coffman, C. J., Golightly, Y. M., Stechuchak, K. M., Voils, C. I., & Keefe, F. J. Comparison of pain measures among patients with osteoarthritis. The Journal of Pain, 11(6), 522-527.

Kristiansen K, Lyngholm-Kjaerby P, & Moe C (2010). Introduction and Validation of DoloTest(®): a new health-related quality of life tool used in pain patients. Pain practice : the official journal of World Institute of Pain, 10 (5), 396-403 PMID: 20384966

Palermo, T. (2004). A randomized trial of electronic versus paper pain diaries in children: impact on compliance, accuracy, and acceptability Pain, 107 (3), 213-219 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2003.10.005

Schiavenato M, & Craig KD (2010). Pain assessment as a social transaction: beyond the “gold standard”. The Clinical journal of pain, 26 (8), 667-76 PMID: 20664341


  1. I’ve created a checklist for a grade 4 student I’m working with to help him build his awareness.

    Ironically, I feel like I need a checklist for his checklist! LOL!

    Seriously, it is the building of a habit. As I’ve explained to him, he needs to work on the identified objectives until they become automatic and then he won’t need the checklist at all.

    I think it’s important that you identified, “Recording something draws attention to it.” The old adage that you find what you look for comes to mind.

    1. A checklist for the checklist LOL! have you thought about using a cellphone as a reminder? Lots of people I work with just enter the dates/times on their cellphone and it works well as a reminder. I haven’t quite worked out how to do that myself but I’m sure a kid would have NO trouble at all!!

    1. Thanks Kim, although I haven’t used DoloTest with patients myself, it was one of the papers I found when looking at developing a baseline, and when I looked at it before, it seemed a really useful tool.

  2. Anyone with a smartphone that can view websites should be able to use Joe’s Goals ( It’s easy to set up and very easy to use. You just click once to indicate that you’ve done (or not done) something.

    You can use it for things you want to stop as well as habits you want to develop or increase.

    I was thinking of building something that did this, but after taking another look at Joe’s Goals I decided I don’t need to, it’s already there.

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