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Getting started with a journal

I have always been a sporadic journal writer, only regularly documenting daily experiences while traveling, winding down during the end-of-day decompression in my room. Many years ago I made it 1/5 the way through a 5-Year Journal. This year, I’m giving journaling a serious try, and have found it to be like a delayed mindfulness practice. Each day you set aside time to self-reflect after the fact. In just one month I have already learned a lot about my regular day-to-day self. Here are some things I have learned about the practice in general, and how I am applying it.

What do you want to know about you?

Journaling is like having a conversation with yourself over an extended period of time. It is much more than the daily act of writing. As you make note of events and thoughts each day you build a dataset for analysis. During weekly or monthly reviews, you mine that data for insights. A great way to stick with the practice is having a question or hypothesis in mind that your journal can answer. For me, there were a number of things I was curious about. Let me give an example about productivity:

Am I a morning person or a night owl?

This is a particularly important question for the “independent researcher” with an unstructured workday. I always thought I was a night owl. Then I had kids. Soon I noticed how productive I was early in the morning. I see now from the data that I am actually both, or possibly neither. Maybe I am an “afternoon sloth” (can I trademark that?). Journaling showed me the afternoon is my low energy/low productivity time. Chart my energy levels throughout the day and you end up with what looks like a hand-written “u”. No wonder I like going to the gym after lunch! I thought that it was refreshing — which it is — but it also matches my natural productivity pattern.

“Nutritional individuality” is the idea that a one-size fits all approach is not the best for wellness, that personal factors matter. This is surely true of productivity and creativity. It doesn’t mean you can’t train yourself to be creative at certain times or under certain conditions, just that we all have different starting points. Like “resting heart rate” we all have different “resting creativity rate.” Figuring out yours is a big step to making effective change. That could be a good question to start your journaling practice off with.

There is no one way to journal

Since everyone can have a different question they want to ask of themselves there can be no single “best” way to journal. Stop searching for the one-size fits all approach! Mix and match from different systems and be ready for your practice to change over time as your needs change. If you stick with paper (or just plaintext), and don’t lock yourself into some app, you will retain the freedom to change things from time-to-time until you settle on something that works for you. Some simple systems that I found particularly inspirational are:

You may find 7 Ways Marcus Aurelius Will Help You Journal Like A Pro good for sparking some journaling motivation.

The point is to start simple and adapt it to your needs. Starting simple also means it is simple to get started.

My journaling routine

After considering many different approaches, what I landed on for the month of January was a 3 part system:

  1. A simple bullet journal for daily habit tracking (seen in the photo below)
  2. Morning Pages
  3. Keeping a Daily Note
Open Notebook showing a bullet journal layout on the left page, and on the right page a sleep tracker and productivity tracker
My BuJo

My bullet journal is a simple setup for tracking three things:

  • habits (meditation, reading, writing, etc)
  • sleep
  • productivity

I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this system, so I stuck with paper, which to be honest is pretty satisfying to fill in throughout the day. Right away I noticed some successes as the stark grid of the BuJo enforces some accountability. My meditation practice improved a lot (even though that is something I have been tracking digitally in my meditation app for years). I also noticed second order effects, like drinking a lot more water each day, just by imagining that was on my list.

Sleep tracking was also really helpful. I directly observed how my sleep schedule was interfering with my productivity.

My productivity tracker is really simple: the day is split up in to Morning, Afternoon, and Evening. Each section has four boxes that I colour in when I feel I was actually “productive” — a pretty subjective judgement. I do this throughout the day. One thing I noticed is if I get a lot done in the mornings, the rest of my day feels like I am sailing with the wind. If I am not productive during the morning, then the pressure to perform in the evening contributes to my stress levels. That is the worst since the evening is when the kids are bouncing around, fighting for a later bed time, asking for another glass of water, hitting one another, requiring first aid, setting things on fire, etc etc — none of which are conducive to personal productivity to stay the least. To win the day, I need to win the morning.

Speaking of morning, my Morning Pages practice not only boosted my creativity, but allowed me to see the kinds of things that my subconscious is working on, the low-level topics that I am apparently always thinking about when I am not thinking about the task right in front of me. I made all sorts of breakthroughs this month that really excite me. (Morning Pages and Daily Notes are a bit more intense so I will cover them in a separate post.)

Rewriting your day

Journaling, even for one month, has given me insight into how I operate and a starting point for making positive change in my life. I can see clearly now the habits that would sabotage my day (eg. Twitter first thing in the morning), and what things I need to do to ensure that I feel happy and fulfilled at the end of the day (eg. fill in at least 4 productivity blocks). These insights resulted in some drastic changes to my daily routine. What was supposed to be just a 15 min daily practice I was going to squeeze in somewhere has ended up completely restructuring my day. This is not a bad thing, since I am not merely doing it for the journaling, but to facilitate better productivity and most importantly my emotions. For February I have made a couple of little tweaks, adding some habits that I want to reinforce, and I have come up with some new questions to answer.

I am careful not to add too much. Journaling has given me a better sense of my capacity for taking on things. There are only a certain amount of good habits you can build at any one time and taking on too much will result in complete failure. Having such a system gives me a realistic framework for evaluating new activities. I can imagine swapping out habits for different ones based on the time of year, or new needs that arise. With your heart right there on the page, you can see why you shouldn’t try to do all things all the time.

You might not want to make a big New Year’s resolution to journal, or commit yourself to a 5-year journal. But I think you could compare it to other positive time-bound practices like 3 day meditation retreats or intermittent fasting. Engaging in a serious journaling practice even for a relatively short amount of time, pays back in multiples.

We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey