Why I journal
I was on a coaching call. The coaching call was a free bonus to a course on Rituals I helped produce.
We had a limited amount of time. 25 minutes. And the younger person I was talking to wanted to make the most out of his time. To do this, he had a list of questions. The call was a 20 minute Q&A session. Well, at least the Q was there. I, unfortunately, didn’t have many As.
It wasn’t that the questions were bad. There was just no way I could know the answer to them.
Here’s what the conversation looked like:
Q: Do you think I should meditate? I tried if for a few weeks and didn’t notice anything.
A: I don’t know. Millions of other people, myself included, find value in the practice. And there is a growing list of successful people who maintain a regular meditation practice. But there is an equally huge list successful people who haven’t meditated a day in their lives.
Q: How much time should I be reading and learning every day
A: I don’t know. It depends on your season of life, how much you can absorb and how much information you can take action on. Learning and growing daily can be a great way to improve your life. But too much learning can be a form of procrastination.
Q: How much exercise should I be getting? How much sleep?
A: I don’t know your personal biology. The average amount of sleep most humans need to perform optimally is 7 to 8 hours. I’m not sure what your fitness goals are. 3 vigorous workouts a week helps me feel energized. I can share a few of my favorite routines with you if you’d like.
6 or 7 questions later, our time was almost out.
Then, the driven young man asked a question I felt like I had an answer to.
Q: You mention journaling a lot on your podcast. Should I keep a journal?
A: You know all of those questions you’ve been asking me? I don’t know the answers. But journaling is one way you can get the answers yourself.
You can challenge yourself to meditate for 30 days and journal about how it made you feel.
You can document how much time you spend reading to see if that practice is bringing you closer to your goals.
You could record your sleep for 60 days to see if you notice trends between productivity and how many hours of rest you’ve gotten. You could do the same with different workout routines.
Journaling (on paper, on your computer, on your smartphone) will give you the one thing you and I don’t have at the moment.
With that data, you can get answers to all these questions. So yes. Start a journal. Use it to track your various experiments. That data, you collect through journaling, will give you the answers I haven’t been able to give you on this call.
So data is my big why behind journaling. I feel like my process does a damn good job of collecting the data that I need to better navigate my life.
So if this seems like something you want to look into. Let’s jump into the how of my current journaling process. But first, a word of caution.
A Word of Caution
You’ve already read about 1,500 words on why starting a journal is the best thing since Amazon Prime free two-day shipping. This means something. It means you are a grower. You are they type of person who seeks out new ways to grow themselves and improve their personal effectiveness.
As a fellow grower, I know how I would be feeling right now. I would be excited.
I would be ready to skip ahead and see how the journaling process could work for me. I would also likely read a few other articles on journaling and maybe find a podcast to hear more about the topic.
I would then buy the tools that promised to help me have the best practice possible.
I would also make a big commitment to make journaling a permanent part of my life.
I mean, look at all the reasons!
And hell. I’m pretty sure I heard Tony Robbins say, “If a life’s worth living, it’s worth recording.”
I would then journal consistently. For a week. Maybe two.
My life is already full. So is yours.
There are a million things you ‘should’ be doing. And if you are currently prioritizing another ‘should’ in your life, awesome. Keep it up.
Hit the gym, make those sales calls, go on those date nights, maintain that budget.
Your willpower is limited. Trying to add too many ’shoulds’ to your life doesn’t work. It is a recipe for ’shoulding all over yourself.’ Which is gross. Don’t do that.
If you are prioritizing another ‘should’, right now:
- press command + d to bookmark this article
- add it to your Pocket
- clip the article into Evernote
- add a task with a link to this article to your someday/maybe list
- or ask Siri to remind you about it in a month or two (or three)
But, if you feel like you’re ready to move from the “I should journal” into “I must journal” status, let’s dive in.
I will give you the step-by-step process of how I built my daily productive journaling habit. You can take what you like and infuse it into your own practice.
Here’s my caution to the caution section. This caution is to how you should start your journaling habit.
I currently spend roughly 25 minutes a day writing in my journal. I journal in the morning to start my day, in the evening to wrap it up and throughout the day as natural triggers prompt me to make an entry.
You may want to start with 2 minutes or 2 sentences. It’s easier to stay consistent if you have a low bar to success. It’s also easier if you have another habit to stack onto or a bad habit you want to replace.
For example, do you get to work and hop on ESPN.com (or Facebook or Instagram or insert low mental bandwidth distraction here) first thing?
If so, you probably do this because you’re not quite ready to jump into your most important task (MIT) for the day. The coffee hasn’t kicked in yet or your brain just isn’t ready to face challenges.
You could start a journaling habit by setting a morning blocker to the distracting site.
When your fingers unconsciously open up a fresh tab in your browser, type in the first letter of the URL that auto fills so you can press enter and receive that glorious dopamine hit from all the wonderful neurons firing new stimulus, you’ll see this:
That will remind you, “Oh yeah. I’m journalling now.”
Then you can answer your first small journaling prompt.
If you’re not replacing a bad habit, stack it on a habit you already have. Maybe you take a shower every evening before bed. You can journal right before or after that routine.
With my voluminous caution out of the way, let get started by going over the tools I use to journal.
How to write your way to success with productive journaling
Let’s start with the tools.
My process involves a combination of Evernote and TextExpander, but a paper-based system can be just as effective.
Here’s why I chose to go digital.
Why did I go digital with my productive journal?
Despite sometimes being slow on the uptake, when I see the power of a software solution that outperforms its analog forefather, I tend to gravitate towards it.
Speed is one reason. If a daily practice only takes me 10 minutes vs 15 to 20, I know the chances of me sticking with it are exponentially higher.
But the main reason why I chose to use a digital journal is to save my scarce brain juice. Working from a blank page in a journal means I have to think of what I want to capture. That’s too much work. I’d rather let prompts guide me.
The tool I use to automatically insert these prompts is Text Expander. For those who are not familiar with this amazing tool, today is your lucky day. You are going to save so many keystrokes, your fingers won’t even know what to do.
The basic idea behind Text Expander is taking advantage of work you’ve already done. You access that work with keyboard shortcuts.
Text Expander works in the background at all times. It’s sitting there waiting for you to type in a combination of keystrokes you’ve programmed in. The software recognizes the combination of characters and replaces the text with different text, image, link, date or a form you can fill out.
outlining podcast shownotes
sharing my address
autocorrecting words I misspell
using symbols like ⌘ or ✔
sending instructions or a series of helpful links to a common question… the list goes on.
Before using Text Expander, I have to create a place for my journal entries to exist.
I use Evernote as my digital journal holding ground. I like Evernote because I can create a folder where all my journal entries live. Those entries are ordered by the date the note was created. This makes it easy to scroll back in time to review.
Other reasons I use Evernote to journal include:
powerful search function
syncs with my iPhone Evernote app
easy to add images, video or audio to entries
links to other Evernote notes can be added
clean design and user interface for distraction-free writing
To make it easy to add entries on the fly, I added a shortcut to the sidebar that goes straight to my Evernote journal folder. Every morning, I get there in one click, then I create a new note for the day.
After creating a new note for the day, I use the first Text Expander keyboard shortcut (known as a snippet) to title the note. This snippet gives me the accurate day of the week and date. All I have to do is type ‘;jd’ and the day of the week, abbreviated month, day of the month, year and week of the year* pop up like so:
Knowing the day of the week is helpful for scanning and quick reference. And, since I’m an American, the month followed by the day followed by the year is the date structure I’m used to seeing.  I also added the week to the end of the snippet to help make sure I’m reviewing the correct entries for my weekly journal review.
This is what my snippet actually looks like:
Feel free to copy mine or customize a date or title that works best for you.
Once the note is titled with the Text Expander date snippet, I press the tab key to begin making the journal entry in the note area. This is where I use my second of three Text Expander snippets.
I type in “djournal” and bam!
What are my most important tasks?
What gave me (or others) energy?
What did I do for exercise? Exercise: 75 No Equipment WoDs
How much sleep did I get?
What value did I give away today?
What was I focused on?
I now have a fresh, dated journal template. While this took a minute to explain how to open up the right folder > add a new note > date the entry > add the journaling template, it only takes seconds to do.
I’m now ready to start filling out the journal template.
Where do I start?
Where do I start? Wherever I want!
4/5 weekday mornings I have just finished my morning ritual. This consists of water, coffee, cuddling, meditation and 25 minutes of reading.
Since my mornings look the same most weekdays, there’s not much to discuss in the bottom focused section. Sometimes I’ll note if I used a different guided meditation or what book I was reading. If I learned something worth noting from the book, I will add that to the ‘What did I read/learn?’ prompt. I’ll try to summarize an idea or recall the fact without going back to the book to test my comprehension and help improve future recall of the material.
I will also note how many hours I’ve slept in this first morning entry. The sleep time is an estimate based on when I went to bed and if I got up in the middle of the night. 
Another question I try to answer early in the day is ‘How is Nikida amazing?’ Nikida is my fiancée. She’s a rock star in so many aspects of her life that this question is dead easy to answer. I might type in a personality trait I appreciate, a goal she’s recently met, a thoughtful thing she did for me… or maybe we had a spectacular cuddling session that needs to be immortalized in my journal. 
This first entry, including creating the new note in Evernote, takes less than 3 or 4 minutes to do.
At this point, if I didn’t miss my end of day wrap up journaling session, I move onto my most important task of the day. These are planned out on Sunday. I take another 30 seconds to note them at the top of the journal and get rocking.
If I did miss yesterday’s end of day entry, I’ll go back to the previous note and write in what I was focused on in the afternoon and evening. Reviewing the second half of my day will often remind me of:
When filling out the previous day’s focus log, I’ll look to the top of the journal entry to see if there are any important tasks that didn’t finish. If one or two didn’t get done, I’ll add those incomplete tasks to today’s list.
Having my most important tasks (MITs for short) roll over to the next day is something that happens less often than it used to. But it still happens on a weekly basis for me.
You see, I suffer from OOPS. This stands for Overly Optimistic Planning Syndrome. The daily and weekly planning I do helps me become slightly more realistic about what I can accomplish. But my brain only tends to remember the times the stars aligned and I finished work in record speed. It then assumes that record speed is an average. And I can and will beat average this week.
Needing to roll over MITs in Evernote is a constant reminder to stop doing that. 
The logging of yesterday’s focus, adding missed actions and reminders to my todo list or calendar, and rolling over MITs phase of the journaling process, takes me about 15 to 20 minutes.
Is this investment in time worth it? Yes. 100%
Should it be done in the morning when I’m at my mental peak? No.