Are you a morning person?
Not everyone is.
Despite the never-ending stream of blogs, podcasts and books espousing the benefits of an early start to your day, studies show that there is no socioeconomic difference between early risers and the rest of us. 
I currently get up at 5:40am.
My biological prime time begins about an hour later. I tend to wake up naturally between 6:30 am and 7 am.
I wake up early because I want to connect with my beautiful fiancée before she needs to run out the door at 6:20 am.
I’m looking forward to a time when she can join me for my full morning ritual. But until then, the cuddle, coffee, and meditation we share is a nice way for both of us to ease into the day.
When she leaves for work at the aforementioned butt-crack of dawn, I continue with my ritual. The next step is 25 minutes of reading. The books I select start my day with are there to remind about the grander themes of life.
Some examples of my morning reading list include:
After reading, I move into one of the most productive habits I’ve found since reading and implementing the Getting Things Done system.
It might not be what you expect. When I first heard about this practice, I assumed it was something that teenage girls did to express their feelings. Feelings jacked up by boy bands and estrogen.
But I was wrong.
Nearly 700 entries later, I’m confident the time I spend journaling gives me some of the highest return on investment there is.
Last year I wrote a journaling series on the Asian Efficiency blog. In one of the articles, I asked readers why they wanted to journal.
Here were a few of their responses:
I resonate with 100% of the above reasons. But, a few months ago, I finally realized the #1 reason why I find journaling so valuable.
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.
- How much did I sleep? or
- What do I want to accomplish today? or
- Who am I grateful to have in my life?
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.
I use Text Expander for:
- writing articles
- outlining podcast shownotes
- naming files
- 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:
- Monday Nov 07, 2016 // Week 45
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!
This pops out:
What are my most important tasks?
How is Nikida amazing?
What did I learn/read?
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:
- to-do's I want to capture in my task manager
- reminders I need to set
- appointments I need to add to my calendar
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.
End of day journal entry
Here’s why it would be better to wrap up this journal entry at the end of the day:
- Logging focus entry takes less effort. It’s significantly easier to recall and record what happened in the last few hours than the previous day.
- Adding ideas to the to-do list and calendar is a low-level task that can be done even when you are a bit brain dead after a full day of work.
- Closing all the open loops to your day makes it easier to fall asleep at night.
- Knowing that an important task didn’t get done will allow you to plan your following day more effectively. Maybe you need to reschedule or cancel an appointment, wake up early to meet a deadline or use a working session you had scheduled for another project.
- Deciding what you are going to do first thing in the morning, will allow your mind to work on the problem while you sleep. You’ll often wake up with fresh ideas and insights on how you’ll tackle the task.
- Working sessions are more productive because you are fully rested, less likely to be interrupted and (if you are a morning person) can take advantage of your biological prime time. 
To recap, I do my first journal entry in the morning. This happens as the last step to my morning ritual. This happens consistently because I have a series of steps I take every morning to start my day off right. After 600+ entries, it would be weird if it didn’t happen.
I also have a less consistent end of day journaling session. My end of day journaling session started after having a conversation with Cal Newport. In his book Deep Work, he described his end of day routine. At his predetermined time, he stops what he was working on to begin his shutdown ritual. The ritual consists of:
- checking his email for any urgent tasks that would need to be tackled the next day
- checking his calendar for any events that he would need to prepare for
- checking his task lists (he uses a text file) to see what his most important tasks will be for the next day
At the end of his 30-minute ritual, Cal audibly says,”shutdown complete.” When he says these magic words, he’s trained his mind to let go of the worries he may have about work so he can enjoy his daily time with family and friends. He also gains the recovery he needs for the next day.
My variation of the routine will be, at the end of the day, when Nikida is cooking dinner, I will:
- zero email inbox
- check my calendar for any events, meetings or calls
- write my focused journal log
- create tomorrow’s journal entry
- enter my most important tasks
I also journal sporadically throughout the day. I have natural triggers that I have been gathering over time. For example:
- If I make a little systems improvement, I’ll note that in ‘2 minute improvements.’
- When I get back from my afternoon workout, I’ll note what sweat-inducing activity I performed.
- When I complete a task, I’ll check it off my MIT list using my checkmark Text Expander snippet [ ✔ ].
- If I helped someone out, I’ll note what I did in the ‘What value did I give?’ section.
- If I read something useful, I’ll add it to my ‘What did I learn/read’ section.
These little entries typically take less than a minute to jot down. They also remind me to note what I was focused on since my last entry. All said, these daily entries add up to about 8 to 15 minutes per day. They are usually nice little breaks to recap what has just happened and look forward to what needs to be done next.
They also guide my behavior. Let’s say I get distracted by an email with a link to a video. The video is interesting and I decide to add it to my daily learnings section. When writing that learning, I see that I haven’t gotten my second most important task for the day done. Okay. No more YouTube. Back to work. Or maybe it’s afternoon. I’ve got a bit of brain fog after finishing a difficult task. I see my exercise prompt. Time to do a quick workout. Or maybe I get to the end of the day without giving away any value. I could send out an appreciative email or write a review on iTunes for a podcast I like or an Amazon review of a book that I enjoyed.
The morning entry sets the tone. The evening entry lets me disengage and the quick updates during the day act as the bumper guards to my day.
This is how my journaling practice looked for the first year and a half. The benefits of the:
- morning intention
- daily focus bumper guards
- evening transition from doing to being
have added up. My health has improved due to better sleep, less stress, and more physical exercise. My romance has improved with more gratitude and attention given to my fiancée. My family and friends now see me as someone they can rely on.  And I attribute the significant improvement to my personal finances to consistently focusing on the most important tasks.
Each part of my journal gives a huge benefit. Together, magic starts to happen.
And it gets even better.
6 months ago, I added an extra layer to my journaling practice that has taken things to the next level. This weekly practice allows me to get more out of my journal by going back and reviewing what I learned, what went right, what could be improved and weekly goals.
The Weekly Journal Review
Nate Lowrie is a 30-year-old father, husband, engineer and business owner from a small town in Pennsylvania. Nate had made some incredible strides in his business, health, and home life over the past year.
After meeting Nate in a mastermind group, I had noticed these changes and decided to write up a case study.
The idea was to write the article to inspire people to start taking small, consistent actions toward their goals. Because, as Nate had proved, those small decisions can add up to big results.
In order to write the case study, I got a call with Nate to interview him about the strategies he used to start taking more consistent action.
One thing that moved the lever for Nate was reading and implementing a productivity system called The 12 Week Year. The 12 Week Year (12WY) is a system that has you plan and execute in 12-week periods of time.
The 12WY has you check in on a weekly basis. It’s a 30-minute review where you enter your implementation (or lack thereof) into a scorecard that lets you know if you are on track or falling behind.
In addition to marking his wins and losses in an Excel tracker, Nate journaled about his week in Evernote. At the time, Nate was in the middle of his third 12WY. He said it might help me write the article if I could read over his weekly reviews. So that’s what I did. He shared the folder with me and I read 30 weekly reviews back-to-back in one sitting.
Watching the progress unfold was inspiring. Seeing the struggles was sobering.
But one thing was for sure. Nate had made an immense number of improvements in less than a year. And checking in with himself on a weekly basis played a strong role in keeping him on track.
So I did what any logical person would do. I stole his system!
The review works the same way that my productive journaling systems works. I create a new note in my @DailyJoural folder in Evernote. I use Text Expander to create the title and the series of writing prompts to fill out.
The Text Expander snippet also includes my 3 annual personal development, thing and economic goals for the year and a link to the reasons why I find these goals so important.
Here’s what it looks like:
3 major goals for this past week:
What went right this week?
What went wrong this week?
Major goals for next week:
Did I have any 'whoa' moments?
What did I learn?
Personal Dev Goals Competent communicator. DISC and KOLBY certified Read 50 books
Thing Goals Standing desk Weekly maid for laundry Scooter
Economic Goals Max out Roth IRA Save 1,600 for Tiny House Steady $10,000 monthly income
Annual Goals May 2016
Filling the weekly journal review out takes me about 20-minutes. I do this review on Sunday mornings with a hot cup of coffee. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, I’ll make sure to take the time Monday.
This weekly review is not a chore. It’s an opportunity to collect the week's the progress, learnings, and experiences in one note. This note is incredibly motivating. Looking back on actions you’ve taken to improve your life makes you feel like a rockstar.
If I didn’t accomplish one of my major goals or my ‘what went wrong list’ is a little too long, I’m able to deconstruct why and remove barriers to action from future weeks.
Scanning my week for ‘whoa’ moments allows me to remember how inconceivable and wonderful it is to be a conscious cloud of atoms interacting with other conscious clouds of atoms. And how every cloud of atoms I have ever known or read about will live out their short existence on a rock that floats around a mid-sized star in the vast universe.
Sounds bleak. But the ‘whoa’ moments calm me down by smacking perspective to any struggle I’m having at the moment.
The last prompt is the one that ties into my accountability system. I read through the week’s learning entries to find the three that are most interesting. I then flesh out the note and send it out to a couple hundred friends that have signed up to be my unpaid accountability coach.
You can read through the weekly learnings archive here by going to here:
And signup if you think you'd like a weekly dose of health, wealth, productivity or mindset from yours truly.
Productive Journaling Recap (tl;dr)
I journal to collect data. This data helps me take more consistent action on my goals by giving me goal related questions to answer.
- I have a goal of maintaining a healthy relationship with my fiancée, so I ask myself to think of reasons why she’s amazing.
- I have a goal of being a high energy person, so I ask myself about my sleeping and exercise habits.
- I have a goal of knowing more about the world every day, so I ask myself to write about what I learned.
Whatever goal you have in your life, it can be guided with a question. This question will help you keep you focused and taking action on the goal. Writing will give you objective data that you can look review.
Not hitting that business, relationship, fitness, or personal development goal?
Check your journal.
Your journal will tell you if you need to change your strategy or up your execution of the current strategy.
Start small. I started with one prompt. “What did I learn?”
Find a place in your day for journaling to live. The best time is before or after a daily habit you already have. You can also replace journaling with a bad habit like surfing the web.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  Hope this helps.
Let me know how it goes in the comments.
 According to the most recent American Bureau of Labor Statistics, "American Time Use Survey," last modified Sept 30, 2014, https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/.
 There are more new-age-y leaning books I read and review. But I’ll refrain from mentioning them here. I get that the woo-woo stuff doesn’t jive with everyone. But you know… we’re all one man. Just kidding. Kind of.
 I recognize the rest of the world more sanely dates from the smallest unit of time (day) to the largest (month then year). The rest of the world also uses a weight, speed, and temperature measurement system that is base ten. That makes too much sense for us rebels. 16oz in a pound, 5,280 feet in a mile, water freezes at 32° because… don’t worry about it commie.
 More accurately tracking my sleep is working it’s way up my ‘should’ list. This journal prompt is good for now. It allows me to see rough trends between hours of sleep and how well my day goes. And let me tell you. The correlation is strong. I’m a grumpy, dumb person if my sleep levels dip below 7 hours for more than a day or two.
 Relationship Bonus Hack: I’ll often take what I wrote in the ‘How is Nikida amazing?’ section and send it to her a text using iMessage. That way I can remain grateful and she’ll have a nice text to enjoy when taking a break from teaching her 5th graders their maths.
 Just another way my journaling practice helps me be a more useful, less stressed human being.
 Argh. After writing that list of good reasons to wrap up my journal in the evening, I’m kicking myself for letting this part of my journaling routine slip. I just set a recurring reminder on my iPhone to resurrect the ritual. I also discussed this with Nikida, she suggested that I do this entry while she’s cooking dinner instead of trying to squeeze a bit more work out of the end of the day.
 This was not the case before I consistently wrote things down. I was unreliable. People expected much less from me. I, in turn, expected much less out of myself. It was a vicious cycle. I’m unbelievably grateful to be free from that negative pattern.
 Unless you scrolled all the way to the end and only read the tl;dr section. You suck. Just kidding. Kind of ;-)
* Note: Text Expander doesn't have week of the year in it's date drop down menu. This took some command line code to make. If you'd like to date by week of the year, let me know in the comments and I'll give you the secret sauce Text Expander snippet.
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