White ruled notebook on blue denim textile
Tools/Apps

The Power of the Daily Journal

Journalling is all the rage now. There are numerous apps that range from the fluffy to the overly analytical. I have tried four different apps to date – Day One, Stoic (review here), Moodnotes and Jour – and bought three different physical methodologies – High-Performance Planner, Best Self Journal and a Blank Notebook. Some focus on specific aspects of journaling – such as gratitude – while others try to cover the full spectrum.

Let’s be clear from the outset that a journal is not a diary, not a summary of what you did and who you did it with (though this can feature), but a much more introspective recollection of the key events in your life where you ask yourself “why?” and allow yourself the freedom to explore your thoughts and feelings over any issues that come out.

David Goggins said it right in his book Can’t Hurt Me: You have to look at each key situation and do a full debrief on it (it can be short, it can be long) but you treat it like an autopsy – you lay the situation bare and identify any and all your shortcomings in the process. And you learn from it.

Your journal is a private place where you can be totally honest with yourself about you and situations in your life. It is a place to get out all the things inside you. It’s cathartic. When you look back on previous entries you see patterns emerging which you wouldn’t do if you did not write them down – our minds are great at covering over the cracks and telling us everything is just fine.

In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are. The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.

— Barack Obama

When to Journal?

There are two key times to journal – morning and evening – but you can pick up your journal anytime you want to do an analysis of a situation or jot down some relevant thoughts. Even the Stoics had similar thoughts:

“I will keep constant watch over myself and—most usefully—will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”

SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 83.2

The Morning Journal

I look at this as the opportunity for “setting the scene.” It’s a time when your mind is clear from all the stuff that happened the day before, the subconscious has had time to make sense of it all, and you are fresh and ready for a new day.

Although I tried a handful of apps, they tended to focus more on gratitude or nebulous feelings and either stray too short or too long. The paper journals are better in this regard as they provide solid frameworks of questions and scene-setting, though they sometimes lack the freedom you may need to explore other things.

Here are the three areas I like to cover in the morning:

  • What do I need to do today?
  • How can I do today better than yesterday?
  • What am I grateful for?

What do I need to do today?

It’s great to sit down and ask “What do I need to do today?” and list the top 5 things you need to move forward on to make progress against your bigger goals (these are your Big 5 for the day and it’s OK to have less). You might include time-sensitive things here like renewing your insurance (though these don’t really count – they’re just admin), but it’s meant to be a short list of things you really need to do or work on today above all else to move your life forward.

I use my trusty blank notebook here. It’s great not to pick up technology – it’s easy to get distracted and yearn for a dopamine hit if you do, catch that alert, check that tweet, and – boom – there go 30 minutes. The notebook is tactile, easy to refer to and add to as the day unfolds. You can jot notes down against your key items and record things as you go along, add new reminders, etc. You may prefer to use one or more apps, but they don’t work for me here.

How can I do today better than yesterday?

Depending on your available time, you can review some of your bigger life goals, though you can set aside time later for this (as it should be one of the Big 5 you need to work on periodically), and also reflect on how you can show up better today for people around you. The latter will be a consequence of your evening journals where you reflect on how well you did and what you can do better. You can apply this learning to the activities and interactions you have today so you achieve better results.

What am I grateful for?

Gratitude is important – I don’t want to downplay it – and it should be included as part of your routine but not the be-all-and-end-all of it. As part of your morning routine, you can easily list three things you are grateful for (e.g. hot water, breathing, and an alarm clock). It puts you in a positive state of mind which helps the day go smoother, plus helps you realise all the little things you might take for granted.

My morning journaling takes 5-10 minutes.

Tools such as the High-Performance Planner and the Best Self Journal add stricter frameworks to the routine which are valuable but may not serve you directly. It depends what you want to get out the activity, but starting small with a 5-10 minute window of reflection and forethought sets the day off on the right foot and helps establish the habit.

The Evening Journal

The Daily Autopsy

The evening is a time for reflection. You can spend longer here – up to 30 minutes – but remember you’re analysing the key highs and lows and not documenting your life story (unless you really want to). It’s a wrap-up of the day. There are a few key questions here:

  1. What went well? And why?
  2. What could have gone better? And how?
  3. What did I learn?

If you’ve been using a paper notebook during the day, you should have a set of notes on hand to review. I tend to use Day One in the evening as it’s quicker for me to brain-dump. Grammar and structure are not important here – you are aiming to get your stream of consciousness onto the page. This is the time of day I like to use for the autopsy.

Gut Feel

After that’s done I move on to “How do I feel? And why do I feel that way?”

I tried the Moodnotes app which is aimed squarely at this question and it tries to help you better understand why you feel the way you do by identifying thinking traps that you may unconsciously fall into which affect how you handle different situations. It’s a neat concept but I still find free writing in Day One my go-to preference.

You can be more introspective here (like the main image on this post alludes to), though I prefer to take a block of time out to look at these deeper introspections as part of my Big 5 for the day, so I can focus on them clearly without distraction and not find myself tired and half asleep when I think about the really big stuff in my life.

This part of my evening routine often looks at the main event of the day and how I felt about it, or the day overall if there wasn’t one specific standout thing. It’s more an instinctive process for me.

Gratitude

Wrapping up the session, a little bit more gratitude is in order – it’s good to end on a positive and bring you out of any funk you may have dug yourself into with your autopsy!

What to Journal?

Keep your own journal, whether it’s saved on a computer or in a little notebook. Take time to consciously recall the events of the previous day. Be unflinching in your assessments. Notice what contributed to your happiness and what detracted from it. Write down what you’d like to work on or quotes that you like. By making the effort to record such thoughts, you’re less likely to forget them.

From The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

I have outlined the key things that I find important to journal about. I have become an advocate of stoicism recently as it offers a solid creed which helps you frame events and circumstances and gives you a better toolkit to face them with. Other books such as The Four Agreements are also excellent in presenting better virtues through which we can live our lives. Any learning we make from such books should find its way into your journal as this helps cement the important things in your own internal wiring – your subconscious.

Journaling helps cement the important lessons in your life into your own hard wiring – your subconscious – and this creates better paradigms for your development, replacing any limiting beliefs you may unknowlingly be carrying around.

– Edward Terry –

This blog is a product of my journey and my journaling as I chose to put my own discoveries out there for all to discover as they may help you just as much as they helped me.

Here are some other things you can journal about:

  • Your Innermost Thoughts
  • Things That Impacted You: Events, Articles, Quotes, Ideas
  • Goals You Wish to Achieve
  • Your Impressions on Movies, Books, Music, Theatre, etc.
  • Little Moments of Joy
  • Memorable Experiences – Places you visit, meals you ate, etc
  • How your social media campaigns are going

The contents are personal to you and you can decide what goes in and what does not. I’m still early in the journaling journey, so my routine and abbreviated process is helping me to establish a new habit which will help me grow and improve. It’s my way of taking small steps in the right direction (remember I said previously that the physical systems such as High-Performance Planner and Best Self Journal weren’t right for me just yet, but they do contain valuable processes I can apply to my daily life even in part).

What’s the Best Medium to Use?

That is really down to your preference.

As I mentioned above, I like to use a paper journal to start the day and keep next to me throughout. I use an A5 size book which is big enough to sketch ideas and mind maps in, but small enough to be useable (I find a phone screen limiting in this regard).

During the day, I use the paper journal as well as a combination of apps such as Things, Evernote and Day One to record various bits of information. Day One is for journaling when I want to sit down and review/autopsy something there-and-then. Evernote is for note-taking or working on drafts. And Things is my ‘everything I need to do at some point’ list. It’s a feeder list for my Big 5 that I start the day with, but I also jot new to-dos into my paper journal as they come along as this is often quicker than firing up the app at that moment.

In the evening I gravitate to Day One, though I sometimes doodle in my paper journal if I want to work through an idea. I am a visual person, so sketching lines and maps are often easier. And yes, I have tried sketching apps and mind maps on the computer/tablet but I prefer old-school at least to draft it out before transferring to digital.

The key is to keep the places you journal to a minimum so you have all your history and learning in one place. That’s why I like Day One, as it gives me that place and allows me the opportunity to structure and tag entries to help cross-reference them. Supplemental apps such as Jour, Moodnotes, Stoic, etc. offer a window into part of your journal. While they may be beneficial, I don’t find they go far enough and lead to a fragmented experience that feels like gaming rather than growing.

How do you journal? What’s your best advice on this subject? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

This site is my journey of discovery through various tools, books and general life lessons. These are the things that are helping me become a better human and I hope that they inspire you to find your path, whatever it may be, and to become your own better human too. If there is anything you want me to write about or cover on this site, let me know on the contact page.

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