How and why to keep a daily journal

Keeping a daily journal is probably the most useful habit I’ve developed. It has increased awareness of how I spend my time and been a catalyst for other productive habits. It took me almost a year of experimenting with habit strategies to develop one that stuck.

Here’s what I learned.

Where to journal?

It should be easy and obvious. I use the terminal application for Joplin. I spend most of my day working from the command-line, so being able to open my journal with a single command makes it easy to start (plus, it helps reinforces my identity as a programmer). If you don’t use the terminal, put an obvious shortcut on your desktop. If you’re not on a computer every day, use your phone or a physical journal. The point is that it should be visible, so you will see a reminder everyday, and easy to start.

When to journal

Find somewhere in your day to schedule it in. You need to go beyond the vague goal of “keep a daily journal” and create an implementation intention. Decide on a time and place everyday where you can reliably write the bare minimum. A good strategy is to tie it to something you already do everyday, after breakfast, before bed, at the end of your work day. Experiment with different places and times until you are consistently writing something everyday.

Initially, I would just try and journal sporadically throughout the day. That didn’t last. I would often forget, or I would put it off for “sometime later” (read: never). After trying and failing to schedule it into my morning routine and bedtime routine, I eventually worked it into my shutdown routine. Before I leave work for the day, I write in my journal (among a stack of other habits). This means I sometimes forget to do it on weekends (something I’m actively working on changing), but I never miss a weekday.

What to write about?

At first, the actual content is not important. Write about literally anything, but do it everyday. Your first goal should be to make it a habit. Write at least one sentence a day. Having lower expectations for yourself will make it easier to open your journal and start. You’ll probably find (as I did) that even if you set out to write just one sentence, you’ll often end up writing more. Looking back at some of my old journal entries, many of them start with “Quick entry to make it a non-zero day,” and end up being my longest entries.

As for content and formatting, you should experiment, but keep it simple. I made the mistake numerous times of imposing too much structure on my journal format and it became too much work to maintain. I tried many different things, like adding different sections for work and personal life, explicitly tracking my wins and fails, trying to use it for habit tracking, or forcing a certain length. I would stick with them for a few days while my motivation was high, but the extra work involved raised the activation energy to start, and when my motivation ran out, so did my journaling habit.

Eventually, I dropped all formatting and content expectations. The goal remains simple: write at least one sentence a day. I’ll try and summarize events or thoughts from my day, not in a ton of detail, but whatever comes to mind that feels note-worthy. Sometimes it’s two lines, sometimes it’s a full page. If I can, I’ll try and be explicit about something I’m proud of or something I wish I did differently (e.g. “Let my emotions get the best of me in a meeting today, will try to be more mindful”).

Why keep a journal?

The first step towards behaviour change is awareness of how you currently spend your time. This is the main benefit I’ve gotten from keeping a daily journal. It guarantees a spot in my day (even if it’s small) where I actively think about how I spend my time. The simple act of forced reflection has helped a lot with reducing bad habits and developing good ones.

The act of writing, in general, leads to better clarity of though. Writing about your day forces you to convert raw emotions to coherent sentences. It can lead to insights about yourself and your behaviour that you might not have considered otherwise.

Another benefit I’m starting to see now, having a back-catalogue of journal entries to look at, is perspective. I can go back a year and read what past me was thinking. The problems I was facing, the things I thought were important. It can be very motivating to be reminded of the problems you struggled with a year ago that have since been solved or forgotten.

I get a great deal of inspiration reading about my past-self struggling with the habits that are now easy and automatic. It means future-me will probably look back at my current struggles with the same attitude. It means progress is inevitable, and my struggles are temporary.

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