Journaling is one of the top three morning productivity habits that you can adopt in your life on your way to being happier, more productive, and more successful (the other two are meditation and exercise). Although it looks deceptively easy (you sit down and write, how hard could it be?), I would argue that it is the hardest to adopt.
The benefits of journaling are numerous and the list of people who are dedicated to this habit is impressive. That list varies from Marcus Aurelius, through Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson. It this article, I will share my top tips for adopting this habit and making it stick.
Time to read
Time to read: 10 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).
How do you feel when you wake up?
Do you like waking up every day with a completely unpredictable mood? Sometimes you are happy for no reason, other times you are angry for no reason. Would you rather have a button that sets you in a positive, happy mood so that you can be as productive as possible? After all, we don’t have that many days alive and we might as well benefit from the remaining days, rather than suffer.
For many people, including myself, this button is their mourning ritual (routine, habits, etc.) I also have no control over my mood when I wake up. I might have had a good night sleep or I might have had nightmares. Or, I might have gone late to bed and I might feel tired in the morning. What I do control is the first 30 minutes of my day.
In this article, I will walk you through the journaling practice which takes three to five minutes of my morning routine (more details about my daily routine). Hopefully, you will be able to find something that works for you.
Why should you adopt journaling?
My opinion about the reason why we have no control over our moods (especially in the morning) is that our brain is not that good at remembering things. There are multiple books which can help you with this (e.g., Getting Things Done), but my hypothesis is that a five-minute journaling exercise in the morning will help you offload some of the things that reside in your brain (e.g., gratitude, nagging problems, negative thoughts, challenges) and guide yourself into a productive day.
The benefit of this article is a framework for cultivating the journaling habit into your life. It will probably look very different than mine, so I will not dive too deep into specifics, but I hope that I will be able to convey the general reasoning. Within days you will experience the relief of putting your thoughts on paper, especially if you go back and review your entries now and then.
What is my story with journaling?
If you go back to my other articles about daily routines you will see that I did not pick up journaling long time ago. The biggest influence on my decision was Ryan Holiday (another avid supporter of journaling). He maintains an extensive article about this, which I did not want to recycle and present to you, so I will stick my own tips.
I adopted journaling on Apr 29, 2018. My family and I were on vacation at a southern destination. My first entry was just a gratitude about our first day along with a couple of pictures. Over time, my habit changed into gratitude journaling and into a thought/emotions repository. At first, I would only write every now and then. Later, almost every day. For the last two years I have been writing every single morning. I do not use a paper journal (like Ryan is), but I just use Evernote.
How can you adopt journaling?
Just like everything else in life, starting something new is hard and it feels weird. But after you’ve started it gets easier and easier. Like always, I encourage you to start, do it for a while, reflect, make changes, and keep improving.
1. Pick the time
Some people journal in the morning, others during the day, some do it in the evening. Ryan does both morning and evening. Pick the time which works the most of you. You need to make sure there will be no interruptions (for five minutes). And you need to make sure that you have access to the tolls that you choose.
My habit is to open Evernote on my phone as soon as I wake up. I am aligned with the negative implications of keeping your phone by your bad, but the only applications which are active in the morning on my phone (Downtime option inside Screen Time setting) are Evernote and Kindle (after journaling I usually read a chapter from a philosophic book).
2. Choose the tool
Anything which will help you adopt the habit works. It can be the cheapest notebook from the discount store. Or it can be the most expensive notebook with leather covers and a colorful pen. It can be your phone, tablet, laptop. The key point is convenience and ease of access. If you decide to go analog (as in not digital) consider keeping your journal with you all the time. You never know when the muse is going to visit you.
3. Define the cue
If you are not familiar with habit building, a habit consists of a cue, an action, and a reward (more details on Habits). The cue is the trigger for your habit. The reward is what you get out of it.
My cue is picking up my phone. And it initially journaling was the way I removed my habit to check my email in the morning. I would pick up my phone and open Evernote instead of Mail. My reward is the feeling that my day is organized – but not based on other people’s agendas (coming through emails), but based on my own agenda (in my journal).
4. Make a commitment
Make a small commitment to yourself: I will write in my journal once a week. Start simple and build from there.
5. Remove friction
Do whatever you need to make the action easy. Create a template that works for you. Find a template online which covers your needs. Put your favorite note taking application on the home screen. Or put your notebook and a pen next to your bed. Reflect on your success rate and make sure to remove any friction.
You can basically write about anything you want, but my advice is to stick to two topics. Summarize what you did why are you grateful today (which is my case is actually yesterday, because I journal first thing in the morning). And plan what you are going to do tomorrow (which, again, in my case is actually today). This way I make sure that I create a positive image of my yesterday and that I set my mind on something important for today. All this makes me get out of bed with a positive idea about the past (there must have been something that happened to which I am grateful) and with a plan about the future (a challenge that I am tackling).
What I do is answer the following four questions:
- If a newspaper publishes a story about your day, what will be the headline? And what will be the summary of the story?
- What are you most grateful at the moment?
- What is the main challenge for the next day?
- And what are you looking forward to (in the near future)?
7. Track progress
Review your entries and track your progress. How many days of the week have journal entries? How many weeks of the month have at least one entry?
Pause and reflect on the process. Is it helping you? Is there still friction? Does it have a beneficial impact? Once you establish the habit only make small tweaks and do not attempt to change too many things at once.
What is the One Action that you can do tomorrow?
Buy a notebook and write one question on the first page. Put the notebook (and a pen) next to your bed, over your phone, so that it is the first thing you see in the morning.
Setup Downtime on your phone and make sure you add your note-taking app to the exceptions. Move the icon of that app on your home-screen.
Our brains think about a million different thoughts, most of which are not stored in a reliable place so you keep churning them. Journaling is a great way to start organizing your mental space by setting time to put things on paper. Creating a journaling habit will help you overwrite the default mood with which you woke up and allow you to set yourself in a predictable, great mood every morning.
What are the next steps?
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