My most read piece on Medium is How I Journal. Since writing that, I’ve received a lot of questions about my journal, Day One, and how I put it all together. But there is one question that comes up more than all the others.
How can I start journaling and make the habit stick?
A lot of people see the value of keeping a journal, but struggle to fully adopt the habit. It’s very easy to try out an app like Day One, add several entries over a week, then forget all about it for a month. The world is full of empty paper journals with a couple of notes scratched into the first 3–4 pages.
So how does one adopt this habit?
There are plenty of good articles on this topic. And people like James Clear spend a lot of time talking about how to start a new habit. But as someone who has struggled with journaling regularly, I can share you with you what has helped me make this an almost daily occurrence.
If you do not journal at all, envisioning yourself suddenly scribbling 800 words per day is not realistic. The best way to start journaling (or any other habit) is to start small.
This could mean a quick couple of lines at the end of your work day to sum up what you did. This would also apply at the end of the day before you go to bed, but you write about anything in life. Or it could mean adding a couple of images of your kids to an app like Day One without any commentary.
The important thing is to get started and to get some entries into whatever tool you’re going to use.
One great way to achieve this very goal is to use some automation. There are activities you perform every day that can make good journal entries.
The perfect example for me is my reading journal. I have 5 journals in Day One, one of which is where I put quotes that resonated with me. I sometimes take pictures of a physical book I’m reading, but most of the entries are populated automatically without any work from me.
Using tools like IFTTT, I can populate my journal based on my reading habits. When I read an article in Instapaper, I can highlight sentences that I enjoy the most. A few minutes later, that highlight is added to Day One by an IFTTT recipe.
I’ve done the same with my runs in Strava or my daily Fitbit summaries. The options are vast: your posts to Instagram, your tweets, posts to your blog.
With workflows like this, I’m building up a library of information that is of interest to me, but with no effort required on my part.
Review your entries
As I mentioned above, I have struggled myself to adopt the habit of journaling consistently. From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a lot of manual journal entries in Day One as a part of my morning routine. For whatever reason, I dropped that habit in the years after.
I still had Day One on all my devices. And when special occasions took place, I would tend to make a note or add some pictures. But I was not writing regular daily entries.
However, I was seeing the On This Day banner in Day One.
And it was this banner that helped me see the value of keeping a journal. Every time I opened the app, I could see the 3–4 entries that had been written over the years on this specific day. The nostalgia from these captured thoughts and events immediately showed me how wonderful it is to have a repository for things your mind has forgotten about. Not every entry brings this feeling, but there’s value in the mundane daily activities as well as the special moments.
It’s all gold.
Over the past 3–4 years, I’ve persisted in increasing my use of a journal based largely on the value I’ve gotten from regularly reviewing my journal entries from the past. This is why starting small and using automation is so vital: you simply need to get some entries in there to see the value.
This is why building habits is hard. The return on the investment can take time. Even with Day One, you’d have to create a few entries and wait one year to see the value using On This Day.
So in order to see the value more quickly than that, force yourself to add some short entries, add some automation, then ensure you take some time to review what you’ve added.
Why Day One is so effective
I’ve mentioned the app enough times here already, but it’s worth pointing out why it’s so good. But let me state it plainly.
Day One makes it easy to get started, enables some nifty automated workflows, and even works well if you prefer a paper journal.
How I Journal now is a mix of paper and digital entries. But they’re all in Day One. When I sit down for morning devotions, my journaling starts in paper. But I always snap a picture of my notebook in a Day One entry. And my weekly review habit is also on paper, but each week also exists in Day One.
It's really the best option.
And that's how I've been able to keep journaling a regular part of my life over the last 8 years.
The Doist team continues to put out good content about topics that interest me. Single-tasking is the focus of this one and while they do not make any surprising points, it’s a great summary of why this is an important habit to develop.
They do give one tip that I personally don’t agree with: using multiple spaces on the desktop (a macOS feature).
I limit myself to four desktops only: one for communication windows (Gmail, Slack, Todoist, Sunrise Calendar) and the other three for the windows associated with different projects I plan to work on that day. I add a different background to each desktop so I know exactly which task I’m focusing on at any given time. I’ve found that this decreases the likelihood that I’ll switch tasks mid-way into working on something else.
I find this made things worse for me. CMD+Tab is already problematic enough. Switching between Spaces is even more of a time-waster. When I used them, I also attempted to give different Spaces a different purpose. But I would just end up switching around at all times. For me, full screen apps enables better behaviour.
The Power of Regular Reviews
I’ve written about the value of regular weekly reviews before, even going back as far as 2008. It’s a key part of GTD or any other type of system you use to keep yourself organized. If you have a system that is not reviewed (and regularly), then you have a system you don’t fully trust because you can’t be sure that what’s in it is up-to-date and accurate.
Open loops are killer, yo!
After a lot of years of inconsistent weekly reviews, my using a paper notebook improved over the last two years enough so that this is now a regular habit. However, I’m finding value these days in even more frequent reviews.
The weekly review is great for reviewing the whole picture and envisioning what a successful week would look like. You pull out 3–4 bigger goals you want to accomplish. But if you wait until the next week before you look at this once more, it’s very easy to get lost in the details and to miss your mark.
But if you take time to do smaller reviews, it’s a lot easier to ensure that your week does not slip away from you. And while any habit can be hard to adopt, daily reviews are quick and easy enough that they’re easier than making some big change.
Taking 10–15 minutes at the end of each day can bring a lot of peace of mind to your following morning.
One of the nice aspects of Things is the Anytime list. It shows you all tasks listed by Area of Responsibility and Project. You can quickly scan this list (quickly is relative — the time required is dependent on how many projects/tasks you have in there) to plan what to work on the next day.
Until recently, I did not make much use of the Anytime list and it’s been a wonderful addition to my workflow. And if you have a smart (yet simple) system of tags (review this article for an example of tagging in this manner), your can very quickly narrow down the Anytime to list to get to the important stuff.
As I go through my day, I send items to the Things Inbox. Towards the end of the day, I then open Things and process that Inbox. From there, I also review the Anytime list and see what items might fit well for my following day.
Again, this is not a long process — it’s nothing like a weekly review. But there is a lot of peace in taking a few minutes to check back in with my weekly review and ensure I’m still moving towards the goals I came into the week with.
I loved this piece from Rands in Repose. If you’re familiar with his writing, he often talks about flow and how to get into the zone in order to achieve it.
The Zone is a place, and Flow is an activity that occurs within this precious mental place. Flow is the ability to consider a project or a problem deeply. In Flow, you can keep a superhuman amount of context in your head and can traverse that context with ease. With Flow, you can produce extraordinary value.
In this article, he describes anti-flow:
Anti-Flow is shower thoughts. They are the random connections your brain makes on a problem, a thought, or an opportunity when you aren’t thinking about that problem, thought or opportunity.
What I loved about this article was his tip for how to remember the ideas that come to mind:
As an idea shows up and I deem it worth further investigation, (Yes, there are truly dumb ideas that show up that I briefly consider and then dump) I remember the one word that encompasses the idea and start making a memorable sentence. The sentence from a recent ride was, “Larry stats offsite in London.” Gibberish, right? Two of those words were absolute gold.
I’m taking that idea to heart.
In Pixar’s latest film, Incredibles 2, Mr Incredible has a really great experience. Rather than gallivanting around the world fighting super villains, he’s fighting a much harder battle: running the home. This time around Mrs Incredible gets the spotlight and kicks butts in the process, while her husband comes to realize how hard it is to be the homemaker.
The writers of this movie sum up his exhaustion that so many of us parents can relate to in his conversation with Edna:
I haven't been sleeping. I broke my daughter. They keep changing math. We needed double-A batteries, but I got triple-As, and now we still need double-A batteries. Put one red thing in the load of whites, now everything's... pink. And I think we need eggs.
I feel you, Mr Incredible. I feel you!
All the organization in the world won’t help when you lack margin. As I’ve been working my way through Getting Things Done recently, I can’t help but think our obsession with being productive is necessary because we have so much stuff. Physical stuff, sure, but also stuff of every sort. Digital stuff. Financial stuff. And expectations (real or perceived).
The worst part of having so much on your plate is that you cannot focus on one thing for too long. There are so many projects on the go and I can only make one or two steps of progress before having to move on to the next thing. Having a solid “system” of some sort is required to maintain some semblance of sanity.
This has been on my mind more in the recent weeks. Two changes precipitated this:
My wife started a preceptorship to get back into nursing after 10 years away and 2. Summer holidays started. As a remote worker with a home office, this has impacted me. With a family of six, margin was already in short supply, but these changes have meant I have to be on top of my game.
Not just taking care of the details. But also being more ready than usual to deal with emotion. And relationships. To nurture (not my forté!)
We’re not in the garden anymore, Toto
All of this comes to a head in one word for me: striving. In this world, there is always a pressure weighing on us. There is always more to be done. There is always a need to meet. It has no end. Striving can have a positive sense, but I’m referring to this definition:
to struggle or fight vigoursly
This occurs in all areas of life, but our home is a concrete example. We live on a small acreage with space between us and our neighbours on each side. And the wilderness encroaches. Every year I have to fight to stop the forest from taking over cultivated land. If I were to stop mowing and pruning the back of our lawn, it would quickly be overtaken: trees, wildflowers, invasive weeds of all sorts would move in. Ignore this need for several years and there would be no lawn.
For this reason, the story of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden hits home for me. In Genesis 3:17–19, God gives delivers this curse to Adam:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I take this literally and symbolically. I see the literal work of the wilderness fighting against human effort. But I also believe this applies to all areas of life: we have to constantly strive against the chaos and, ultimately, death.
But … but!
There is good news: rest is possible. Jesus makes this promise so beautifully in Matthew 11:28–30
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Rest, true rest, is a promise God makes for his children. And it’s what I cling to the most. I’m not the most charismatic Christian around. But I once experienced a vision early in my walk with Jesus that I’ll never forget.
Somewhere in the early morning when you’re half way between asleep and awareness, I found myself drifting in a wooden rowboat in a lazy pond. Not a breath of air rippled the water. The boat was under a large tree, the kind with droopy branches almost touching the water’s surface. Through its canopy, the light streamed through, dappled and suffusive and not at all too bright. I say “light”, for I had no sense of the sun being there … the light just was. And for all the imagery, the strongest sense was one of absolute peace. Contentment. And a presence.
He was there and I had no need or want of anything. No anxiety, no care, no striving. Just rest and a trust that my Father can and has and always will take care of things.
I often force myself to recall this vision. I need it when I feel the pressure of this world and my inability to do all that needs to be done.
There used to be a time when Apple keynotes got me almost as excited as Christmas morning. I’d immediately dig into all the updates coming to OS X (nee macOS) and write about it in the weeks following. Now, I barely know the new features that come out with each new release of Apple’s macOS or iOS.
That’s partly due to my stage of life (aka I’m old). But it’s also because after Lion (maybe Mountain Lion) I realized I rarely used the new stuff that became available each year. And maybe that trend will continue with Mojave when it comes out this fall.
At any rate, I happened upon this summary of the upcoming changes from Jason Snell. And I enjoyed it! Every so often I enjoy being reminded that I moved from Windows to using Macs because of the software. And it’s so good that I know I take it for granted.