Write It Down, Get It Done: Journaling 101

Keeping a journal is something that I’ve done for years. It started when I was in art school and always had a sketchbook with me. Inevitably, I started writing other notes in it because it was handy. That practice expanded into a commonplace book, where I wrote down ideas for stories that I wanted to write. When I entered the corporate world, I graduated to a Franklin Covey planner, which my employer cheerfully paid for. Upon leaving that life, and unwilling to pay big bucks for a “system”, I started playing around with my own formats. That’s what ultimately led me to join the cult of the bullet journal. Now I write it down, get it done, and better manage my personal and professional life.

Through this series of posts I’m going to discuss things that have worked for me. I’m not saying that my way is the only way, or even the right way for you. I want to share the tips and tricks that I’ve used for my own productivity routines over the years, including things I’ve done with journals, planners, and diaries. My only intention here is to show you how using a journal can help you to simplify, create, and thrive.

What Problems Are You Trying to Solve

There was a time when I used a journal to document the books I’d read and movies I wanted to see. When I was in management I kept track of meetings and kept my own minutes. Today I use a bullet journal for project planning and self-care. Before you start journaling, you should have an idea what you want to use your journal for.
I know, if you watch YouTube tutorials it looks like bullet journaling is mostly about calligraphy and doodling. Less of a productivity system, perhaps, than a fun crafting project and means of creative expression. If that’s all you’re after, go in peace. I’m not that guy. I have important things that I need to keep a handle on. There are things that need to be written down and indexed, so that information doesn’t get lost. This journaling practice reduces my stress level, and allows me to successfully operate a small, one-person business.

Starting a journal because it looks fun is can just end up making more work for yourself. That’s why you need to be keenly aware of what you expect to get out of journaling. For me a journal, like every other object I own, has to serve some purpose. It has to help me simplify, it has to assist me in creating something (other than the journal itself), or it needs to allow me to thrive by enabling me to enjoy life. Ideally, it will do all three of those things.

Have some understanding of what your problem areas are going into the journaling experience. What do you need to keep track of? Appointments? Finances? Deadlines? What sorts of things do you need to remind yourself about? Upcoming events? Positive self-talk? To-do lists? Begin with a clear purpose, and you will get better results.

What Do You Need to Track, and Why

I cannot stress this enough: you do not need to track everything. Allow me to repeat this, for the people in the back. You. Do not. Need. To track. Everything. I see tutorials that offer up bullet journal spreads that seem like nothing more than excuses to fill up your book. The data you capture has to serve a purpose.

There was a time when, because I’m a writer, I tracked my daily word count. In fact, last year I get wrapped around my own metaphorical axle doing just that. What I need to know is when my deadline is, and to insure that I’m making progress toward it. How many words I wrote on a given day may or may not be the best metric to insure I hit that target.

On the other hand, I do write down everything that I eat. It seems trivial, but I have digestive issues that stem from the ulcers I got working in the corporate world. Concurrent to tracking my food, I track my stress level and how I feel. This has often helped me to draw correlations and make adjustments. I know what combinations of nutrition and anxiety leave me wiped out, which allow me to remain functional, and how to avoid some bad situations altogether.

Figure It Out Before You Start

If you know what problem you’re solving for, then you have at least some idea of what information you’ll need to track. That will lead to some notions as to how to track it. If you have a lot of appointments and meetings, then you might need some sort of hourly log. Because I don’t have that need, I can get away with two blocks, “morning” and “afternoon” for work tasks, or even just a task list of things that need to be done at some point during the day, but don’t have to be done at a specific time.

Before you start a journal, take time to log what you do. Maybe keep notes for a week or so, documenting what you do and what you never get around to. You might be able to brainstorm your habits in a few minutes, because you’re already aware of what your needs and your choke points are.

Track what you struggle with. These are likely things that you don’t keep tabs on, or never bother to schedule into your day. You just miraculously expect that they’ll get done, or that time will suddenly become available one day. Don’t worry, I do that same thing. If I don’t write it down, it never gets done. If I never assign it, to a day or a block of time, it not only languishes but stares at me and gives me guilt. The worst things are the ones that I never get around to, never write down, yet continually trip over. I’m talking about you, stack of papers on the corner of the table that still need to be sorted and filed.

Be sure to also capture the things that you should be celebrating. As you meet deadlines, complete projects, and accomplish tasks, remember that a journal is a way to acknowledge that. You’re not just documenting what you need to do, bit what you’ve accomplished so far. Track your victories, not just the open loops and problems.

Adjust As You Go

Once you know what you need a journal for, what you need to track, and how some notions as to track it, you can actually begin journaling. I have, at various points, quit journaling when I realized I was going down the wrong path. There was pressure that I’d wrecked the journal by getting off on the wrong foot, tracking the wrong things, or even using a format that wasn’t simple, intuitive, or clear in the way it presented information.

This is why I love bullet journals. Oh, the spread I used yesterday sucked? I can change it today. Last month I thought of a better way to do something, and I’m incorporating that into this month. Remember that it’s just paper. It can be fun, if a little cringey, to go through journals and see how your process evolved.

Your journal will change over time. As you develop a habit, you might not need to track it any longer. When a problem has been identified, you may not have to gather information about it in order to decide what a solution might be. New issues will arise, and need to be incorporated into your journaling routines. This is the point. Allow change to happen. Roll with it. Enjoy the journey.

Do You Have Questions, Tips, or Advice?

I’m interested in hearing how other people use their journals. I’d also like to know if there are topics you’d like me to write about in future posts. Leave comments below, and we can discuss it!