Monday, December 19, 2022

The Power of Journaling

I have a monthly gathering at work with other bakers. We each bake something at home and bring it in to share. I unequivocally know this is one of the most important parts of my job. I know this because I told myself – in my journal.

Journaling is conceptually very simple: write things down, and look at it later. It doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that. However, there are some points to keep in mind to make the most of your journaling, ranging from how you take the notes, to what you do with them once you have them. If you do it well you will be more creative (with more and better ideas), be happier, and have a better understanding of and control of the big picture of your life.

This is the first of a two part series on journaling, covering how to journal and how to review your journal. We start in this post on the latter point: making the most of your journal after you have written things down. The second post returns to the writing, focusing on the power of writing things down in a journal and how to do that well.

Journaling is valuable in and off itself – you should do it. For this post, I assume you are already writing things down. Reviewing your journal enables three other useful things: seeing (and changing) the big picture of our lives, improving the important things in our lives, and making ourselves feel better. I’ll discuss each item in turn, but it starts with reviewing your journal.

Review Your Journal

A journal is a record of your life over some period of time. Our memories are imprecise and faulty. Reviewing the notes in our journal helps us remember more clearly and more accurately what we have done. 

I have regular rituals to review my journals: daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Previously I’ve talked about the yearly process, as it is essential to my planning process. I also find the shorter term reviews incredibly useful. I have time set aside at the end of each day to review my notes from the day. While I review, I look for three things: what I did, ideas I’ve had, and particularly good and bad things from my day. I take additional notes on these items in a review note. 

What I Did

My journal notes capture the important things from the day. Rereading the notes reminds me of what I’ve done. Sometimes I even remember points I did not write down, and I take this opportunity to capture them. 

After my review I have a short summary of my day. I can see the progress (or lack of progress) that I made for the day. Because I include meeting notes in my journal, I can also see the commitments I’ve made to others during the day. Similarly, I can see the commitments that others have made to me. Both kinds of commitments get tracked in their own system. The act of reviewing ensures that none are lost. 

My daily review also feeds directly into my work updates. My work is tracked in online ticketing system (Jira). It is quite natural to put an update on my tickets as I review. When my team previously used a shared document for updates, it was similarly easy to write my daily update there as I reviewed my notes.

Beyond the day to day updates, the reviews also feed into the longer term updates. For example, I maintain a brag sheet. While reviewing, if I see something that could be considered an accomplishment, I add a note of it to the brag sheet. At performance review time, I have a nice long list of accomplishments to reference. 

Ideas From the Day

Ideas come to me irregularly and in bursts. I make sure to write them down. During the daily review I can see which, if any, ideas I had during the day. A quick review can highlight which ideas deserve more active thought, which need more time to develop, and which can be thrown away. Patterns may appear while reviewing ideas, and I make sure to capture those patterns as well. This is a good time to schedule any follow-ups related to these ideas. 

This very post came from an idea saved in my journal. I had an idea, I wrote it down, and I came back to it. I will talk more about the first two parts (have an idea, write it down) in the next post. For now, the important part was that I reviewed the idea, liked it, and decided to do something with it. I put it in my writing queue, developed it more, and turned it into these two posts. 

The Good and the Bad

While I review my journal, I get to relive the happy things from my day! Notes representing particularly good or bad things get annotated with labels during the day. When I see the label “happiness” on a note, it makes me happy again as I recall the event. Similarly, seeing the label “energizing” along with the accompanying note gets me excited again. It’s quite nice to end the day by remembering these good things. For example, yesterday I had a nice lunchtime walk through some woods in the fog. Something about it made me very happy. Looking back at the note and picture makes me happy again. 

Wooded path with fog. The leaves are largely down from the trees and on the ground. Yellow and orange leaves on the ground. Some larger rocks in the foreground. In the background, the trees are fading into the fog.
Remembering my lunchtime walk through the woods in the fog makes me happy.

Rereading notes with negative labels or memories is less fun, but often includes its own learning and growth. Maybe something is happening a lot and I need to do something about it (discussed in the next section). Or maybe it turns out that the “frustration” actually got taken care of in short order and was much smaller than I had expected. It can be quite comforting to learn that an anticipated problem turned out to be much smaller than expected (or non-existent). It also helps adjust future expectations. 

Seeing the Big Picture

At the end of each week I also do a weekly review. As part of that review, I go through all my notes from the week. This is at least the third time I’ve looked at these notes, and I go through them a little faster. I’m looking for the things that mattered for the week – the flow of the week and the bigger picture. What did I set out to do this week? Did I do those things? Did I do something else? What should I be doing next week? Any adjustments I should be making to what I do? Do I need to follow-up on any promising ideas?

The weekly review starts to show the patterns and trends in my life. By looking back (and forward) over progressively longer periods of time, I can see the larger picture of my life. I continue to review over even longer periods of time, with monthly and yearly reviews. The daily and weekly review forms the basis for those monthly and yearly reviews

Taking a step back makes it easier to see what’s really important, versus what merely feels important in the moment. Understanding the big picture helps us make better decisions in our lives. It helps us celebrate the progress we have made and the accomplishments we have achieved. It also helps us identify the things we would like to change in our lives. 

Improve Things

The ritual of regularly reviewing my journal often leads me to wanting to change something: either fixing a bad thing or extending a good thing. 

When you think you want to change something, the first thing to do is to confirm that you do actually want to make the change. That the change is worth the effort. 

If you want to address something bad, first look back through your notes – how often does the bad thing occur? Confirm that it happens often enough to be worth addressing. 

For example, in the past I had a de-energizing trend around interactions at home. I am married with two teenage children. A few years ago, there were often high stress interactions (with yelling and door slamming). The arguments had a knack for going off the rails and escalating. They would leave me absolutely exhausted. On review, I realized that in addition to the obvious issues, I needed to address my own emotional reaction to them. I wasn’t useful to my family if, when these things happened, I wanted to crawl up into a ball, hide, and go to sleep. During calm periods of time, I developed a set of implementation intentions to use for future interactions. These left me prepared to handle the fights, protect my energy, and be a more positive influence on my family when things would start to go off the rails at home. 

The periodic review was essential for this change. When I was in the middle of a family blow up, I was in no state to come up with plans to fix it. When I wasn’t in the middle of it, I didn't want to think about it (why would I? It made me sad). Reviewing my notes made it clear that it was a trend, and it was something I wanted to address. 

Similarly, if you want to do more of something good, look back and make sure that you understand why it was good and what parts you want to encourage. Maybe you had a great time going out with friends to a particular bar. What was the really good part? Was it going out to that particular bar? Was it being with friends? Was it trying something new? Figure out what the important part(s) was, and focus there. Or, if you aren’t sure, try things and learn. 

I dive deeply into the improvement side of journaling in two cases: 1. During my yearly review, and 2. When something really gets me excited or upset. 

Using Your Ideas to Improve Things

Knowing you want to improve something is the first step to improving it. The second step is deciding how to improve it. This is a place where the ideas from the journal come into play. Likely most of the ideas you have recorded will tie into things you want to change. When you want to change something, review the ideas that you’ve had on the topic. Additionally, reviewing your ideas may point to things you really want to change. 

Mood Control

Journaling and writing are great for planning and reflection. It helps us make sure we continue to do more of the good things and less of the bad. 

But there’s also a more tactical use of the notes: mood control. Sometimes I get into a particularly bad mood: maybe frustrated, mad, or dispirited. I usually can tell that I am in one of those moods. However, knowing is not enough to change the mode. You cannot merely will away a bad mood through force of will.  While you cannot will it away, there are things you can do to help, such as acknowledging the mood. Using techniques from meditation we can try to acknowledge the bad mood, observe it, and let it go. That is good stuff. 

However, we may be able to speed up the process of dealing with a bad mood and its after effects. For example, one side effect of a bad mood can be a feeling of helplessness. “I’ll never get that done''. “Nothing I’ve done matters”. “The world is awful”. Our labeled notes can help with these feelings. The first two examples here I would label as “de-energizing” in my journal. 

I have a list of “energizing” memories. Energizing memories are the opposite of “de-energizing” ones. Reviewing my “energizing” notes helps me in these situations. It puts specific examples in front of me of when I did something, it mattered, and I got excited. For example, I recently worked on a challenging work task that fundamentally improved a piece of our infrastructure. At some point I reached the point at which I could see that it was going to work. That realization filled me with energy, and I captured that in a note. Rereading the note still fills me with energy. 

Reviewing notes like that directly counters the negative narrative going on in my head. If my starting point is a bad mood, reading energizing notes does not leave me full of energy and ready to take on the world, but it does leave me in a better place than I was. It breaks the negative narrative and gives me some energy. Oftentimes that can make all the difference in the world. 

Similarly, if I’m down about something, seeing examples of when I was happy, and remembering some of that happiness, really helps. It’s a reminder that things haven’t always been as bad as they feel like they are right now. It’s a reminder that they will likely be better again. It reminds me that this too shall pass, and I can handle this.  

I just looked back at my happiness file and saw a note from someone who had read my post on running peer groups. They were setting up their own peer group based on the information in my post. There were at least three aspects of this note that made me happy (and still make me happy): 1. Someone had read and liked my post 2. That person was actively using my advice, and 3. They took the effort to tell me about it. Reading it still gives me a glow of happiness. 

You don’t need to wait for a bad mood to recall these things either. Anytime you could benefit from a little boost, go take a stroll down memory lane. 

Journaling And Reflection

Reviewing my journal a few years ago, I realized it was important to me to influence more people at work. I knew that I was helping people because I had recorded that in my journal. That record included the direct help I gave, as well as the thanks that came later and the longer term impact. I knew I enjoyed the work, because I wrote that down as well.

Reflecting on this desire to influence and help more people, I realized I needed to use more scalable techniques. I needed to help more than one person at a time.  If I helped one person directly, I should also share the learnings widely so that several people benefit indirectly. That included giving presentations and writing reports, papers, and blog posts. 

I scheduled time to write more (I write every morning). I looked for opportunities to give presentations and improve my presentation skills. That focus on writing led to my blog posts over the past couple of years and this particular post.  

I wrote things down. I noted what made me happy or sad. I reviewed what I wrote, and used it to improve my life and feel better. You can do it as well: Start jotting down notes, and find some time to look at them. To learn more about getting started with journaling, join us for part 2 of this series: Writing and Labelling in Your Journal

Special thanks to Eoin Brazil for his feedback on a draft of this post.  

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