Friday, December 23, 2022

Writing and Labelling in a Journal

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. 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 present in your day, remember more details from your day, be more creative (with more and better ideas), and be happier. And all of that is before you ever even read your journal. Reading your journal can take those to the next level, helping you better understand the big picture of your life and improve it. 

This is the second of a two part series on journaling. This post focuses on the power of writing things down in a journal and how to do that well. The previous part focused on making the most of your journal after you have written things down, including the end to end value of journaling and reviewing your journal.

Pad of paper with a pen on it. The paper is Rhodia dot grid paper. The pen is a fountain pen with clear sides. You can see the ink inside of it. The pen is in the center of the pad at an angle.
You only need a pad of paper and a pen to get started journaling.


Write Things Down

The first step in journaling is to write things down. This can be physically writing in a notebook with a pen or pencil, it can be virtually writing in an app or other tool, or it could be recording a voice memo to yourself. I tend to use both paper and an electronic tool called Evernote, but those particulars are unimportant. What is important is to capture the right things. 

I try to capture three categories of notes: what I did, ideas, and parts of my day with deeper emotional content. I also capture to-do items, but that’s not the focus of this post. 

What I Did

How often has someone asked you how your day was, and you couldn’t remember? Or you need to write a status report, but you don’t really remember what you did beyond some vague sense of accomplishment? Or you are deep into some problem, have tried several things, but no longer remember which ideas you have tried and which you haven’t? Writing down what you did helps you remember what you have done, and it gives you something you can check to answer those questions. Further, it helps you be more focused on what you are doing while you do it. 

I keep a running log of my work (and personal life) during the day. It includes what I did and the problems I faced. I also take notes during meetings. None of these logs are exhaustive recordings, instead they are key points and summaries. These notes help me remember what I did during the day in two different ways: first they produce a written record I can refer to, and second, the very act of writing the notes (independent of reviewing the notes), helps me remember even if I never look at those notes. 

In meetings I usually take notes using a pen and paper. The pen and paper serve two purposes beyond the obvious one of note taking. First, the pen and paper give me something physically to fiddle with during the meeting. You can think of them as my fidget toys. Second and more importantly, using pen and paper makes it much harder for me to get distracted during the meeting. When I take notes on my laptop it is too easy to quickly check email or glance at my instant message program (it’s never a quick check or just a glance at my Slack). There is no email, Slack, or other computer distractions coming from my pen and paper. I am more present and more engaged in the meeting for having a pen in my hand. After the meeting, I take a picture of my handwritten notes and put it into my electronic note taking system. 

Capturing Ideas

Ideas like to pop into my head. Maybe they pop into your head also. They especially like to pop into my head while I’m on a walk or taking a shower. I try to be very welcoming to new ideas that come into my head. I treat them with respect, by acknowledging them and capturing them in a note so that I can think about them later. These notes help me simultaneously capture good ideas and clear my head. If I didn’t write the idea down, my mind would keep pushing the idea into my thoughts so that it wouldn’t be lost. That repeated pushing is very distracting. If I see something that would be interesting to read, I take a note. If I see something that might make a nice present for someone, I write it down. 

This post came from an idea saved in my journal. Early one morning I was taking a walk, when the kernel of the idea for this post popped into my head. I wrote it down in the note below. Notice I did not include a lot of detail, just the key idea so I could return to it. There were two ideas in the note, and I still need to come back to the second one. The second idea was intended to be a follow-up to my Yearly Reflection and Planning post. 

Screenshot of an evernote note on the computer. White text on black background. The largest section is the note itself. It has a title "Prompt", and then two lines of text. First line is "Journaling and labeling in the moment. Mood tags. With review". Second line is "Go back to planning when things change draft". 

Above the note is a header. Top line has a notebook symbol with the word Writing next to it. Underneath that are Created and Updated dates, both "Oct 11, 2022".
Note capturing the original idea for this post.

By capturing your ideas and writing them down, you create space for more ideas.  Capturing more ideas means you will capture more great ideas, as well as capture more good ideas. The previous post discusses reviewing your ideas and turning them into something better. 

Capturing a Mood

There’s one last category of note I take: I make sure to jot down anything that makes me particularly happy or frustrated. I started this habit after reading this article (and yes, I captured that article in a note). The important thing is to write down whatever it was in the moment (not later). I write down the note while I’m still feeling the emotion. Our memories are funny things that change, and we often remember things differently than how we actually experienced them. But, in the moment you know if you are really excited, chuffed, happy, proud, or ready to burn everything down. I try to capture those moments, and I immediately label them with the appropriate emotion. 

For me, that means applying one of a few labels to my note in Evernote. If you are using a paper system, it might be adding a specific annotation to the top of the page, or saving the note in a section of your notebook dedicated to that particular emotion. I currently use the labels: de-energizing, distraction, energizing, frustration, happiness, sinking_feeling.  The energizing and happiness labels are my most commonly used labels. You should use whatever labels work best and resonate most for you. 

The sinking_feeling label is worth a few more words. I added it when I was a manager. I often found myself having an awful sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. For example, I frequently had this feeling at the beginning of days with upcoming 1-1s with my direct reports, particularly if there was something difficult likely to come up.  It happened often enough and distinctly enough that I decided to track it. These observations eventually led me to step away from being a manager

Minimal Viable Journaling

If you are just starting to journal you need something to capture your notes and a way to label them. The simplest physical thing is to get a notebook and pen or pencil. Setup three sections: one for particularly good things, one for particularly bad things, and one for other things of note. Keep the notebook and pen with you and write the good, bad, and interesting down as soon as possible after they happen. 

Alternatively, if you are at a computer all day you can use an electronic document for a running tally of your day. There are also a large number of note taking apps that will work quite well. In any case, make sure to capture what happened, why it was good/bad/interesting, and when it happened. That’s it. 

Improve Your Memory and Mood

By writing things down, you are more likely to remember your day. Being ready to write things down helps you pay more attention to what you are doing.  Deciding to write it down signals your brain that this thing is important. The act of writing it down forces you to think about it again, and further reinforces it in your memory. As a result, you are more likely to remember the good and interesting things in your day

Writing down bad things works completely differently than writing down good things. In fact, writing it down helps us move on and stop thinking about bad things. Our minds do not easily let go of the bad in our lives. By writing down the bad we acknowledge it and begin to let it go. So, journaling simultaneously helps us remember the good things in our lives, and let go and be at peace with the bad things in our lives. 

Journaling is Valuable In and Of Itself

Capturing your ideas, what you did, and your highs and lows in a journal is useful in and of itself, even if you never read your notes. You will be more present throughout your day, remember your day better, and be happier. 

When we combine journaling and reviewing your journal, we get something even more powerful: We get a system that can change our lives. It can help us be more present, be more creative, better understand our own big picture better, change that big picture, and be happier along the way. All from a little bit of writing and reading. I am going to continue writing in my journal and regularly reflecting on it. I hope that you will join me in journaling. 

This is the second part of a two part series on journaling. See the first post on The Power of Journaling and checkout my other posts

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

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