The Power of Journaling

I have become a fierce advocate of journaling over the past year, and keep recommending it to people, so, as is my habit, I’m now turning my thoughts into a blog post to make them easier to reference.

I first got interested in journaling ten years ago after reading Becoming a Technical Leader, by Gerald Weinberg, where he said journaling 5 minutes a day was the best tool to improve as a leader. After reading that, I started journaling, but was inconsistent about it, and after about a year of journaling every other day, I gave up.

I re-dedicated myself to journaling last year, after adopting the practice of the Personal Operating System. I found it helpful to have a weekly routine where I looked back on how I did on my precepts, celebrating my small victories where I lived the precepts, reflecting on why I sometimes wasn’t able to live up to them, and tracking my progress over time. The last was incredibly valuable for me, as the amount of change in a week was nearly imperceptible, but when I looked back at my entries from a year before, I was often surprised to find how much I had changed. Even though each individual step was small, they accumulated into large personal changes.

Another value of journaling is in altering one’s perception of the world. What we pay attention to affects what we see in the world. We have all had the experience of buying a gadget or a car, and then seeing what we just bought everywhere in the world – once you become attuned to an object, you notice it more, when before it would have just been another object. Similarly, if we journal on a set of questions or prompts, those questions or prompts will start to affect what we notice in the world. That was part of the power of the personal operating system for me – choosing precepts and journaling about them helped me see more opportunities to apply those precepts in my life. Journaling can be a tool for focusing our attention on the areas of our life that we want to change.

I love David Cain’s articles, and his article on tracking as a means of behavior change really nails it: “let yourself do what you want as long as you track it. But it leads to lasting change far more quickly and painlessly than the conventional method. … the improvement comes from wisdom — a real-time understanding of the connectedness between our behaviors and the types of ease and difficulty we keep experiencing in our lives.” He makes the excellent point that journaling is not about trying to make yourself look good, or to drive change in and of itself – just the act of seeing what you’re doing and tracking it will lead to changes organically (or you’ll decide you don’t want to change and stop tracking).

Along those lines, an analogy I like is that journaling is like keeping a lab notebook on yourself. For those that haven’t spent time in a research lab, lab notebooks are holy writ for scientists. Everything you do in the lab is written down. You write down what you are planning to try, what the experimental setup is, and what happened, even if it wasn’t what you expected (especially when it wasn’t what you expected). Each page is signed and dated, so you have traceability to exactly when the idea was thought of, and tried. The analogy to journaling is clear to me; journaling lets me track what I tried, what I thought was going to happen, and what worked and didn’t work. I can look back and see the progress I have made and what I’ve tried in the past, or just read through the things that went wonderfully right or terribly wrong.

Extending that thought, journaling also helps to overcome the hindsight bias. When we look back on our lives, we often say “Oh, of course, I knew that was going to happen!” But we didn’t. By being more rigorous in writing down what we thought was going to happen and the factors we considered, we can learn from our patterns and make better decisions. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street (inspired by Daniel Kahneman) says that keeping a decision journal is the single best way to improve your decision making capabilities. We can’t make better decisions in life without becoming aware of the blind spots and biases in our decision making process, and we can’t do that without knowing what we considered (and failed to consider) in making a decision.

I find journaling particularly useful in a different way for processing my emotions and learning to understand my emotional triggers. When I notice myself get triggered, I’ll write about it later, and try to reconstruct the exact external event triggered me, and what internal reactions I had. By keeping track of both the event and my reactions, I am sometimes able to start seeing the underlying patterns and learn to understand why certain things triggered me, and how I could start re-designing my response to those triggers. But without the lab notebook of incidents where I got e.g. intensely defensive, I feel like I would just live my personal version of Groundhog Day in having the same reaction happen over and over again.

If you would like to make a change in your behavior, I highly recommend journaling. I’d be happy to help you brainstorm journal prompts related to the behavior change that you desire. For instance, if you were interested in productivity, I would suggest writing down the 1-3 things you want to get done at the beginning of the day and why they are important. Then at the end of the day, you would review how you accomplished those things, or what stopped you if you weren’t successful (we’ll get more into this in the next post). And, over time, you would start to see the patterns that stop you from achieving your priorities, and learn to adjust your expectations to closer match what you can actually achieve. That’s just one example, and I’d love to help you figure out prompts that would apply to you. Get in touch!

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