How and Why You Should Use a Journal

Use a Journal

An Introduction

“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” – Susan Sontag

The act of writing down our thoughts, though simple, is a powerful, life expanding tool. For Greek philosophers it was a foundational habit, each day reflecting on their behaviours and ideas; a place for a deliberate, thoughtful conversation with oneself. 

By taking the time to document the details of our lives, we often find ourselves with a greater sense of clarity; a better idea of what’s important and what’s probably not. Additionally, it allows us to track progress across various areas in our life, aiding in the planning and actualisation of our goals. Not to mention, there are also many health benefits to journaling, for example in the stress management that daily reflection can offer; as well as the sharpening of our minds through writing and recollection.

This article will focus on how you can start to implement journaling into your life, based on my own experience. In it, I will discuss the benefits I’ve found as well as techniques and considerations I’ve made along the way.

Initial Steps to Journaling

As with the formation of any habit, it’s unlikely that we just jump straight in and never look back. Instead, it’s important to start small and build up gradually. In the case of journaling, it’s no different.

Before getting a physical book to write in, I started simply by creating a new Google Doc with the intention of jotting down any thoughts I considered worth remembering, throughout the day. This was beneficial for two main reasons: (1) the document was accessible on my phone and (2) it provided the framework for a later, more focused practice.

  • By having the document on my phone, it meant I could add to it almost instantly, almost anywhere. If, for example, I was sat on the train and remembered an invoice I needed to send off on the upcoming Sunday, I could quickly jot it down. Similarly, if I was listening to a podcast and heard a powerful quote, I could easily make a note of it in the document.
  • In creating this relaxed, list-like file, I was essentially just getting into the habit of recording my thoughts – something I hadn’t previously done. At the time, I didn’t look at it as though I was journaling but, in retrospect, it was the habit I was gradually forming.

Eventually (over the course of a year), I found that writing down different thoughts and tasks in this way became instinctual and there were fewer and fewer days between each new entry.

With this as a foundation, the transition to a notebook was relatively seamless. I was already in the habit of taking some time to reflect and write.

How to Use a Journal for Productivity

There are countless ways to use a journal, from recording special memories to meditating on important decisions. I’ve found it an invaluable tool in providing clarity and structure towards achieving different goals.

Reverse Engineering

Start with the end in mind

To use a journal for productivity, I’d suggest firstly writing down a list of long term objectives. With these laid out, it becomes much easier to make plans and organise ideas accordingly.

Be specific with goals

When deciding on goals, consider the details that will allow you to track progress (e.g. the timeframe and other units of measurement; potential milestones along the way).

For example, rather than trying to “lose weight”, you may instead decide to “lose 3kg over the next 3 months, aiming for 1 kilo per month.”

Decide how you'll execute

Now that you know what you want and when you want it by, the task is simply to small-chunk your way there. This is where having a journal shines:

Each day, referring back to your list of long term goals, consider the steps you can carry out over the day at hand and jot them down.


Jordan Peterson explains how and why you should implement a schedule into your life.

Compound Interest

Personally, I like to spend a few minutes before going to bed to write down what I’d like to get done the following day, noting the entry under tomorrow’s date. Then, I can review the list the next morning and in doing so, further cement the plan into my head.

In The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson describes the idea of “turning simple disciplines into massive success and happiness.” He explains how simple, daily rituals when compounded over time can lead to huge changes; how through a daily 1% improvement in a given task, we wind up over 37 times better, by the end of the year.

This is the key idea.

Through a daily ritual of journaling, we are able to constantly fine tune the road we’re headed. The 1% improvement is scheduled into our lives each day and assessed for limitations and possible improvements each night. Over time, it adds up.

Avoiding Perfectionism

The act of journaling, alone, can help lead to a more productive and fulfilling lifestyle. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow“…Writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.”

And though this can (and will) be a separate article in itself, I thought I’d try and stress the importance of not trying to journal too “perfectly”. By this I mean don’t be overly self-critical if you fail to meet certain expectations (e.g. a regular practice, a long-term goal, or a daily schedule).

If you plan on journaling to aid in productivity, I’d recommend treating daily tasks as though they were suggestions rather than strict rules. Ultimately, lifestyles changes ought to be sustainable and not feel like a chore. In my own experience, I’ve found that adopting this mindset has led to me getting more done but also caring a lot less when things don’t. After all, life is a marathon and not a sprint.

Final Thoughts

Though this article primarily focuses on journaling for productivity, I thought I’d conclude by noting this as simply one of the many possibilities. Getting our thoughts downs, whether it be on an online document or through pen to paper; for productivity or for more general note-taking, is a widely overlooked act that I’m sure many could benefit from.

Personally, I’ve found that it has helped me improve my organisational skills and granted me the time to reflect on important decisions and fond memories. The process of reverse engineering has helped me pave out clearer routes to my goals and by actively trying to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, I’ve found the habit to be both sustainable and enjoyable.