When we get to work in the morning, it's very easy to get swept up in the immediate demands of a busy workplace. Requests from staff, meetings with clients and staff, and an ever-filling email inbox, full of questions, demands and distractions.
It’s normal and natural, and the way things are very often done in many organisations; we come into work, we open our email, and we see what needs to be dealt with today.
The only trouble with this method is that we rarely get to decide how we actually spend our days - our agenda is dictated to us by a variety of outside sources. As Jim Kwik often puts it, so many of us “give up our sovereignty and power first thing in the morning” by checking our phones for emails and social media. Before we know it, the morning has passed and we haven’t got anything done that we really needed to do, and we’ve spent the last few hours doing unimportant tasks or jobs that someone else could have done instead.
I’ve found that a great—and increasingly popular—solution to this is to begin the day with a journal as part of a regular morning routine. A journal serves several purposes, and I’ve found it to be hugely helpful in getting focus and clarity on my days.
A journal helps to define what needs to be done during the day - deciding on what’s important to you, and what needs to be accomplished today more than anything else is a great way to make sure that you work on the most important things, and that the things that take up your day are moving you towards your goals.
Also, a journal is really useful at the end of the day, to record lessons learnt, and plan for the following day so that you get to keep your sovereignty on a daily basis. Doing a ‘brain dump’ at the end of the day really helps me switch off from work and relax - once I’ve recorded all the things that I need to remember, or work out tomorrow, then my brain doesn’t need to keep it in memory any more, and I can relax.
I like to use an analogy of a computer. All the stuff we keep in our heads is like RAM - there’s only a limited amount, and when there’s too much, it can slow our thinking down and reduce our performance. When we record those things into a journal, we’re doing the equivalent of saving our thoughts to a hard drive - there’s plenty of space, and once it’s there, it clears the RAM for other things. I rest easier in the evenings and sleep better at night when I’ve written my journal at the end of the day.
Another useful application of journaling is that when you’re writing your thoughts and feelings down each day, you start after a while to notice patterns in your thinking - if you’re writing that something is bothering you several times over a couple of weeks, or you notice a pattern that you’re regularly tired, or irritable, or pessimistic, the act of journaling can point that out to you, instead of it being something that happens that you don’t necessarily notice. Then you can take action to work out why you’re feeling that way, or why that particular thing is happening, and change your environment or behaviour or habits to support a change in the future.
Morning routine aficionados like Benjamin Hardy, Jim Kwik and Hal Elrod all put journaling at the core of their routines, alongside reading, exercise and meditation - the routines all differ after that - Hal Elrod recommends Visualisation and Affirmations, Jim Kwik goes for ‘Brain Smoothies’ for clarity-boosting nutrition, while Benjamin Hardy goes for a cold shower and 30 grams of protein. The ideal morning routine will be different for each of us, but Journaling for me has been a real game changer.
When I started journaling, I found myself getting more done that was important to me during the days; I was able to stay on track more often and felt less stressed by an ever-growing ‘to-do’ list. Being able to use my journal to filter the three most important task from my to-do list, and just decide to do those things today removes the overwhelm, and increases the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
There are many types of journal, and experimentation will help you discover what type is best for you. I use Evernote, with a template of questions and bullet points that I duplicate each day, so that I’m prompted to consider various questions. The points and questions I have in my journal template are a combination of ideas pulled from all sorts of sources. Bestself.co have a great physical journal, which we’ve bought for all our colleagues at Remote, and the layout is really useful for planning towards goals. Michael Hyatt has a physical journal out too, called the Focus Planner.
If you’re interested in using Evernote or a similar digital format for writing your journal, you might want to have a look at my own template, which you’re welcome to use.
There’s a school of thought which suggests that actually writing your journal with a pen on paper rather than typing into it digitally is better for higher recall and performance; writing with a pen is naturally slower than typing, and the way you move the pen to mark the page works in coordination with your brain to ingest the information more deeply and thoroughly. I’m happy with my digital journal, but I must admit I’m tempted by the lure of a paper journal; I like the idea of not looking at a screen first thing in the morning, and last thing at night.
All you need for a paper journal is a blank notepad. the Bullet Journal® - http://bulletjournal.com - is a popular form of journaling with paper pads - dotted notepads allow you to create your own layouts with a ruler and pen, and the Bullet Journal® method prescribes a way of creating an index at the start of your pad, which you fill in as you go. Instagram is full of inspirational ideas for ‘BuJo’ layouts, and of course, the beauty of having an ‘analogue system for a digital world’ is that you’re free to adapt and change the layout to your own preferences.
Popular brands for journal notepads are Moleskine and Leuchtturm1917. The latter actually produces a Bullet Journal® pad, which includes a guide on creating the archetypal layout invented by Ryder Carroll.
As for what to write in the journal, some people like to simply write whatever is in their head at the time - this is a Stoic technique, written used by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Known as ‘Morning Pages’, the idea is that you write three pages of what’s on your mind - the content doesn’t actually matter; letting your stream of consciousness flow is the most important thing.
What I tend to find is that towards the end of this exercise, my thoughts have settled down, and my priorities for the day begin to surface naturally. It’s a powerful way of setting an intention for the work ahead.
The process acts as a ‘brain dump’, to release all the thoughts and ideas that are going around your head. It helps to get clear on any issues that are whirling just under the surface, and any problems that need to be resolved. It’s also a great tool for working out how you really feel about an issue - just by writing about it, I often find that my true feelings become clear, and an answer or solution becomes obvious. That said, finding the solution to your problems isn’t the aim here - it’s an occasional bonus, to quote Tim Ferriss: “Morning pages don’t need to solve your problems. They simply need to get them out of your head, where they’ll otherwise bounce around all day like a bullet ricocheting inside your skull.”. Or, as he writes in the same article[ Read Tim’s full article on his journal, or as he calls it, his ‘morning pages’, here: https://tim.blog/2015/01/15/morning-pages/:
“I’m just caging my monkey mind on paper so I can get on with my fucking day”.
As well as a useful clarity and brain dump tool, planning is also a fantastic benefit to the journal process. Again, there are plenty of great resources to walk you through this - the 12 Week Year is my favourite, but they generally follow this simple format, which is a neat way of filtering your goals and working out the very next step you need to take to achieve them:
- Look ahead to the future, and imagine where you’d like your company to be in 10 years. Think big. Aim high, and remember your company’s values, purpose and mission.
- Now work out, if you were to achieve those ten-year goals, where would you have to be in five year’s time?
- Finally, from your five-year goals, look at where you’d need to be in a year from now.
- Now, looking at your goals a year from now, choose the three most important goals that you could work on for three months and would feel like you had really achieved something if you met those goals. Why three months? Three months is long enough to achieve something substantial but short enough to be not too far into the future; if you try to aim for something a year from now, too many things could happen between now and then to make a reasonable estimate on what’s possible. Three months is manageable.
- Once you’ve worked out your three-month goals, it’s time to filter them down to actions. For each goal, choose three outcomes that will have occurred, that will let you know that you’ve achieved that goal. For example, if your goal is to improve your social media presence, your three outcomes might be 1. We’ve increased our Facebook followers to 10,000; 2. Website traffic to our blog posts are up 50%; 3. 1000 Twitter followers with 20% engagement.
- Now, for each of those three outcomes, you’ll need to work out what you’re going to do each week to move towards those outcomes. So, to increase website traffic to our blog, we’ll need these weekly actions: 1. Write a new blog post three times a week. 2. Engage and answer questions on Quora 2 times a week. 3. Engage and answer questions on Medium three times a week. So now we have a series of regular tasks that we’ll do over the course of a week. If you do these things as you’ve prescribed, you’ll be closer to your goals, and will hopefully meet your three-month goals at the end of the time period.
- Now, at the start of each week, review what needs to be done this week, and block the time off in your calendar to do the work. This is really important. Remember Jim Kwik’s remark about keeping your sovereignty over your days; if you block the time off in your calendar, just as you would a meeting with a client, then you are more likely to keep that meeting with yourself and do the work
- Each day, as you fill in your journal, you can assess how you’re doing in your plan, and how much closer you are to your goals. With this daily focus on your long-term goals, you’re more likely to keep your attention on the important stuff and spend less time on work that doesn’t directly contribute to your big goals.
There’s much more that can be written about this process, so this is just a basic outline of a strategy that I find increasingly helpful in my life and my business.
If you’d like to find out more about the strategy/planning side of journaling, I recommend that you read ‘The 12 Week Year’ by Michael Lennington and Brian P. Moran or ‘Living Forward’ by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy.