Journaling and decision making: a virtuous duo

Did you notice how many creators are releasing their own journal?

It’s not a fad. They sell because they are useful. Journaling helps your personal development, your projects, your productivity.

It’s a powerful tool to clarify decisions.

Sometimes, though, journaling seems something for kids, or girls. I tried several journaling methods. They all helped. In this post I’ll explain you:

  • how journaling improves decision making,
  • several journaling methods, so that you can choose what fits your life and inclination.

Benefits of journaling for decision making

You never decide in a vacuum. Every choice is affected by emotions, experiences, beliefs, past outcomes and so on.

In a journal you can record reflections, achievements, failures, conversations, plans, tasks. This external memory helps you in three ways.

Journaling develops self-awareness

Too often our choices are derailed by forces inside us that we don’t control. A famous study found out that judges were more lenient with their stomach full!!!

Ten years as a creator and entrepreneur convinced me that self-awareness is the foundation for everything. “What gests measured gets managed”, right? (by the way, who did say this, actually? 😅)

Past experiences, beliefs, our current state and how we perceive the context can decide in our place. We can’t shut out this influences. But we can train our awareness and filter them out or counteract (as much as possible).

You experience this struggle every day. Think of that angry email you sent on a Friday night after an exhausting week. Or when you procrastinate on calling a prospect only because you feel butterflies in your stomach.

By writing down everything, you get in touch with thoughts and feelings that are usually jumbled inside you. You also develop the habit to listen to them and analyze them. First, after the fact, then in real time.

Memory is fickle

Your memories are not an exact image of what happened. First, they are affected by your perception in the moment. Then, through time your brain keeps changing connections. So, old memories are continually reinterpeted. (You can find more about this in the books Thinking, fast and slow, Predictably irrational, How to decide)

A journal becomes a useful evidence against an unreliable memory.

Journaling for anxiety

A creator is often alone. Even the most engaged community can’t take decisions in your place.

When you are considering an expensive course, a long and risky project or a business partner, you are the one who has to pull the trigger.

Guaranteed sleepless night(s).

I’ve been afraid about my income, or about wasting my time on some business activity. In that state, I wasn’t able to make the right decisions.

Journaling always helped. Sometimes I simply shared my thoughts with the blank page. Other times I used specific questions (such as the fear-setting technique).

It’s always been effective to greatly reduce anxiety. And I can go back to what I wrote when similar thoughts resurface. You know it always happens!

Journaling: how to

Fortunately, there are many approaches to journaling. But first of all you have to commit. It works if it becomes a habit. Choosing the right method will help.

Journaling online, by hand, on an app?

We are addicted to tools.

Resistance has an easy way to prevent us from journaling: we can invest waste days, even weeks, exploring all possible apps and websites.

But in this case there is an easy answer: research has proven how hand writing is better for journaling (here’s an example but you can find countless similar articles).

You just need a notebook and a pen. There is an important requisite for the pen, though: it should allow for fast writing. You need to follow the unrelenting flow of your thoughts.

But there’s a catch. Journaling on paper you want be able to quickly search your entries. Derek Sivers journals on his PC for this reason. He has a database he can easily look through at any time.

I spend enough time on my keyboard. Not staring into a screen and holding a pen puts me in a special, unusual state. The inevitable (and annoying) slowness, compared to fast typing, also forces deeper reflection.

The perfect compromise would be a paper notebook with an accurate handwriting recognition app. But I haven’t found a good solution for my skimpy writing.

How to find the time for journaling?

Between client work, marketing, learning, and some semblance of a social life, you rarely have time to think. Only a pact with the devil can give you the time for writing every day on your diary.

Like every important habit, you have to make time for it. Hal Elrod suggest it in its Miracle Morning routine.

But you don’t need to start with 30 minutes every day. Better done than perfect. You can find 5 minutes at the end of the day. Or journal throughout the day in bits and pieces.

Here are several methods. I tried most of them. Find the one that best fits your situation.

Morning pages

This was the most powerful for me. It’s described in the book The artist’s way.

Here’s the gist:

  • do it first thing in the morning,
  • write whatever comes to your mind,
  • fill 3 pages long-hand.

The purpose is to silence your inner critic. You literally bury it under an avalanche of free thoughts.

It allowed me to dig out many hidden biases. It also showed me the roots of many reactions.

I highly recommend it. The big downside is that it takes time. You get momentum only after 10-15 minutes.

5 minute journal

This may be at the opposite of the morning pages. You answer the 5 minute journal questions in the morning and in the evening.

Sometimes they take even less than 5 minutes in total.

I tried this method for a long time. It’s the minimum effective dose.

The template didn’t fit me as-is, though. I added some questions I learned in interviews, articles and books. I removed others that didn’t help me.

For example, I am very bad at recognizing my achievements. So, every evening I wrote 3 achievements for the day. It was like lifting weights. That muscle was so weak that I had to go through the entire day to fill the list. But in the long time it became more natural.

Interstitial journaling

This is a more recent idea. I’m considering trying it. It’s completely different from the usual methods. You journal while you’re carrying out your tasks:

  • at the end of each task, write the time and what you just finished,
  • write some thoughts about the task, anything relevant,
  • write some thoughts about what you are going to do,
  • if you get distracted, you add an entry about that.

It seems a powerful approach to develop self-awareness. A the end of a task feelings and insights are fresh. Fixating them on the page, you’ll have a more reliable trace of what you did and thought.

There are also 2 powerful side effects:

  • you get used to catch your distractions,
  • you can adapt your daily plan noticing how you feel.

Journaling prompts

The 5 minute journal can fell too rigid. This is why I had to customize it.

Maybe you find more inspiring to start from journal prompts, ideas or questions. You’ll never know where free association can bring you.

NessLabs has 90 journaling prompts.

The Daily Stoic Journal helps you with reflections from wise people from the past.

You can also find powerful questions to constantly reevaluate your plans.

You just don’t have to fall prey of perfectionism:

  • save interesting questions when you find them,
  • every day, reflect on the first question that inspires you,
  • otherwise, choose the question you feel helpful to solve a specific issue,
  • refine the list of questions as you notice which ones benefit you the most.

Issue log

This technique has been popularized in the book Principles, by Ray Dalio (you just have to read it if you want to improve your thinking). In his words:

“The Issue Log is our primary tool for recording our mistakes and learning from them. We use it to bring all problems to the surface, so we can put them in the hands of problem solvers to make systematic improvements. It acts like a water filter that catches garbage. Anything that goes wrong must be “issue logged” with the severity of the issue and who is responsible for it specified, so that it’s easy to sort through most problems. Issue logs also provide paths for diagnosing problems and the information pertaining to them.”

Often you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Every time something doesn’t go as expected:

  • describe the problem, so that you’ll be able to recognize it in the future,
  • list the persons involved and how you think they contributed to the issue (including yourself, of course 😉),
  • identify why the outcome differed from the expectation (you can use the 5 whys method),
  • plan what to do differently next time to have a better outcome.

Decision journal

You’ve been retweeting clever quotes on Twitter religiously, every day, for months. Then one day, clutching your phone in bed at 2AM, you stop and wonder “why the hell am I doing this?”.

It was probably recommended by a guide to grow on Twitter. But you can’t remember what made it seem the right move. Should you keep doing it?

A decision journal is precious in this case:

  • you record every important decision,
  • you record the reasoning behind it (the situation, the goal, why you find that decision helpful, the expected outcome).

This information will help you find the motivation to go on when you aren’t seeing results yet. Or to quit when the conditions have changed. Or to make quicker decisions in situations you’ve already seen.

Here is a template you can start from. Customize it to your requirements.

What do you think?

I hope you’ll try journaling if you never did. Any method will help. You’ll feel calmer. Your thoughts will be clearer.

You will probably end up with new business and content ideas.

And if you are already journaling: what did you find more helpful?

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