Keeping a daily journal is one of the most powerful things you can possibly do. I have used one since I was 6 and would lose my mind without the sense of calm it injects into my days. Writing a journal has proven to be a wildly effective way of managing anxiety and stress.
But it can be intimidating to read the journals of successful people (like Samuel Pepys, Hemmingway, and Benjamin Franklin) and about complex methods for keeping a record of your life. Like all habits, the simpler you make it, the better. I prefer to have a barrage of quick and easy journaling techniques for specific situations. The criteria for each of them are as follows:
- Must take five minutes or less to do (or longer if I wish.)
- Must require nothing more than paper and pen.
- Must be something I can do anywhere, anytime.
- Must have tangible, immediate benefits.
So, here are three more techniques which I use often to handle anxiety and for introspection. If starting a journal seems daunting, give them a go. No fancy equipment or writing skills required - a napkin and pencil will do. However, I always use a Moleskine Cahier and my Lamy fountain pen.
1. What are my assumptions?
Many of the journaling techniques I find to be most impactful involve asking myself probing questions. For this one, I seek to identify as many of my underlying assumptions which I am unaware of in my day to day life.
The power of doing this comes from seeing internalized concepts stated on a page. Each time I do this, I am astonished by how limiting and utterly incorrect many of my assumptions are.
To gain some perspective, I imagine how I would feel if the list had been written by a friend. Which statements would I agree with and which would I question?
I can then questions my assumptions and begin to work on altering the unhealthy ones. It is liberating to gain the upper hand of your own unconscious mind and to see your own motivations.
2. Where does my time go?
I am neurotic about keeping track of how I use my time. It is the most valuable asset anyone has and I like to be able to account for every minute of the day. I use this technique as often as possible to keep my hyper-aware. Accounting for 8 hours of sleep, we have 64 fifteen minute blocks available each day. Each wasted one can never be retrieved.
To do this, simply write down the time from when you wake up to when you go to bed in 15-minute increments. As complicated as it looks, keeping a record only takes a few minute a day in total.
Set a 15-minute timer and be sure to restart it each time it rings. Record what you spent the last block doing each time. For longer tasks where I don't want to be distracted, I just set a stopwatch then fill it in afterward.
Some of the benefits of doing this include:
It is easy to identify any activities which consume more time than they should. For example, I found via tracking that food shopping took up around 4 hours a week and resolved it by switching to deliveries.
Patterns in behavior and working preferences become apparent. I have found that I work best in 2-hour blocks, with long breaks for reading, phone calls and walks in afterward.
It creates a record of how long something actually takes, not its imagined duration. Studies have shown that people ALWAYS underestimate how long a task will take. Having an honest record is useful for future reference. Most people also overestimate how long they spend working. Just because someone is in an office from 9-5 does not mean that whole time is actual work. Another study showed that people who claim to work 75 hours a week actually work 50.
Single-tasking and working without distraction become preferable.
Here are 3 recent examples:
3. What can I do in the next 24 hours which will improve the next 24 months?
This a paradigm altering question. It forces me to reassess what I can do at the current moment to contribute to my long term goals. I pour out as many ideas as possible, then see how many I can actually do in the following 24 hours. We have more control over our lives than it often seems like we do. There is always something you can do on any given day which will have a long term impact.
I also sometimes ask this question when I make my day plans to choose tasks with the most substantial long-term impact.
Here's an example which I wrote last night: