Lifehacking 101: journaling as a continuous learning process
In the last two installments, “Lifehacking 101: I’m bad at to-do lists, now what?” and “Lifehacking 101: without data we’re blind”, I described some of the problems and some of the corrections I implemented over the years to alleviate or fix these problems. For example, I stopped using to-do lists except for keeping track of groceries. I turned my to-do list(s) into a backlog that acts as a source of tasks for the Friday planning session. Another implemented solution was to reorganize my schedule to allow for longer time slots dedicated to specific tasks, leading to less context switching throughout the day without reducing the number of things I’m doing.
This post focuses on journaling and the way I’m using it. In my case, journaling is not coming as a solution to any problem; I’m using it as a discovery technique. I’m looking for opportunities and patterns rather than problems.
Everything started a few years ago. I was handling my day-to-day work using a technique similar to the Pomodoro technique. I used a small physical planner; I was listing things to do every day and checking them off once completed. Finally, at the end of each day, I was:
- Copying incomplete items to the next day
- Writing a short retrospective at the end of today’s page
It was one of my first attempts at managing my day. Was it effective? In the beginning, yes, in the long term, no. The procrastinator in me took over. However, the experience paved the way for what I’m doing today.
Now that I’m reasonably confident that the techniques I’m using work for me and are effective, it’s time to discuss how to look for improvements. I’m continuing my data collection through the calendar and a spreadsheet, and I’ll review the situation more or less every six months.
A few weeks ago I read “How to be lucky” from Psyche, by Aeon (I suggest subscribing), and the thing that caught my attention was the suggestion of getting in the habit of journaling:
If you are new to journaling, don’t overthink it. Set a timer for two minutes, then list out in two columns the parts of your day that led to positive outcomes and the parts of the day that did not. As you break down your day into these segments, examine the parts that worked really well for you, and the ones that were inefficient, stressful or unfulfilling. You might begin to notice some patterns that stand out, for good or bad. Journalling and reflection is a way to begin decluttering your life, to explore the areas that take you out of being present, and keep you from recognizing serendipity. Sometimes, it’s the seemingly small and insignificant nuisances that can deplete your energy and alertness the most.
(emphasis is mine)
I started doing it 20 days ago. It’s straightforward; it takes 2 minutes. I’m not listing all the things that I did. As suggested, I’m merely listing things that led to a positive or negative outcome. I’m skipping everything that went as expected. For example, if I planned to sit down and write some code, and I happened to do it, I don’t list that in the journal. Instead, if I joined a one on one that led to an unexpected outcome, either positive or negative, I try to analyze the motivations and note them down in that day’s journal.
It surprised me that writing down things makes them vividly stick in my head: I don’t need to go back and read what I journaled two days ago. While I’m writing, I can see emerging patterns; it’s clear that certain behaviors, actions, or environments lead to positive or negative outcomes. Those are opportunities to improve.
For example, as I said in a previous post, I try to read a lot. By a lot, I mean that I read 40 to 50 articles a week for personal leisure on average. Simultaneously, two books, one work-related and one for entertainment, such as a novel or about some topic I’m interested in, be it economics or psychology. Those habits have a nasty side effect; they put a lot of psychological pressure on me to get things done every day. I feel pressed to read articles and to read books. Previous to journaling, I read as many articles as I could the first thing in the morning. It was giving me a sense of relief: I did it! However, I was reading books only every other day, too little to be satisfying. I noticed that by journaling. I was consistently logging a negative outcome and a positive one related to articles. I swapped the two activities. I read books in the early morning, more or less for half an hour. And use articles as the filler activity throughout the day. The result is that I read the same amount of articles and I also read books every day.
There are two things that I don’t like. Getting at my desk every morning and being faced with the question, “what am I going to do today?,” is one. It is an open door for context switching and non-productivity. It can only destroy my day. The second is that I’m bad at brainstorming alone. If I need to sit down and think about questions like “what can I improve?” or “what’s going wrong?” it’ll get me nowhere. Carefully planning my week proved to be extremely effective in answering the first question. Journaling appears to be influential in shaping what’s next.