The logbook system: how to capture wisdom and accelerate your life

I get excited by a lot of things. I read voraciously, I love to brainstorm, and I’ll stop in my tracks in the middle of the street when an insight or idea strikes me. I’m always trying to learn and improve and grow.

But no matter how compelling those insights are, it’s easy to lose sight of them in the endless stream of modern life. If it’s something concrete like “If I’m going to work out, I should spend those hours investing in a skill like self defense,” I can at least put it on a to-do list. But what if it’s something like “the importance of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset”? I might find a lot of value in the idea, vow to live like this from now on, post it on Facebook, and forget it within a few days.

The most foolish feeling is when you come to an insight after an intense process and realize that you had, in fact, come to the same conclusion five months ago. But you had forgotten about it, so you traveled down a laborious path to learn it all over again.

What if you could drink a magic potion that would allow you to learn more potently? What if it enabled you to accelerate your career, deepen your relationships, and build an intentional life? What if it took only two minutes a day to use?

The Logbook System

I met the head of a well-known nonprofit at the beginning of this year who was asked about the drivers of his success. His response was so simple it was striking. “I sit down at the end of every week with a journal and write down my learnings.”

The idea intrigued me, so I decided to create my own version. In January 2016, I started a Google Sheet called Logbook with three column headings:

1. Date
2. Source
3. Learning

That’s it.

For the Learning column, I try to keep it extremely short with 1–2 sentences or a list of bullets. Just the core principle of the insight.

My topics included career insights, relationship philosophy, conversation snippets, relevant articles, and mindfulness. Add whatever you find valuable.

Some examples from my own logbook:

2/25, What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build The Perfect Team: The two traits that can be summarized as “psychological safety” to feel secure in saying something without being punished or embarrassed are: 1) Equality in conversational turn taking, which can be throughout the day, not just in one conversation and 2) Members had high average social sensitivity.

6/03, Mom & Me & Mom (Maya Angelou): The next time I feel guilty for worrying about something little, maybe I should remind myself to channel Vivian Baxter and rate it on a scale of zero to 3 fucks. 1 fuck = be mindful, but don’t get caught up in it. 2 fucks = calmly arrive at a solution and move on. 3 fucks = sit down and figure it out and stop underestimating yourself.

10/10, Convo with R: Telling other people you’re going to do something actually makes you less likely to do it — you get the hit of serotonin before the deed happens.

Why It Works

A brilliant woman entrepreneur who guides high-profile individuals through personal learning journeys taught me about the surprising alchemy of writing things down. “It turns a floating concept in your head into a solid object in the world. It makes it real for people. Suddenly they’re far more likely to act on it.”

It’s now December 2016, and I suddenly find that I’ve been using my logbook system for a full year. Not because I set a goal to stick with it for 12 months, but because every time I use it, I only find it more rewarding and enjoyable.

Throughout that year, I noticed some interesting benefits from my specific format:

Immediacy. No matter how riveting a learning, I am still prone to forget it unless I pin it down the moment I have it. With a Google Sheet, I can access it from anywhere. Now I have it forever.

Simplicity. Unlike a notebook or a blog, a spreadsheet forces me to keep everything short. I jot down the core principle in 1–2 sentences or make a list of bullets, and then I’m free to go back to my life. (I’m someone who tends to bleed my heart out over 10+ paragraphs, and the time needed for that leads me to procrastinate on writing anything down, ever. But two bullets in two minutes makes it far less intimidating.)

Rediscovery. Every time I open the logbook to add another item, I have to scroll past all the other entries. I’ll skim a few as I make my way down. Usually the thought that goes through my head is, “Damn, that’s a good one! I forgot about that,” but as time goes on and I’ve reread a concept for the fifth time, I find myself noticing that I’ve subconsciously begun to incorporate it in my life. Memory comes from repetition.

Things I Learned In 2016

So what did I personally discover and learn in the last twelve months? I spent today reading the entire logbook, and a few interesting themes emerged:

Embracing challenges as strength building instead of discomfort. Earlier this year I had gained a lot of weight. I was unhappy, I wasn’t exercising, and I was eating the wrong things. As I started rebuilding a healthy lifestyle, I realized that I’d been using a common guilt + punishment lens of “I can’t have this cookie because it’ll make me fat.” What if I approached my goals from a strengths perspective instead? “I’m stronger than this. I don’t need this stupid cookie.” Or “going for this run is making my body stronger and lifting my mood.” Once I started down this line of thinking, it helped me approach other uncomfortable things more readily. Soon it was “this industry event is intimidating, but I’ll learn so much from this challenging environment.”

Thoughts on having children. I’ve been reading a lot about the science of raising children this year. I’ve known for a long time that I want to have kids one day. When I was younger, I was constantly intimidated by “all the ways I could screw up” as a parent. These days I find myself drinking in a lot of literature on this topic and feeling more and more equipped. I also realized this year that, as a rabid environmentalist, I was passionate about adopting a child.

Being around people. I started a job working from home in fall 2015, and by spring 2016, I was feeling truly awful. Finally a close friend dragged me out to a house party where I didn’t know a soul and I found myself more energized than I’d been in a long time. I realized that spending time in different settings and around new people was essential nutrition for me. Interestingly, I realized six months later I was overshooting this principle with too much stimulus and no alone time. I rediscovered the value in choosing to cultivate restful quiet moments from which creative ideas often emerge. These days I try to pay attention to the balance of both.

Start With Why. It’s not about what you do, it’s about why you do it. You may have seen Simon Sinek’s wildly popular TED talk on this topic. My partner talks about this in physics as first principles, which you can learn more about in practice via Elon Musk. Once I really took this to heart in the autumn, a number of things unlocked for me. Suddenly I could see so much more crackling potential in my job than I had dreamed possible, even though I was working with the same variables. It also forced me to set my intentions before I launched a given project to evaluate whether it truly served my goals.

2016 was a year of extreme ups and downs, and I’m so grateful to have lived through it because of the insights that emerged. With these learnings in hand, I’m looking forward to continuing to build a meaningful life in 2017.

Get Started For 2017

What do you want to achieve this coming year? What wisdom will you accumulate? Let me know if you decide to start using a logbook, and tell me what you discover.