A Year of Journals

Learning via daily reflection

Dustin Ho
Dustin Ho
Jan 9, 2015 · 8 min read

2014 marks the first year of my life that I've written a journal entry every single day. Some were exceptionally well-thought out, some were a mess of words thrown out as I stumbled into bed, but without fail I've spent a little bit of each night this year trying to capture and learn from the events of the day.

Where’s the beef?

My wing chun sifu has a habit of asking this catchphrase — what’s the substance behind your idea? It’s a useful question for martial arts as well as general self-improvement to make sure you’re getting the most bang for the buck. It’s also a question I probably should’ve asked myself earlier, as I started keeping a daily journal in 2013 and it was not well thought out nor very useful to my life until I attended the July workshop of The Center For Applied Rationality. If you haven’t heard about CFAR, it’s an organization that aims to give people more understanding and control of their own decision-making through research-based techniques. The class that excited me the most during the workshop focused on the benefits of reflecting every day and performing a strategic review of these entries once per week. Inspired, I picked it up and immediately noticed positive changes in my life — here‘s what 15 minutes a day now buys me:

  1. Clarity of thinking — condensing my day into words helps me to process the day and get a mental grip on what happened. On difficult days it’s a way to release stress and check in on my emotional state. For exciting days it captures and organizes the thoughts bouncing in my mind. On seemingly average days it ties my efforts into a bigger picture and helps me recognize the steps I was taking as significant, even if it doesn't feel that way at the time.
  2. Better memory — I remember things that happened more clearly. Part of this is just because I can refer back to a specific day if, for example, my doctor is asking me when I developed a cough. A more subtle benefit is that of spaced repetition. Because I take the time to think about an event I've written at least three times (end of the day, end of the week, end of the quarter), the memory of the event gets etched into my brain and recall of the event is easier and more detailed.
  3. Notice trends —sometimes you need to take a step back for a pattern to emerge. Reviewing journals across multiple days allows me to find behavior that would've been harder to notice in the moment. An example from this year was when I noticed that I continuously was feeling down in August. Through reading old journals, I realized that the past four weekends were spent traveling or out with friends. While very fun and exciting in the moment, in aggregate this made my introverted side feel drained. My fix was to schedule a weekend of reading and recharging every couple of weeks — making sure to be kind to all parts of myself.
  4. Long-term planning — many things I wanted to accomplish last year, like throwing three major house parties with Brohaus, improving communication skills, learning wing chun, all took considerable planning. Periodic journal entries let me build on ideas over time and turn them into successful projects.
  5. Creating a feedback cycle — I see reflection as a tool to hold future versions of me accountable on goals and projects. “I will exercise X times a week” becomes not just a thought, but something that I can check in on at a daily and weekly level. This means that if I’m not making progress towards a goal, I can often catch it that same day and make changes, allowing for faster iteration with everything that I want to accomplish.

Format follows function

Some things didn’t change with journaling through the year — I choose Evernote to journal with, as it syncs across all my devices and is relatively pleasant to use. I also consistently stuck with a time and place to journal so that it would be associated with reflection.

One thing that did change (and changed frequently!) was the format of the journal template. The template is my lever to get journaling to perform the function I want. If I don’t like the output of reflection, I tweak the template until I get the desired result. I’ll also won’t hesitate to experiment and see what small changes in the format does. Where does it take my mind? How it make me feel? Ultimately the goal is to make make my journals as useful as possible — and I’ll keep what works in every iteration, toss what doesn’t.

This is the template I use as of the end of 2014: http://bit.ly/1ACxk4r. I’ll dive into each section of it and explain how it evolved.

Progress

Each journal starts off with an accounting of where I am on a long-term project or ritual I’m trying to install in the form of [day-streakCount]. For example, on 1/2/2015 I have the following:

[2–8] I’ve cleared out all my tasks in Remember The Milk (my task tracker)
[2–2] Meditate
[2–5] Read a book

The first line indicates that I updated this entry on the 2nd and have an ongoing streak of 8 days where I accomplished this.

The day number is a hack to make sure I update it every day. I formerly had a checkbox, but noticed that sometimes I would accidentally leave it checked when copy pasting the journal from the previous day. Changing the checkbox to a number I had to update daily is clunky, but it works for me!

The idea of the streak count comes from Jerry Seinfeld’s concept of Don’t Break The Chain. I started giving it a shot a few months back and found it pulls some primal lever in me that needs numbers to always go up. Everyone’s brain is different, but this definitely helped my emotional self get with the program.

Summary

This is just one or two sentences describing the quality of my day. I found when reviewing journals it was tricky at times to figure out what was going on that day and if it was even a good day or bad one. By just adding a little bit of space to try to capture the gist of the day and its emotional quality, it made it much easier to figure out trends at a high level.

What happened today? Anything better or worse than expected?

This is the meat of the journal. What works best for me is to visualize myself walking through the day. I’ll start from the morning and connect event to event until I reach where I am now. Through this process I naturally notice landmarks in memory and write them down along with a description of what happened. In doing so I plant a flag in my mental history and tie it into my written narrative.

During this, I keep a look out for the unexpected moments and feelings of surprise. Surprise is a key signal that one of your assumptions is wrong. You’ll very often find there’s a learning opportunity when you’re surprised. When I notice one of these events I label things that go better than I expected with a (+) sign and things that end up worse than I expected with a (-) sign.

I’ll also look for opportunities to be grateful for the day. Studies show that gratitude can be extremely effective in raising your happiness set point, among other benefits. When I find something to be grateful about I write down the reason and label it with a (&) sign.

Where would I like to improve? What principles could I follow in the future in order to accomplish this?

In this section I look over the surprising and unexpected moments of the day to take advantage of the learning opportunity. I’ll also highlight anything I feel I could generally improve on. If I can write down a principle or pattern of thought that would fix it this, I’ll write it down immediately. Often times I won’t want to stop and think about the best way to improve in the moment, and I’ll flag them for a future version of me to examine with a star (*)

What are my actions for tomorrow?

Spending some time thinking about what I want to accomplish tomorrow helps connect what happened today with the future. Often times I’ll realize there’s something specific that happened today that results in an action item for tomorrow.

Doing a quick check of what I want to get done the next day also helps set up the future version of myself for success. I make sure the tasks I’ve set up in Remember The Milk and my calendar are feasible to accomplish and put my brain in the right mindset before I go to sleep.

Meta-reflection

Taking some time every day to reflect will get you significant changes to your life. If you want to get the full value out of your journals, though, you’re going to need to perform meta-reflection — rereading journals and reflecting on them. Think about it this way — whatever you do to review your day, you can use to review your (week|quarter|year) and reap the benefits on a longer-term scale.

I re-read journals once per week and once per quarter, each with a slightly different process as my goals are different than with a daily journal. Going in detail on how that whole process has evolved would be long enough to merit its own post, but if you want a sneak peek I have the checklist I use for weekly reviews here: http://bit.ly/1Izdgz9.

15 minutes a day

Though all daily reflection requires from you is 15 minutes a day, it impacts your whole life. Still, getting yourself to take that quarter hour consistently can be tricky. Here’s what I would have told myself to help get this habit off the ground:

  1. Get some words down every day — I don’t go to bed until I've at least written something, even if I’m completely exhausted, even if it’s just 100 words. The most important part of a ritual is frequency, you can work on the quality of content over time.
  2. Make it easy — journaling now instinctively happens for me right after I brush my teeth and right before I climb into bed. If you can get reflection to be an automatic behavior, it makes things much easier. Find a time, find a space to associate with journaling and it’ll take less energy and willpower.
  3. Make it fun, make it useful— Don’t be afraid to tweak your journal format. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Find the parts of the journal that are useful to you and make them even better. Take the aspects of the journal that are time or energy intensive and figure out how to reduce their cost or cut them entirely.

Learning to journal effectively was the most useful skill I acquired in the last year, thanks for letting me share it with you. If you have questions/thoughts/feedback I’d love to hear them via comments or shoot me a message on Facebook.

Special thanks to Arun, Jeffrey, Kailing, Louisa and Merlyn for proofreading.

Thanks to Merlyn Deng, Arun Venkatesan, and Kailing.

    Dustin Ho

    Written by

    Dustin Ho

    Engineering Manager @ Facebook. Talk to me about security, meta-learning, and strategy games. Follow me at www.dustinho.com