Replace Your To-Do List With Interstitial Journaling To Increase Productivity
A new journaling tactic that immediately kills procrastination and boosts creative insights.
Here’s the basic idea: instead of tracking your work with a to-do list, track your work with a journal.
For this tactic, journaling in Evernote or Notepad is fine. A paper journal would be fine too. The difference is going to come down to taste — the journal option that you find more enjoyable is the one you’re more likely to keep using.
During your day, journal every time you transition from one work project to another. Write a few sentences in your journal about what you just did, and then a few more sentences about what you’re about to do.
A project transition is when you make a switch: from checking email, to preparing a presentation, to attending a project status meeting, and then back to checking email. Each of these is a project in your day, and the times between them are interstitial moments when you should write in a journal.
Finished email to Nik about writing another article for us. I probably don’t need to follow up. Also, part of my mind is still wondering if I should have suggested a topic to him.
Now, switching over to writing an article. What’s my next action? Oh. Just open Medium. The article is going to flow easily once I get the intro down. I should steel myself for having to rewrite that intro a few dozen times.
Damn. That’s a lot more work than just checking off a checkbox in my Wunderlist:
Here’s the quick pitch for what Interstitial Journaling does for your productivity, procrastination, and creativity.
We weren’t built for multi-tasking, so transitions between projects are very tough. We end up getting lost in procrastination. Even when we manage to transition quickly into our next project, our brain is still thinking about the last project.
That means our second project suffers from partial attention. The science of multi-tasking says partial attention can mean a 40% or more reduction in cognitive performance.
The Interstitial Journaling tactic solves all of these normal problems. It kills procrastination, empties our brain of the last project, and then gives us space to formulate an optimal strategy for our next project.
That’s plenty of instruction if you want to just close this article and try it yourself. But, because I’m a productivity enthusiast, I’ll give you the origin story, the lessons from the people I tested this on, ways to customize this process for your own work, and the science behind the process.
Origin story: Pomodoro on steroids
In the Pomodoro Technique, you alternate between set work intervals and set break intervals. Most people go with 25-minute work intervals followed by 5-minute breaks.
Generally, the break is your reward. You can surf the web guilt-free, get a snack, or text your best friend.
What I wondered was: what if you tried to do something productive with those five minutes?
At the time I was wondering this, I happened to be doing a deep dive on morning journaling using Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages as a jumping off point to explore all the ways you can use journaling for personal growth.
So, I put the two together.
What if you journaled for your five minute Pomodoro break? That’s basically what this tactic is. And the answer to what happens is: a lot of really good things.
The minimum journal entry
Every time you switch projects, open up your journal and enter the following three things:
- Note the time. Most people will find having these timestamps to be useful to look back on.
- Write a few sentences about what you just worked on. “What project did I just finish? Are there any parts of that project that I’m still thinking about?” Use complete sentences rather than one word answers. “Email. Yes.” is not a valid answer.
- Write a few sentences about what you’re about to work on. “What is the first action of the project I’m about to start? How should I approach getting the project done?”
You can write more, and most of you will discover new things to write about, but the above is a solid format to start with.
Empty your brain
“What project did I just finish? Are there any parts of that project that I’m still thinking about?”
When you empty your brain, you can then start the next project fully focused.
My favorite pragmatic observation about genius comes from the computer science professor, Edsger Dijkstra:
The competent programmer is fully aware of the limited size of their own skull. They therefore approach their task with full humility, and avoid clever tricks like the plague.
A lot of people approach problems with hubris, hoping their brain will generate magical insight. Most often, they overload their brain by making the problem too hard. Then, their brain responds by generating mistakes.
Dijkstra’s observation is that the most pragmatic path to genius (although he merely calls it competence) is to keep the problem smaller than your brain.
This is why Interstitial Journaling calls for journaling about what you just finished working on. Often, you’re still thinking about that project. Write those thoughts down, empty your brain.
That way, when you start your next project, you’ll be bringing your full brain rather than your distracted half-brain.
First action vs. next action
“What is the first action of the project I’m about to start?”
I tested this Interstitial Journaling tactic with my coaching group. These are 500 people who treat productivity as one part ambition and one part hobby. They’re a little extreme about this topic, to be honest. But they’re always up for exploring the cutting edge.
I tried to convince my coaching group that they should update David Allen’s GTD concept of Next Action and call it First Action instead. They were split on whether this was a good idea.
In David Allen’s observation, most people write their to-do lists in terms of projects. “Change tires” would be an example of a project-oriented to-do.
The problem is when you get to a to-do list item framed as a project, you get stuck because taking action is too cognitively difficult. How does one “change tires”?
So, David Allen popularized the idea of rewriting your to-do list in terms of actions. Specifically, you should think about Next Actions so that you can keep momentum as you work down your to-do list.
In David Allen’s GTD, you would translate the project-oriented to-do of “Change Tires” to the Next Action style of “Call Tire Stores for Pricing.”
Part of your Interstitial Journal entry is to identify the Next Action of your project. The easier the action, the more likely you are to do it and the less likely you are to fall prey to procrastination. This action is the first thing you should identify when you start journaling about your upcoming project.
However, I’ve observed that many people who think they are writing a Next Action still manage to write actions that are too difficult to achieve. A poorly chosen Next Action will cause procrastination for the same reasons that a project-oriented to-do would.
In the “Call Tire Stores” Next Action example above, how do you find the phone numbers to call all these tire stores? That’s how people get stuck. Under threat of violence, you’d figure it out. But in your day-to-day, facing a Next Action like that often makes surfing the web look more appealing.
So, I asked my coaching group if we could rename Next Action to First Action.
The difference looks like trivial semantics, but the reason for this subtlety is that some people react differently to the words Next and First. Many people hear Next and think “Next Meaningful.” That’s what tricks them into writing down actions that are too hard to start or finish. Many people hear First and think “First Literal.”
So, the phrase First Action makes it easier to narrow in on a smaller action, like “Google Tire Store Phone Numbers” or even “Open Google.”
This semantic change had people thinking about accuracy and, almost always, the accurate answer to the question of Next Action is something trivial, like opening a software program.
But… not all people are the same. A different group of people rebelled against First Action because those tiny trivial actions looked boring. They needed an action that carried enough weight to feel like it was worth doing. Otherwise, they would procrastinate for fear of boredom.
People come in all flavors. I’m presenting to you specific steps as a starting point. I call this First Action now. But if you’re tied to calling this Next Action, then you have my full permission.
Mindful strategizing: do less, do it smarter, delegate it
“How should I approach getting the project done?”
At this point in the journaling, you’ve cleared your head and you have a chance to think about the best way to get your next project done.
Most often, getting the project done is a matter of scope. If you only have an hour, then you have to use a strategy that fits within an hour.
The first time I had a strategy epiphany during an Interstitial Journal entry was right before editing an article. I had five different article submissions that I could choose from, and I wanted to publish at least one of those that day.
My default mode is to think I’m some sort of editing superhero, even though I’m a complete amateur with no training. So, my impulse is to pick the very first draft and then charge through it.
In other words, I normally wouldn’t consider strategy at all.
But, in my Interstitial Journal I noted that I only had an hour for this editing work. From experience, I know that editing an article can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
So, breaking all normal rules of my own behavior, I opened all five articles. Then, I ordered them by which looked to be easiest to edit and chose the easiest article. Am I a genius? No. But that brief moment of mindfulness helped me pick a smarter strategy. I got the article submitted on time. And in the course of my day, projects completed on time add up to major victories.
Anyone who has ever done journaling in other contexts knows this — your journal is an opportunity for truth and honesty about yourself that you don’t normally have. I’m too ambitious about what I take on, while being cowardly about working hard. Putting those thoughts into a journal moves them from feelings that secretly rule my decisions to rational concepts that I can analyze and solve.
I think the right word for this experience is mindfulness. Journaling as you work produces mindfulness about your context, goals, mood, and skills. Honestly, many so-called knowledge workers are going through their day as mindlessly as possible. You’re really going to stand out with this tactic.
I almost never explain any productivity topic without referencing the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
The book covers two modes of decision making. One is a rational but effortful mode. This is what we wish ruled our life. The other is an emotional and habitual mode that sits just below our consciousness. This is what actually rules our life.
The magic of journaling is that it is almost always effective at bringing thoughts and feelings up to a place that triggers your rational mind. The net effect is that you’re rebalancing and being more rational.
Maker vs. Manager considerations
In the introductory instructions, I said I wasn’t very concerned about what tool you used for journaling, an app or a physical journal.
This isn’t completely true — the best tool for you really depends on whether you’re a Maker or a Manager.
If you’re doing project work on a computer all day, then I think you’ll prefer using an app like Evernote. There’s something about just flipping back and forth between your apps that helps keep most people in the flow.
If that’s your work day, I’d call you a Maker (this is a reference to the article Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule). Makers should keep their journal in an app.
If you’re a Manager, then you probably spend a lot of your day away from your computer in meetings. For you, I’d recommend two things:
- Use a paper journal.
- Schedule meetings with a five minute gap in between. That gives you time to do the journaling.
If you are a Maker who works with your hands instead of a computer, then congratulations. The physical world is a rich and wonderful place, and I always enjoy turning off my computer to visit it. You should use a paper journal.
Your journal is a habit for pivoting to new projects
An NBA trainer introduced me to a concept he teaches his athletes called “Next Play Speed”. The concept is that there is a transition between offense and defense, where basketball players often get lost. This is the basketball version of an Interstitial Moment.
He uses a video (below) of Michael Jordan transitioning back and forth from offense to defense. It’s actually pretty amazing to watch, because Jordan makes those transitions much faster than everyone else on the court.
What the NBA trainer, Graham Betchart, does is clue you into the habit that Jordan developed. It’s not “switch fast!” — that’s just a goal.
Rather, Jordan’s habit is that the instant the ball changes hands, Jordan plants his pivot foot and changes direction. That’s his habit.
Humans are famously slow project-switchers. Part of the problem is that it’s impossible to make a habit out of switching between projects because each project is unique. There’s nothing consistent to habitualize.
But, Interstitial Journaling is something you can make a habit out of. Finished a project? Habitually flip over to your journal, write the time down, reflect on what you just did, then reflect on what you’re about to do.
It’s the knowledge worker’s version of planting a pivot foot.
In Graham’s explanation for basketball players, he sets the goal of achieving a “Next Play Speed” of less than one second.
For your Next Project Speed let’s think in terms of a few minutes. Can you transition from one project to another in fewer than five minutes?
Upgrade option: journal everything
This tactic is focused on the interstitial moment between projects. But the obvious upgrade is to journal while you’re working on the projects as well. Basically, you journal the entire time that you’re working.
I’ve written about this in other places as an alternative way to use to-do list software. Instead of working up a complete list of what you need to do, simply track tasks as you go to build a sense of flow. Think of it as similar to the way a lawyer has to track his or her work in six-minute increments. That probably sounds like a huge chore.
But if you get into it, you end up with this massive document of how productive you were that day. When I was using this tactic, I’d routinely complete 100 or more tasks in a day. So, part of what kept me tracking the minutia of each project was simply pride.
The pragmatic benefit comes from taking David Allen’s Next Action concept and putting it on steroids (I like the steroid metaphor, apparently). If Next Action is a good tactic to get into a new project, it’s equally good to take you through every little step until you finish.
Originally, I’d taken the task-journaling concept and put it into the to-do list metaphor. So, all I ever captured was a long list of next actions in list form.
But, when I moved from a list to a journal, I realized that I could analyze myself as I tracked these tasks. There’s a particular reason to do this analysis, which comes from recent research on procrastination (summarized by Dr. Tim Pychyl in one of the first Medium Members articles).
The idea is that procrastination is often a short term mood repair initiated by your subconscious. The problem and the decision to solve it are both happening below the level of conscious thought. The solution is to find a way to identify and then solve that mood at a conscious level. Journaling is one way to do that.
So, as I moved my task-journaling into a proper journal, I started to ask myself, why did I just procrastinate? The answer was often illuminating and, more importantly, something I could overcome.
Here is a concrete example, and I want you to note the number of times I say “darn”. Those were moments of procrastination.
12:39. Edit Productivity Article
[... journal about the previous project ... ]
First Action: Open draft. I tested out a new copy editor and need to see if I liked their edits.
Darn. I don’t like this person’s edits. Oh well. The piece is too dense. I'm going to break up the longer paragraphs.
Oh. Darn. I got distracted mid-way and ended up on Twitter. I don’t even know where or how. Oh. I was on HuffPo (which got unblocked on my computer), saw a post about Chris Evan’s dog, and that somehow led to Seth Rogen’s Twitter stream. Back to work.
Need to rewrite these subheadings.
Darn. Got stuck again — this time rewriting a sub-heading made me flip over to easier goofing off. Caught myself right away. The problem is skill. I don’t have a “theory of subheadings” and so I don’t have any strategy for rewriting this one. Back to it and this time I'll trust my gut about what makes a good subheading.
Got tripped up one more time. When I saved the piece, I saw my Medium notifications and ended up responding to someone’s response to one of my posts.
Back at it. Just have to drop the article into Asana for Medium’s managing editor to publish. Checked on image rights. Had to learn how to use Google Image search via uploaded image.
That’s a work project that took me 56 minutes and in which I got distracted three times. The journal ended up being my safety net. It’s what I mentioned above about “Next Play Speed.” Having a journal gives me a habitual response to noticing my procrastination.
So, yes, the emphasis and the name of this tactic is on the interstitial moments. But I believe strongly that you should actually journal your entire day.
Does this really replace your to-do list?
Yes, sort of.
First of all, you need to differentiate between to-dos. There are to-dos that people keep which are just long-running backlogs of things they wish they would do some day. This journaling tactic has nothing to do with those.
Then there are the to-do lists that act as a working document for your day, which I think are more common. You constantly check these lists to figure out what to do next and then update them when new to-dos pop up.
That second, working document, should be replaced by this journaling tactic.
But, if that causes you consternation, realize that the beauty of a journal is that it has a flexible form.
I often plop a small to-do list at the bottom of my journal. If some little thing pops up that I don’t want to forget, then I just quickly write it down at the bottom of my journal.
But, regardless of what I write around the edges of my journal, the focus is on the interstitial moments. That’s the core of bringing mindfulness and focus to my work.
I generally believe there aren’t very many original thoughts — but as far as I can tell, this tactic is basically original.
Well, actually, it’s obviously a derivative idea based on journaling work by Julia Cameron and Josh Waitzkin and on the very popular Pomodoro technique.
The name came from Terrie Schweitzer, and the idea of trying combinations came to me from Scott Adams.
But other than that, I think this is an original productivity idea. I’ve never heard of other people doing anything like this in a formal way.
The reason originality is important to me is that if other people have done this, then I want to hear about it, link to it, and learn from it. So, if you’ve seen other techniques like this, please share them with me.
Also, if you try this and make your own variations, I’d love to hear about those as well.