Journaling Is My Secret To Hyperfocus, Intuition, Discipline & Productivity

My journey from nerdy kid to the founder of a 7-figure beauty startup

Dr. Teo Wan Lin
ILLUMINATION

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Photo by Towfiqu Ahamed Barbhuiya on Canva.com

My story: I started journaling at age 7

Unbelievable, but I believe that’s also the reason why I’m productive. My fondest childhood memories are of scouring stationery shops for planners — as a hot-housed Asian kid, I thought of it as a treat every academic year. My mother was the first to introduce me to the concept of setting schedules for my day. There was a time to shower, time to revise Math, English, and Science, and also when I would unwind with a favorite book of mine.

As a seven-year-old growing up in Singapore’s elite education system, every moment of my day was accounted for in blocks of 20 to 40 minutes. An hour was deemed too long for me then — it still is today. I switch between tasks quickly without getting stuck because my mind has simply been trained…forever. As a medical doctor who’s sat for countless examinations — I’ve seen the results of such an approach to time management.

I was planning my day, but also scribbling takeaway reflections/notes under each task. Journaling gave me to order, compelled me to reflect, and made me a better learner. The habit of making notes also trained my mind to hyperfocus — and I am able to do so for several hours at a time on a daily basis without feeling exhausted.

Leading with a vision

Journaling can be in the form of vision boarding too. As a teen, I was particularly passionate about pinning motivational quotes on my corkboard — I’d add to that daily, along with my checklists.

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Journaling isn’t an activity, it’s a mindset

I’m a dermatologist turned beauty entrepreneur. My clinical work over the last decade left me feeling quite burnt out — I suspect it’s because I’m really an introvert at heart. People never believe that, but social activities quite often leave me feeling drained. Writing, researching, and creating are solitary activities that appeal most to me. These activities inspire me and speak to my imagination. What looks like work productivity on the outside really is to me an exercise in contemplation. This is why I can toil away at my desk for hours on end — without feeling exhausted.

Here are the 5 benefits I’ve personally gained from an entire lifetime of mindful journaling.

1. Journaling to increase productivity

There is a difference between reflective and ruminative journaling. The former is beneficial, the latter not so. I journal specifically around my day, in blocks of 20–40 minutes each. As a child/teen, I labeled each block with tasks, followed by “reward time” I granted myself, whatever that was. I’d have space under each to scribble lessons learned — even when it was difficult to do so, I’d still write that down. The difficulties got less and less. And I did that for most of my academic life, which continued way into adulthood, as I sat for countless medical certification exams.

What I realized was that as I grew older, journaling helped my mind build a habit of organizing tasks around pockets of time. And with each task completed, I would feel a surge of dopamine — why, I had conditioned myself to “reward time”, remember?

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2. Journaling is my secret to hyperfocus

Breaking down my work day into 20–40 minute blocks is great for those with short attention spans- — and in 2023, that’s everybody. But I was a particularly hyperactive child who got bored very easily and yet the journaling habit made that a lifelong asset for me. It’s the reason why I can work for 9–10 hours in a stretch with just a toilet break or two in between — also because I include a variety of tasks I can toggle between to satisfy my own curiosities and need for variety.

3. Journaling creates a framework for your mind

The truth is, I hardly have to schedule my day now with a physical planner, as I did all the way up to my late twenties. I’m almost 40 and what journaling has taught me is that 37 years of practice makes you — -well, quite an expert. I readily power through my day with what I consider my mental planner (not physical or digital), simply because I’ve worked with a physical one for over 30 years.

As an entrepreneur, I have learned to identify productivity-impeding habits in my staff. For instance, the obsession with perfection. It’s a fine line to tread — producing high-quality work vs never getting the job done. Planning tasks around your time schedule and training yourself to add quick notes at the end of each task is a start. When time’s up, you’ll have to stop. Maybe return to it later, as a part 2 — but if you’re a beginner at the journaling mindset, slaving away at something for hours at the end may just be a sign that you’re stuck. And the entire point I’m making here is how to get unstuck — you’ll need to move on.

4. Journaling instills mental discipline

Pleasure may just be the fundamental motivation for all the decisions we make — depending on how our brain is wired to perceive gratification. I don’t have a habit of watching TV, because I never included that as a “reward” in my journal when I was growing up. Instead, I grew accustomed to perceiving an entire checklist of completed tasks as the greatest reward — the surge of dopamine I got at the end of each day was quite enough. You might say that’s also because I started early and habits one acquires as a child tend to stick. But I’d like to say that it’s also never too late.

5. Journaling trains your intuition

I believe that the heart of productivity is how well and how quickly you make decisions. Good decisions aren’t always about your business, it boils down to deciding if you’d rather spend the next 30 minutes ruminating about the whys, whats, and what-ifs or if you’d just get on with the next task. People try to study how to be a better learners — but the truth is, you learn just by learning.

And learning involves reading and reflection — both of which are essential to the journaling process.

Just with the habit of journaling alone, I’ve found myself making better business decisions in record time, a critical marker of efficiency. The reason? I suspect it is the framework my mind has built over decades — which really is an excellent decision tree, it’s personalized. I’ve made it adaptable too.

Photo by Dr. Teo Wan Lin (Author)

Dr. Teo Wan Lin is a board-certified dermatologist from Singapore and founder of Dr.TWL Dermaceuticals, a 7-figure beauty start-up she built from its inception in 2016. As an academic, she has published several research papers in top dermatology journals like the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and the International Journal of Dermatology. She is the host of the leading beauty podcast Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty which has collaborated with industry giants like L’Oreal Paris, Amore-Pacific, and LVMH, and is also the author of several books on skincare, haircare, and beauty.

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Dr. Teo Wan Lin
ILLUMINATION

Board-certified dermatologist, expert in skin microbiome & brain-skin connection. Host of Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty & author of Skincare Bible