How to Crush Goals with a Long Term Journal

Here’s the what, why, and how.

Michael J. Motta
Dec 21, 2017 · 7 min read

I suppose it’s inevitable. When you move, you’re going to lose a few things. I’m not upset about losing my second-favorite sweater or my running gloves… but my Long Term Journal? Yeah, that’s a real bummer.

But there is some silver lining:

  • Silver Lining #1: I take pictures of my journals and back them up, so I have a digital copy. (Although it’s not the same.)
  • Silver Lining #2: It gives me an excuse to make a new one from scratch. My previous one was messy with scratch-outs, eraser marks, etc.
  • Silver Lining #3: Now I have a chance to show how I create a Long Term Journal so others can follow along. This is something I’ve described before, but that was using a hypothetical example. This time, the example is real.

So, let me explain what a Long Term Journal is and then I’ll walk through how I’m setting up my new one.

What’s a “Long Term Journal”?

I use a “Short Term Journal” for daily journaling and tracking of progress towards goals. My Long Term Journal (LTJ) is kept (or was intended to be kept!) for 5 years. I write in it once a month (for a total of 60 months.) I also use it to keep track of my various long term goals.

What’s the point?

LTJs allow for a top-down approach to goal achievement. While a typical journal provides a bottom-up, “on-the-ground” perspective of day-to-day life, a LTJ is revisited regularly to ensure the day-to-day is aligned with the month-to-month, year-to-year.


The gatekeeper decision is whether to go digital with a word processor (e.g., Microsoft Word) or journal app (e.g, DayOne), or analog with paper and pencil (as I do.) Both work fine. Below, I describe the LTJ using my preference but digital tools can work just as well. Just go with what works for you.

I keep it simple. I use Moleskine’s large Cahier journals for both my LTJ and STJs. They’re cheap (about $3 each.) They have only 80 pages which is perfect for my purposes. This is purposely short enough that I am not tempted to overwrite and overanalyze in the LTJ. Perfect for succinct, high-level writing. (I can see other people wanting to have more pages so they have more flexibility — I totally understand that.) I save detailed, comprehensive writing goes in my daily journal. (You can see more about the tools I use, including the specific daily to-do lists I use, at There are, of course, plenty of other journals and notebooks that work just as well : longer, shorter, hardcover, blank, gridded, etc., etc. Go with what works for you.

Basic Overview

I organize the LTJ so it functions front-to-back for one purpose and back-to -front for another. This prevents needless flipping-through to find the right page.

The inside cover of the LTJ serves two purposes. The top-half describes a few principles that guide my choice of goals and motivate my actions. I won’t spend time walking you through how you determine your life’s principles. There are plenty of resources for that published here in The Mission, elsewhere on the Internet, and in books aplenty.

The bottom-half of the inside cover lists the goals that have been achieved since the LTJ was created. Make sure to leave enough room here — you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish once you put your aspirations to paper. And when you’re feeling frustrated and doubting whether you can accomplish something, this is a great place to turn; the list will remind you of what you’re capable of.

Inside Cover

  • Step 1: Jot down a few principles in the top-half of the inside cover if you feel like it. Maybe just a few inspirational words. The names of your children. Or pets. Or don’t.
  • Step 2: Write down a few goals you’ve already accomplished. Stuff you’re proud of. Even if they seem “little.” Prime the pump.

Here’s mine so far:

Monthly Pages

Working front-to-back, the first 60 pages of the LTJ are reserved for the 60 months in the next 5 years of your life. This is scary to think about, no doubt. Five years seems like a really long time. But it’s not. This is true in terms of the universe, of course, but also in terms of our lives. Think of a favorite TV show that is in its fifth season or later, or one that is no longer on the air. Doesn’t it seem Season One was yesterday? (I shake my head every time I think about how the Sopranos ended over ten years ago.)

Now, one page per month but not seem like a lot. But I want a sustainable LTJ that doesn’t inspire dread or feel burdnsome. It doesn’t take much grit to sit down, once a month, and fill out a single page. (Okay, sometimes it might. But imagine if you had to write more than one page, or do this once a week?)

I divide the pages into three sections.

First-third: The first few lines describe my guideposts for the month, written after reviewing the previous month. (For your first month, you can improvise.)

Middle-third: Written at the end of the month, I write a few lines and answer one or more of these questions:

How did it go?

Did I meet or exceed my guideposts, or did I fall short?

Did I change priorities mid-month?

Where did I succeed and fail?

What affected my results?

(NOTE: Don’t answer all of these questions, just the ones most relevant at that time. If you feel like you really need to expound, I suggest writing in your daily journal and making a note in your LTJ linking to it.)

Bottom-third: Here goes adjustments and thoughts for the following month. I’m particularly interested in:

What did I learn?

What should I modify going forward?

(This is a good time to consider how you might better allocate your time, energy, and other resources.)

Since I’m writing this mid-month, and for purposes of showing an example, I’ve gone ahead and wrote as if it was the end of December, even though it isn’t. (Besides, with the holidays coming up, I won’t be getting much more done anyhow.)

Here’s my monthly page for December:

Goal Pages

Now working back-to-front, the next 20 pages are for selected goals. By “selected,” I mean goals that I have chosen to be part of my day-to-day now or in the near future. Each selected goal gets a page.

For goals to-be-pursued down the road, I use post-its stuck inside the LTJ. When they’re ready to be actualized, I “promote” them to their own page. This is simply because some goals dissipate or change over time, and I don’t want to clutter up my LTJ with things that may or may not be pursued.

On the first few lines, I give the goal a name and describe it using the SMARTEST method. You can use any method you want (or none) but most important is that the goal meets these two criteria:

• Is not too abstract to be useful (e.g., “Make more money somehow”), and

• Is not outcome-determinative (“Open Etsy shop to sell paintings” is preferred over “Sell paintings on Etsy.”) This is because some things are out of our control. Goals should be things that you can accomplish irrespective of other people and events.)

Under the goal’s definition, I jot down important notes/dates. If the project is complex, I might break it down into phases. (My example below doesn’t have this because it’s not really necessary.) Minutiae goes elsewhere (perhaps in a task management system or a to-do list somewhere.) Remember: the LTJ is for the crème de la crème.

Here’s a goal page and post-its for potential future goals:

That’s it.

I keep it simple. Otherwise, it wouldn’t last me 5 years. Simple, sustainable, and effective.

If you’re interested in more details, there are three options: You can read this post which explains the entire system, this book which goes into more detail, or this book which explains the larger productivity framework that the journaling system fits within.

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Michael J. Motta

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Asst. Professor of Politics. Writes here about productivity, learning, journaling, life.

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.