Journaling: Easily the Best Bang-For-Your-Productivity Buck

Michael J. Motta
Published in
6 min readFeb 10, 2017


Input: a little. Output: a lot.

The greatest impediment to our productivity: mental models.

The greatest accelerator of our productivity: emotional intelligence.

Journaling helps mitigate the former and boost the latter.

Equally important: it’s easy.

You literally just move your hand around a page or type into your computer. It almost doesn’t even matter what you write or type — it’s just the act that matters.

Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Mental Models

Mental models are subconscious thoughts and beliefs that inform how we view the world and how we choose to act within it. They may or may not be based on reality, but even when they are, our models choose which aspects of reality to focus on. Without examining ourselves on a deep level, we’re completely unaware of these models. They’re like invisible, silent angels and devils on our shoulders.

Or, perhaps more apt, puppet masters — and we’re the puppets.

Because we’re unaware of them, we never question their accuracy. It’s sort of scary, isn’t it? Worse, our egos try to hide them from us.

You can see the effect of mental models everywhere.

In business: Remember when Blockbuster thought they could still operate hundreds of rental outlets for several more years despite Netflix’s emergence?

In our personal lives: In all likelihood, you possess a trait that others plainly see in you, but you don’t see it yourself. This means one of two things. Either other people have a false mental model of you (this often happens when you had, but lost, a particular trait), or you have a false mental model of yourself.

Here is a famous illustration of mental models, the Duncker Experiment:

Participants were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. Their instructions were to:

Affix the candle to a corkboard on a wall;

Light the candle; and

Ensure no wax drips onto the table.

In the first experiment, most participants could not do it.

They ran the experiment a second time, but with the thumbtacks outside of the box. This time, every participant figured out they could use thumbtacks to pin the candle to the corkboard, and use the box to collect the wax.

All it took was placing the thumbtacks outside of the box for them to see that they were, in fact, different items and have different functions. (This is perhaps why MacGyver was so successful — he could see that bubble gum could not only be chewed, it could also prevent a nuclear explosion.)

Of course, we need working theories about reality to go about our lives. It’s impossible to analyze every little thing we believe, think, or do, but we can examine our mental models. In so doing, we learn a great deal about ourselves and how we perceive our world. This makes us more effective across the line.

Our perceptions are among our greatest tools; doesn’t it make sense to better understand them?

Of course, to examine them, we must first find them. But such self-awareness is rarely, if ever, a natural trait. It’s something that must be cultivated.

I know of few other ways to cultivate the self-awareness necessary than through journaling and “qualitative review” of one’s life. There are other methods, I am sure, but statistics is not one of them.

Mental models are all about nuance and context, dynamics that numbers cannot reveal.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotions strongly influence our actions. In fact, our intentions travel through the emotional area of the brain before we act. Your ability to recognize emotion, and its effects, in yourself and others, and your ability to use this information wisely, is our “emotional intelligence” (EI).

With high EI, we can more successfully control our actions and interactions, ultimately making us more effective humans. High EI is difficult to achieve because we’re hard-wired to be emotionally dumb.

Our brain’s inputs travel through our limbic systems where they are immediately colored by our emotions (this is where mental models begin to form too.) Only then do they enter our rational cores. If we can’t recognize traces of emotional coloring, we are less in control of our decision-making than we would otherwise be.

High EI requires high levels of self- and social awareness. Strong self-awareness — how well we recognize patterns in our thoughts and actions, and self-knowledge of our strengths, weaknesses, and motivations — can only be achieved through introspection over a long period of time.

Similarly, social awareness — how well we understand the emotions underpinning the thoughts and actions of those with whom we interact — can only be achieved through insights gleaned through observation and recollection of many experiences.

Even with strong self- and social awareness, high EI is not guaranteed. We must actualize what we become aware of.

Self-management is the ability to use our knowledge of self and others to positively affect our actions.

Although our brains are hard-wired to make us emotional decision-makers, our brains also have a remarkable ability to overcome this tendency.

Every time we recognize an emotion in ourselves or others, and use that knowledge to positively affect our behavior, our cells become accustomed. The cells involved in these thoughts and actions create connections with each other, making the next time easier, and the time after that, etc., etc. In this way, our self-management can increase exponentially.

This is where journaling can come in.

By recording events and thoughts, we can learn how to improve both self- and social awareness, and we can assess how to better self-manage, ultimately increasing our EI and self-efficacy.

How I Journal

My journal has a few guidelines but no hard-and-fast rules. I skip lines between entries, date- and time-stamp them, and try to write for more than a page. Sometimes I go over, sometimes I manage only a few lines.

Sometimes, I write ideas for future entries on a page’s header. And I do have themes for each day of the week, described below, although they are loose at best.

Most entries begin with a recitation of something that happened or something that’s coming up. Sometimes it’s something that is heavy on my mind, other times it’s “I just woke up. The coffee is good.”

More often than I’d like to admit, those are the most intelligible sentences I write.

But I know that far more important than intelligibility, is keeping the habit, even if I just write “Today was good” or “I’m writing this to keep the habit” (which I wrote on June 10, 2016, because I was both busy and uninspired.)

For me, journaling is most effective, and most likely to be done, when I do it first thing in the morning paired with a cup of coffee. You might find the same. The important thing is to create a routine that works for you.

As stated, I am flexible with my journaling — I wouldn’t do it otherwise. I have themes based on the day of the week, but they primarily serve as a back-up if I can’t think of anything to write day-of:

Monday: I look ahead to the week — important events, must-dos, the little things like groceries.

Tuesday: I usually write about the week’s tasks and guideposts, and try to identify what anxieties I have related to them. By identifying them early in the week, I can deal with them before they end up ruining my week’s productivity.

Wednesday: I like to “dig deep” and write something a little more personal. Sometimes it has something to do with difficult emotions, other times it is something random I want to explore like why I like x, why I did y, how I feel about z. Other times I continue my writing from Tuesday — perhaps because my task anxiety is related to a larger issue.

Thursday: Assuming I made some mental progress on Wednesday, I continue down the path. If not, I choose a different path.

Friday: I like to review how the week is going, what my successes were, what my failures were. This is a good time to reflect upon the week before they fade away during the weekend.

Weekend: I like to write something random and spontaneous, and unrelated to anything I’ve written recently (or ever.) These have included random diatribes about the sounds of birds, a history of my posture, and my thesis regarding the origins of the ‘fist bump.’

A Final Note on Keeping the Habit

Journaling should not give you anxiety. If you feel anxiety when you think about it, or as you do it, then switch it up somehow. Make it new again. Be creative. Because when you’re both analytical and creative, you’re unstoppable.

You can learn more about my journaling system here.

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Michael J. Motta

Asst. Professor of Politics. Writes here about productivity, learning, journaling, life. Author of Long Term Person, Short Term World.