Why Two Journals Are Better Than One: The Benefits

synergy (n.): an interaction of two things that produces a greater effect than the sum of their separate effects

Journaling did not become a consistent habit for me until I started writing in two journals. One for daily journaling, the other for monthly. Here’s why I’ve stuck with it: Because it’s damn effective. The benefits dwarf the negligible costs of 10–30 minutes a day.

Daily journaling, by itself, brings numerous benefits. Monthly journaling has several benefits too. But the greatest benefits come when they interact.

Once a month, I read entries from my daily journal. I compare experiences over time and glean insights that I then write about it in my monthly journal. This allows my short term observations to inform my long term perspective.

Likewise, I can use my long term perspective to inform my short term observations. The long term journal records my expectations and the short term journal provides the proof-filled pudding. I can compare my intentions, set in my monthly journal, to the realities recorded in my daily journal. Perhaps there was a personal crisis that explains my failures or maybe paralyzing anxiety was to blame. Whatever the culprit, it’s usually there if I look for it. When intentions meet realities, a lot can be learned.

The journals are synergistic, each reaping benefits from the existence of the other.If I just wrote in one journal, none of this would be possible.

“Qualitative Review” versus “Quantitative Review”

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.
— Abigail Adams

Alternatively, I could use a spreadsheet to track my progress on various goals. I could use a smart watch and my phone to track everything. I could crunch numbers and gain feedback. I wouldn’t be the first to do this. Many quantify everything in an Excel spreadsheet: steps taken per day/week/month year; sales made per quarter compared to the same quarter last year; calories consumed this Christmas versus the last. The “quantitative self” crowd.

Except… I don’t like spreadsheets much. And besides, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Our lives are nuanced and filled with context. If we just track the steps we take per day, we’re losing out on the vital questions such as: Where was I walking to?

Reviewing journal entries allows for consideration of context and nuance. I can compare experiences — not just numbers — across time, revealing all sorts of truths about myself. Not just patchwork facts. Actionable truths. Iterative progress. I can learn-by-doing and do-after-learning.

If I just had numbers to consider, I’d have to use my memory to fill in the gaps. (“Why didn’t I go to the gym this week?” “Why’d I write so few words on Thursday?”) However, memories are inherently unreliable and subject to bias. We humans are biased beasts, especially when it comes to ourselves. (“I must have been sore.” “My wife must have interrupted me.”) By reading and comparing journals, I can stop guessing. (“Oh, I didn’t go to the gym because I was so busy that week.” “I didn’t write that week because I felt uninspired.”)

Unless we collect objective information regarding the differences between our intentions and reality, we will continuously make the same mistakes. And worse, we may not even realize we’re making mistakes at all. Further, if we don’t measure progress and understand the surrounding context, we miss the opportunity to improve our efficacy by making informed, strategic adjustments.

By measuring progress and understanding the context, we unite two versions of ourselves: the person we thought we would be and the person we actually were. “Qualitative review” makes us more certain we’re hiking the right path, and more certain we’ll get to the summit before the sun sets.

Altering Course (Or Not)

Knowing others is intelligence. Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.
— Lao Tzu

There is perhaps one advantage that quantitative review has over its qualitative cousin: Words, thoughts, and ideas can be subject to over-analysis in a way that numbers are not. Because there is more information available with a qualitative approach, there’s much more room for interpretation. To counter this, I try not to go down a rabbit hole. I err on the side of under-analysis. More analysis might result in more valid conclusions, but that’s not guaranteed, and I don’t have time anyways. I want to go out into the world and do stuff, not sit in my office comparing an entry in March with one in September.

This is how I think about it:

  • If the problem is with implementation (i.e., my means), I think about how to make them more effective.
  • If the problem is with my intentions (i.e., my ends), I consider whether to make my intentions more or less ambitious.
  • If the problem is with my inhibitions (e.g., paralyzing anxiety), I brainstorm how to lose them.
  • If the problem is with my priorities (e.g., I’m spending too much time on X and too little time on Y), I consider whether re-prioritization is necessary.
  • If the problem is unrelated to these (maybe a personal emergency came up), I shrug and move on with my life.

Because my short term observations and long term perspectives inform each other, the problem is usually with implementation. This is the easiest problem to solve. When its my inhibitions that are to blame, I have daily journal entries that allow me to dig deep and unearth the base. If I did not have the context and nuance provided by my journals, I wouldn’t be able to overcome mental and emotional blocks. If I only had numbers to look at, I’d too-often conclude that the problem is related to my intentions or priorities — simply because there’s no way to make deep insights. And I’d never know when the problem is unrelated to implementation, intentions, inhibitions, or priorities; I would be quick to make a change that might be wholly unnecessary.

Give it a shot.

For more on the above, you can check out my book, Long Term Person, Short Term World. For more on journaling specifically, you can get my other book.