How to use big-picture journaling to stay focused on your goals

Reminding yourself what matters and what doesn’t

For many of us, there’s a gap between what’s important to us and what we spend our life doing. We value time with family and friends, staying healthy, and playing a positive role in our community but find ourselves doing busy work, eating junk food and looking at screens. So how do we shrink that gap?

By remembering what matters. What do you really want? One of Aristotle’s deepest insights is that living a good life requires a clear sense of our goals. It’s not enough to have a vague wish; we need to figure out what we want and then see how everything else relates to it: Is it part of what we want? If not, will it help us get what we want, or will it get in the way? Only by keeping our top goals in mind can we avoid spending too much energy on what doesn’t matter.

So what matters to you? And how will you make it a priority?

We often resist tackling these questions, especially when we feel so busy. It’s tempting to keep running and check more items off our to-do lists instead of doing soul searching. But it’s even more important to pause and reflect when we are busy. When we’ve got too much going on, we do a terrible job remembering what matters; we forget to ask for help; and we end up performing lots of unnecessary tasks. We become even busier and less able to see the big picture.

I fall into this sort of unthinking busyness all the time. Last night, for instance, I turned ‘bring dessert to my friend’s dinner party’ into “research new recipes, shop for ingredients, and make complicated dessert from scratch.” That would take hours. Is that a good use of my time?

A year ago, I started to schedule a life review once every three months. I even put a reoccurring reminder in my to-do list app. The idea is simple. Once every three months, I sit down to think about how I am doing in relation to my larger goals and where I want to put more — or less! — energy.

I use five categories:

· work

· relationships

· exercise

· mental health and stress management

· creative work

I address them all in one sitting because they’re deeply interconnected. I write in a journal instead of just thinking about them because externalizing my thoughts in writing keeps me honest and more focused. I write longhand because that slows me down and lets me think more deeply, and it eliminates the distraction of a computer screen. Using a designated journal sets reflection and introspection apart, marking them as significant and valuable activities.

I ask the same three questions in each category:

· What am I happy with?

· What doesn’t work well?

· What do I want to change?

Looking at all my answers together helps me notice tensions and make some hard choices. For example, If I find myself saying that I want to make a major push on a project at work and that I want to spend more time with my family, I know I need to think more and talk to my family because I probably can’t do both at the same time; I need to choose.

Each time I sit down to do this, I resist. But I emerge with a better sense of what is and isn’t working for me as well as a set of concrete action steps. It helps me remember what really matter to me. After each session, I also delete a few items on my to-do list. Last night’s baking project probably wouldn’t survive a review. People usually don’t want dessert in January, so why spend time and effort making one?