If you’ve been reading our time management case studies, you’ll notice that a recurring recommendation is the use of journal entries as part of morning and evening rituals. The reason for this is simple: journals help you keep track of things, in a very useful way. It’s kind of strange that as kids, many of us kept diaries, but as adults, for some inexplicable reason, we simply stop writing. There is something special about the act of putting pen to paper that helps you focus and makes what you’ve done more concrete in your mind.

This article really fits into a longer series of articles and podcasts on proper goal setting/getting and organizational systems. You’ll hear more about that soon =)

Why Keep a Journal?

Let’s start with the whys.

  • Journalling helps you keep track of what you’re doing. It tells you in a very real, everyday way what you’ve done, and what you haven’t, and what you’re working on. It does of course, belong in a wider context of other systems like schedule management and task management, but it’s an important part. A lot of our Dojo members include journalling as part of their rituals.
  • It calls you out on self-delusion (aka BS). Nothing points out faster that you’re stalling progress or continuously putting something off than a set of consecutive journal entries that read “I didn’t get around to it”. It, along with time tracking, also answers the all-important question of if you’re spending time on the things that matter.
  • It makes your weekly and monthly reviews that much easier to write, because you know exactly what you did (or didn’t), and when.

How to Keep a Journal

I keep my journal inside Evernote, so that I have access to it everywhere I go via my phone. In the past, I used MacJournal, but didn’t like the awkward syncing capabilities. The actual software that you use to keep your journal doesn’t matter all that much – the point is that you can create one entry per day, and that entries are easy to find.

You could also use a singular Microsoft Word or plain text document, or even buy an old-fashioned paper diary if you want to. Other options are to record yourself via audio or video and store them as files on your computer. You can also use mindmaps, though from personal experience, tracking a journal via mindmap can get pretty messy.

What you Write in a Journal

I’d like to say that you can just free-flow in your journal, but there really is a structure to it. You write 3 “parts” daily.

In the morning, you want to write down what you’re going to do that day. For each of these, you should also ask:

  • Why you’re doing it.
  • How you’re going to do it.
  • How you’ll know when it’s done.

As you come up with this list in the morning, you should be referring to what your goals or outcomes are, for the week, for the month or for the year. You should also note down how your morning was, or how your morning ritual went.

As you go about your day, you can record down the events of your day – as little or as much as you like.

At night, you want to review what you wrote down in the morning, and see what you actually did or didn’t do. You then want to ask yourself what you did to create that particular outcome or situation.

For example, if in the morning you wrote “Pick up groceries on the way home”, but during the day you didn’t, you might note down “Was planning to get groceries but missed the freeway exit and just went home instead” as an explanation for why you didn’t stop by the grocery store.

In addition to reviewing the outcomes you set in the morning, you also want to ask some questions relating to your day. Here are some questions that I’ve picked up from different people over time. I think they’re applicable to everyone:

  • What did I enjoy?
  • What did I do really well today?
  • What did I improve or improve upon?
  • What did I learn?
  • How can I do things better tomorrow?
  • What is one thing I did well, and one thing I didn’t? How did I create these situations?

The great thing about journals is that they are highly personal. This means that you can use the journalling format to implement other productivity or life concepts into your daily routine, in a non-intrusive way. You can add on other questions related to things you’re trying to implement, as a reminder. For example, right now, my additional questions are:

  • What value did I give away today?
  • What was I focussed on in the morning?
  • What was I focussed on during the day?
  • What was I focussed on at night?
  • How much effort/energy did I expend today, compared to past days?

The first one is related to the idea that future business is created by actions you have done in the past. Everyday, I try to give away something of value to someone, to build better relationships and lay a path for future business or life opportunities. The questions related to focus are to help me manage my tendency to try to do too many things in one day. The last is a reflective question that lets me assess how my week is progressing.

Next Actions

  • Work out how you’re going to keep a journal – text, audio, video.
  • Work out what questions you’re going to ask in the morning, during the day and at night.
  • Start keeping your journal.
  • After 30 days, review… and be amazed.

If you have any questions about the journal entry questions, or if you’d like suggestions for how to turn various concepts into daily journal entry questions, ask away in the comments!

Did you like this post? We have some of our best productivity hacks and tips in the Asian Efficiency Primer. Check it out here.
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Photo By: Barnaby

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I loved how you said that keeping a journal can help you with time tracking. My cousin was at my house a couple of days ago for breakfast, and she talked about how she has been thinking of getting a journal. I'll pass this information along to her so she can know more about the advantages of journaling.

  2. If journaling is about outcomes, then should my task manager have all tasks related to that outcome? Already my task manager has more in it than I can focus on, and I think most of these are actually outcomes. I read somewhere that tasks should only take about 20 minutes. If that’s the case, my task list would probably quadruple in size. Can you offer any clarifications or suggestion.

  3. i have kept written, audio and video journals, since age 15, and I am 73. It helps me take a mental dump, and it is like breathing to journal.

  4. Aaron, this observation made me smile and nod:
    “Nothing points out faster that you’re stalling progress or continuously putting something off than a set of consecutive journal entries that read “I didn’t get around to it””

    That’s true! I prefer using a paper journal at the moment because it serves as a welcome non-digital activity in my evening routine.

  5. Found a low lumen iPhone Journal solution!
    So, since I’ve read this I’ve been trying to find the best app to journal in the evening.
    I was looking for something that had a “brightness” fader like the amazon app which darkens the phone so its nearly black, but you can still read in bed. Personally I find the kindle app in even better for bed time reading than using small reading light. Especially if you have a partner trying to sleep next to you.
    After purchasing 3 diffenet apps(none of which actually had the fader) and playing with black background settings I’ve figured out a work around:

    -Download “Night Web Browser by Alex” **Free!
    -put the setting as dark as you can still read.
    -go to Evernote on the web using this browser, sign in, and open your Daily Journal

    Evernote is functional in the web version as long as you find the “sign in” buttun. It’s not as smooth as any of the other journal apps, but this is the lowest lumen Journaling solution I’ve found and its actually free!

    Good luck everyone. Please let me know if you have found any better solutions. I’ve been lightly searching for about a month now. I created a bunch of templates with the journal questions in this article and am looking forward to journaling in bed tonight with super low lumens!


  6. Hey guys!

    I really love your website and I visit it almost every second day to boost my productivity!
    The last few days I spent a lot of time thinking about starting a journal and did some research what is the best way to do it and especially how to start or what to write. I use Evernote almost everyday for storing notes, but I decided to use a notebook journal as I think its more provide, but I’m still in the “finding phase”.

    By occasion and your links at the end of articles I found this one here which was really helpful, thanks for this one!

    I have a question to you guys….is it possible that you might make an journal entry public? Just to have an idea how “professional people” use it? Would be interesting to see how you do it and what you write. Would appreciate it, if it would be possible :)

    Thanks again and keep up the awesome work!
    Best regards from Germany

    1. Our journals are pretty private, I’m not sure we would be comfortable sharing our deepest secrets with the world ;-)

  7. I can’t thank you enough for all the amazing articles on your site… I have recently discovered I suffer from ADHD that was never diagnosed as a child, with a side of depression. I am working on both of these conditions under close care of medical professionals. However the work doesn’t stop there. With my mental fog clearing everyday I can finally accept that I am a 28 yr old mom that I has never lived to my full potential. Medications and therapy only do so much. The real change is in my own hands. Your site has provided all the necessary tools to become the CEO of MY life. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    You have gained a loyal reader and a walking, talking and typing advertisement for your site.

  8. If you use a loose-leaf folder or a ‘Filofax’ type organiser for handwriting your journal you can then, if you want to keep it accessable to your computer or ‘phone, scan it into whatever you want.

  9. Personally I have to start everyday with at least 10 minutes of affirmations.

    If I don’t do this I notice a big difference in how my day/my mood/my productivity goes.

    Will be trying 10 pressups and water after listening to the podcast!

  10. I journal currently, not always consistently but I’ve kept a book going off and since I was a teenager. It’s tough to choose between handwritten and Evernote. I love Evernote and use it daily but there is something about physically writing things down and reading your own handwriting later that is just… different, more personal and I’m leaning towards better. Right now I use both.

    Handwritten is of course a bit of a pain. I have 2 medium sized boxes that move with me wherever I go with journals and photos… kind of a pain. But when you open them up, it’s magic.

    I am taking from this article the idea of asking yourself questions about how your day went. Especially “what value did i give today?”. I hear this from almost every self-help guru, counselor and successful person I know… that giving away value creates more happiness and fulfillment in your life than any other accomplishment, possession or financial gain.

    I’m also adding to my list a question about Passion. Passion for life, work, friends, health, etc. “How was my passion compared to past days?”

  11. Hi,
    I have just downloaded Evernote to try and get my journaling going. I’ve never used the app before, so I’m not sure what’s the best way of doing the entries. Do you recommend having a separate notebook just for journal entries? What do you call the individual entries? I’ve been using “morning entry” and “evening entry” but I was wondering if something most descriptive would be better. And finally, do you keep your sets of questions on a separate note and read from it (can you do that? have one note open and the other on the process of being written) or do you copy the questions to each note, every day, twice a day? Is there a way of creating templates on Evernote? Would this be a good idea?

  12. Pingback: 3 Ways to Increase Personal Awareness through Journaling
  13. Pingback: …words » Blog Archive » End of Day Journaling
  14. This is a brilliant article. I have been an avid journaler for years and it is refreshing to see this kind of thorough examination posted. To Lore’s point, time tracking, or a daily activity log, is a simple and easy thing to do, it only takes a second to make an entry. I keep a small Moleskine monthly diary right next to my work area and I jot a note each time I finish an activity. It is an *Excellent* BS detector for your Weekly Review and I highly recommend it.

    1. Thanks the kind words Stephen. Glad to see other people out there who see the value of journaling too (aside from the value of “letting my emotions go so no one can read them”).

  15. Thanks for the post but I think this is really overkill. I am following your advise in regards to the MIT in omnifoucus and keeping one diary where I enter all my daily unplanned work (as per David Allen) and all notes which get updated in OF during the day. Don’t you think that writing down each single activity is too time consuming in our busy business lifes? This sounds like spending more time on writing and planning than on doing.


    1. Hey Lore,

      It’s more about writing down outcomes, not individual actions.
      The difference in my mind:
      An outcome is basically a mini-goal, something I want to get done that takes roughly a third of my day.
      An action is a step within that outcome.

      An example from my own journal last week:
      Outcome: Get out of Bangkok and over to Sydney before the flooding worsens.
      * Book plane ticket with Emirates.
      * Organise accommodation for Sydney.
      * Pack bags.
      * Notify body corporate to turn off power and water in condo.
      * Clean up apartment, throw out food in fridge etc.

      If you use a GTD-style system you’ll be writing down each single activity you do anyway – that is the core of GTD after all. Journalling is awesome if somewhat different from a pure GTD system because it forces you to think about what you’re doing day-to-day, as opposed to GTD where you make big lists and check of items one-by-one. I was never really satisfied with GTD’s way of managing reviews or working out what I had for the day – hence the journalling.

      If you’re interested, I personally spend about 10 minutes tops for my morning journal entry and about 15 minutes for my evening one.

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