Why journaling is the secret tool of high achievers and can be the key to creativity, happiness, goal-smashing and general sanity

If meditation is the #1 practice that high achievers seem to have in common, then journaling has got to be #2. I’ve noticed many of the prominent figures I admire talking more and more about their journaling habits, and over time I’ve been paying greater interest to their methods and their tips.

Journaling can take many forms and is something you can make your own, but I do believe it’s an incredibly powerful daily habit to form. Below I lay out some suggested ways we can use journaling to move ourselves forward. They start from the basics and move onto bigger journaling commitments which can yield massive rewards, using some people I really admire as examples.

Journaling for productivity

Journaling is, at its most fundamental, a profoundly effective way to maximise your day.

The best examples are journals such as the Best Self Co’s SELF Journal, a paper diary that divides your day into 30-minute slots. The journal itself lasts 3 months or 13 weeks. Just as corporates find a quarterly time-frame to be a solid window to make quantifiable progress, the Best Self Co believes the same is true for our own goals.

I’m not sure about you, but my days rarely go as planned. However, I love these paper journals for visually mapping out the day and ensuring mimimum time leakage by allocating Instagram firmly to its time-slot.

The other big advantage of a paper journal with a daily view is the ability to colour-code (and therefore easily audit) where you’re spending your time. If everything strategic is yellow, HR is red, admin is green, creative is blue and so on, looking back you can see by default where your time is going.

Journaling to keep your goals in focus

This follows on easily from the above, as the Best Self Co journal is awesome at keeping your goals front and centre. By writing your quarterly goal(s) at the top of each daily double-spread, you resist the risk of being reactive and keep yourself on track. It makes it far easier to ask daily, where do I want to get to, and what can I do today to get myself closer?

You don’t need a fancy diary to do this. If you’re using a plain jotter or a Word document to journal, writing your biggest goal / priority / project at the top of each page can be really effective. You can take it one step further and write it in the present tense to activate the Law of Attraction (which is a whole other post!) – eg “I have doubled my sales this quarter and it feels fantastic.”

Journaling for gratitude, and self-compassion

Gratitude journaling is a big business these days and paper gratitude journals abound. Writing things down does tend to solidify them in your mind. I’ve got so used to gratitude practices that I list my blessings multiple times a day, but if you are in dange of being ‘glass half-empty’ and could use a reminder of the things for which you’re grateful, then writing them down is a valuable habit to establish. The Five Minute Journal is good for this, and the SELF Journal covers this too.

Equally important is being grateful for and kind to yourself. Capturing your wins in writing is a great way to give yourself a mental back-slap and to celebrate your progress.

Journaling for clarity: “mental windscreen wipers”

Ok, here’s where it gets interesting and where journaling goes from being a useful daily habit to a practice that is much more powerful. If you don’t journal on paper, you’ll journal in your head all day long and it’s exhausting.

In Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, filmmaker Brian Koppelman cited Julia Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’ concept as ‘the closest thing to magic I’ve come across.’ I’ve since read Cameron’s beautiful book, The Artist’s Way, which paints a path to unleashing creativity. We’ll cover this in the next section, Journaling for Creativity, but essentially the morning pages are ‘an apparently pointless activity’ (Julia’s words) that Koppelman describes as ‘mental windscreen wipers’.

Our chimp brain starts up again as soon as we let consciousness stream in each morning. It loves to queue the million inane things on its list and it’s highly effective at wearing down our battery life. The morning pages are like chimp-vomit. They’re a way of getting this stuff out of our head and captive on the page, so we are free to create and to give us the mental headspace needed for clarity.

The morning pages are three long-hand pages of whatever the hell you want: a stream of consciousness. They’re a way of building our writing muscle (‘We have this idea that we need to be in the mood to write. We don’t.’ Julia Cameron). If you have to write your name hundreds of times over in lieu of writing anything more meaningful, do it. If you want to moan about how your neighbour hasn’t mended the fence or about how bad your hangover is, do it. The idea is to keep your hand moving on the paper until you’ve filled three pages. Morning pages are the opposite of creative genius but they allow you to take out your mental garbage. In this way, they can be very effective before meditating to release the headspace desired for an effective meditation practice.  

Journaling for creativity

As I see it, journaling has two functions here. Generally speaking, ‘All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity’ (Julia Cameron). And more specifically, if your particular brand of creativity involves writing, then it frees you up. It stops the perfection paralysis, the horror we all feel when faced with an empty page / canvas. It makes the function of putting pen to paper a habit rather than something we psyche ourselves up for.

A journaling habit is a way of making a start. Stephen Pressfield, author of the wonderful book The War of Art, which is essentially a toolkit for overcoming resistance and procrastination, argues that creativity is just the universe’s wisdom coming through us – but it can’t work through us unless we get out of our own way and just begin. This is not a new idea; geniuses through the ages have insisted that they are merely vessels for universal intelligence to work through them. As WH Murray famously said, ‘the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.’ Putting pen to paper like clockwork each morning is a magnificent commitment that opens up our brains to extraordinary inputs.

Journaling to reduce anxiety and increase consciousness and self-awareness

‘Whatever it is that you write, putting words on the page is a form of therapy that doesn’t cost a dime.’

Diana Raab

Coach and investor Jerry Colonna takes journaling very seriously and spends an hour a day on it, first thing in the morning. He starts each journal session with the prompt: ‘Today I feel …’. For him, journaling is a means to not only quiet the chimp brain but to delve deep into his subconscious and better understand his emotional state. He then asks himself secondary questions like ‘how long have I felt this way?’

I highly recommend reading the transcript of this interview or listening to the podcast episode itself, as Tim and Jerry really do dig into this form of self-therapy in great detail. One practice that Jerry has is to allow the various voices in his head, or the various sides of him, to speak in the journaling process (he uses coloured pens to identify the voices). In this way, by giving voice to the more negative, protectionist, base parts of his ego, he is releasing them in a way that is arguably much more healthy than suppressing them.

Journaling to brainstorm on tough questions, or even moon-shots

‘It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action. The pages lead us out of despair and into undreamed-of solutions.’ Julia Cameron

Tony Robbins advocates spending 5% of your time on your problem and 95% of your time on the solution. This seems like a very sensible rule of thumb if you’re journaling to problem-solve too.  

In terms of using journaling specifically to open up solutions, list-making is a great way to brainstorm. James Altucher, the author of Choose Yourself! uses this tool copiously. He suggests that you start with a list of “10 ways to … [insert challenge]” but notes that if that gives you paralysis, make the list 20 or 30 items long. The idea is (like with morning pages) to get your ego out of the way so that your creative brain can start flowing. I find this approach a great way to ensure that when solving a problem, nothing is sacred or off the table. When we were fighting to save our business I began a list of 10 Ways to Save the Company and ended up with 31. As I continued to list ideas, I felt less self-conscious and freer to come up with more and more radical ideas (though all were legal). Your morning journaling could include 10 Ways to Make Today Spectacular or 10 Ways to Get Closer to My Goal of X.

Moon-shots case-study: Patrick Grove (one of Australia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs)

I listened to a great Mindvalley podcast episode where founder Vishen Lakhiani interviewed his close friend Patrick Grove about the impact of his journaling habit. When Vishen bumped into Patrick in Starbucks one day, Patrick was used journaling to solve the following problem: how to make $100m in one year. At first he thought it was a crazy goal to even aim for, but as he did a few journaling sessions on it he started to relax into the fun that is brainstorming moonshots, and after 4-5 sessions he started to see some solutions which allowed him to hit his goal. He believes that you need to free yourself up sufficiently to come up with the crazy ideas that will land you the crazy, outsized outcome.

Patrick started journaling because he read somewhere that people who write down their goals were more likely to achieve them. However, his early journaling mainly took the form of whining: about his body, his career, the city he lived in … It wasn’t until he’d worked the moaning out of his system that he had the clarity to start journaling about what he actually wanted in life. His big breakthrough was then to shift away from just journaling on what he wanted but to focus on how he was going to get there. He believes too many people ask why and suggests replacing that word with how: not, why don’t I have more inspirational friends but, how can I make more inspirational friends? 

Patrick puts journaling sessions in his diary to ring-fence the time, and allocates tough challenges to answer ahead of time. At the time of the podcast, his next session would centre around how to make $10bn in 2 years!

Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, on the value of journaling

The Miracle Morning is a book that has changed my life in that the practice it embodies now forms the first hour of my day from Monday to Friday and has transformed the way I start and approach each day. I cannot recommend it highly enough and it will be the focus of another post.

Part of the Miracle Morning (MM) routine is journaling (Hal calls it scribing because it fits the acronym he uses better). Here are a couple of quotes from him. He dives into the value of journaling in far more detail in the book.

‘I can tell you now that journaling has become one of the most gratifying and fulfilling practices of my life.’

‘The scribing element of your Miracle Morning enables you to document your insights, ideas, breakthroughs, realizations, successes and lessons learned, as well as any areas of opportunity, personal growth, or improvement.’

Should I abandon or review my journal entries?

This is very much down to the individual. Many people don’t re-read, because as Jerry Colonna puts it in his interview with Tim Ferriss, ‘it’s not about figuring sh*t out, it’s about the experience.’ Many agree with him. Julia Cameron argues that you never need to look at your morning pages after you’ve written them.

The other side of the argument and one that I ascribe to, is that if you’re going to the trouble of writing all this stuff down, there are probably lessons to be learnt. Hal Elrod advocates saving your journals and reviewing them annually or more often (quarterly seems a good timeframe, given we discussed above that it’s a good chunk of time to see decent progress). He takes this one step further and draws up two lists of conclusions: Lessons Learnt and New Commitments, which allow him to use his journaling to accelerate his personal growth.

‘As I read through my hundreds of my journal entries, I found myself recapturing dozens of valuable lessons. This process of recapturing Lessons Learned and making New Commitments to implement those lessons aided my personal growth and development more than almost anything else.’ Hal Elrod

Should I use pen and paper or do it digitally?

Most ‘journal-ists’ I’ve read about advocate good old pen and paper. They argue that writing improves recall and slows the brain down; it is cathartic and opens up the creative flow.

I on the other hand journal digitally. I save a new Word document for each month and have my journal entries running chronologically. My reasoning is that (1) I can match my thinking speed far more effectively through touch-typing than writing and so it’s more productive and less frustrating to type and (2) to come back to Hal Elrod’s suggestion of reviewing my entries, I can store and read them back more easily and even search for keywords.

The bottom line is that either is fine and you should do whichever makes journaling easiest and most effective for you.

I hope this was useful and I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a daily journaling practice? If so, what form does it take and what benefits do you gain from it?

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