How a journaling system can improve your projects (& your life)

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I received my first diary as a gift when I was in kindergarten. When my grandmother noticed my penchant for reading, she figured I might enjoy writing, too. Turns out, she was right.

Ever since then, writing in diaries and journals has become a regular part of my day. Now, though, I use apps on my computer or phone just as much as physical notebooks.

Despite all that time spent writing, it took me years to create a journaling system to keep me cognizant and accountable of what's actually happening in my life and how I want to improve.

Journaling isn't just about jotting down what we're feeling in the moment. Having a journaling system helps you make progress much faster than just jotting down your random thoughts and feelings, or even keeping a to-do list.

The journaling system I use is made up of two templates: one to use every weekday and one to use at the end of the week. By design, these templates aren't fancy or sophisticated—because the simpler they are, the more likely I am to use them!

And what I love most is how they help me in all areas of my life, in both the personal and professional stuff. They've worked for me when I was trying to close more sales for my business and when I was sleep training my child. They've even helped me improve my relationships: with clients, family, staff members, friends, and more.

I'll share these two templates below, so you'll see what I mean.

The Daily Journal

Every morning before starting my workday, I use a simple template to get me focused on what's at stake that day and what's motivating me to get things done. It's meant to be started in the morning and completed after your work is done for the day.

Here's the template for daily use:

Date:

This morning, I'm grateful for...
1.
2.
3.

My goals are...
1.
2.
3.

Today's targets:
1.
2.
3.

Wins:
1.
2.
3.

Lessons learned:
1.
2.
3.

Tonight, I am grateful for...
1.
2.
3.

By the way, feel free to copy it! Adjust it to your own needs, however you see fit.

Why it works

I've used different to-do apps over the years—Basecamp, Asana, Workflowy, you get the picture—but nothing worked to keep me this focused on what really matters during my workday. Of course, this daily journal can't replace a central to-do list app where you keep track of everything that needs to get done in the long run, but the daily journal is the only tool that helps me pull out what's most important for a particular day.

Not to mention that mixing in gratefulness gives me a positive outlook before I even start working—especially when I'm grateful for something that isn't so positive.

Note: This daily template was inspired by The Self Journal, which I occasionally use in physical format. When it's not on hand, I use this digital template. I'm a big fan of The Self Journal's founders and interviewed them on my podcast: listen here.

The Weekly Wrap-up

While I love how much starting my workdays with the daily template has increased my productivity and gratefulness, there's another template that works even better: the weekly wrap-up. I dare say it's had an even bigger impact on both my projects and my personal life.

Here's the "weekly wrap-up" template:

Date:

PERSONAL:
What went wrong:
1.
2.
3.

What went right:
1.
2.
3.

PROJECTS:
What went wrong:
1.
2.
3.

What went right:
1.
2.
3.

This week's goal:
1.
2.
3.

Again, feel free to copy this and adapt it to your own needs. All yours, baby!

Why it works

The "weekly wrap-up" template keeps me honest about how I'm performing on what really matters.

Nobody wants to make the same mistakes twice. Journaling at the end of each week about what went right and what went wrong ensures I'm aware of what's actually going on. It helps me adapt the following week's plan accordingly, allowing me to make faster progress.

Using this template, I've realized so many mistakes that I would've otherwise ignored. As you can see above, I use this to journal about "personal" stuff and "project" stuff. Just to illustrate, here are two examples of mistakes I jotted down this past week:

"I zoned out for a bit during yesterday's podcast interview. One follow-up question wasn't as powerful as it could've been. I don't want that to happen again."

and:

"I lost my patience during potty training this weekend. I don't expect the little guy to learn quickly, but I do expect his dad to help me out more than he has. Regardless, I could communicate more calmly next time."

Here's another way to look at it. According to Wikipedia:

"A project post-mortem is a process, usually performed at the conclusion of a project, to determine and analyze elements of the project that were successful or unsuccessful ... Post-mortems are often considered a key component of, and ongoing precursor to, effective risk management."

Consider the "weekly wrap-up" a post-mortem for every single week that goes by. Without it, I'd be blind to how I can make incremental improvements to my work.

Post-mortems don't have to be reserved for the end of a failed project. Instead, conduct a post-mortem at the end of each week.

When you don't conduct a weekly post-mortem, mistakes can slip through the cracks unnoticed, and you're much more likely to repeat them. Who wants that?

Bonus: the tech setup

In case you're interested, I'll share the tech setup of how I actually execute this journaling system every day. 

  1. I copied each of these journaling templates into my keyboard shortcut app and chose an easy shortcut for each one: "daily-" and "weekly-". (I use DashExpander for this, but there are lots of other options out there.)
  2. I set reminders on my phone to prompt me to journal. If it weren't for these reminders popping up on my phone, I'd never do it.  I get a reminder at 7am Monday through Friday for the daily journal and at 11am on Saturday for the weekly wrap-up. (I use the iOS Reminders app for this. I like keeping it separate from my work to-do list on Asana.)
  3. Whenever I receive the reminder to start journaling, I open my app of choice and type in my text shortcut: "daily-" or "weekly-". (I use the Day One app on Mac and iOS, where I tag my entries to keep them organized. For example, I currently have 86 entries tagged "wrap up".)

Simple enough, no? Set it and forget it.

Will you adopt the system?

Most people journal only when they want to express how they feel, or when they want to document what's going on in their lives. I do this, too! My journals house all kinds of stuff: photos of my child, stream of consciousness pages on why I'm feeling so anxious about work, my labor story, and more.

But, by adding these two journaling templates to your weekly journaling routine, you can also make sure you're making real progress toward your personal and professional goals.

When you take a high-level look at this journaling system, there are two main benefits:

  1. You realize what you want more of in your life.
  2. You realize what mistakes you're making, so you can avoid repeating them.

As I mentioned earlier, please feel free to take these templates and adjust them as you see fit. I hope they help you as much as they've helped me!

By the way, I still have that first diary my grandmother gave me, you know. A white Precious Moments diary with a lock so easy to break open it may as well not even have been there. Looking back at it, I'm so grateful for my kindergartener's scrawl about playground friends and hopscotch. It's what led me right here twenty-five years later—albeit down a loooooong and winding road.

So, what do you think: could this journaling system help you?

Sending love and light from Managua!

xo,
Marcella

PS. Have you checked out Mindfulness for Makers yet? It includes tools similar to this journaling system to help you make real progress with more peace of mind.