Skip to content

How periodic journaling can lead to a more fulfilling life

Sébastien Dubois / October 06, 2021

20 min read

Periodic journaling is a simple, yet powerful practice. It can help you declutter your mind and grow in all aspects of your life. In this article, I want to share some ideas about periodic journaling and writing daily notes. Together, we'll explore the why, the what and the how.

Picture courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@timwildsmith

Through this article, I aim to motivate you to try this technique for yourself. Without exaggerating, I can say that journaling has changed my life for the better.

I'll tell you why I rely on periodic journaling. It is a critical practice for my well-being, productivity, and growth. I'll also explain why and how I use periodic reviews to keep improving.

A super brief history of note-taking

Countless people have practiced note-taking over the course of history. Roman and Greek philosophers used to record their thoughts on notes. Plato already considered writing as a form of artificial memory. He pushed his students to take notes. Those notes stored thoughts, facts, discoveries, and ideas. Famous philosophers like Seneca also recommended keeping a journal. There are many early examples like that. Later in history, commonplace books helped humanity to accumulate knowledge. Note-taking blossomed everywhere. Polish nobles wrote diaries for their families. Through those, they recorded their traditions, major events, anecdotes, and even jokes. Many families have treasured cookbooks with "secret" recipes passed down from generation to generation.

Throughout history, note-taking has helped thinkers, philosophers, authors, artists, inventors, and even boat captains. Leonardo da Vinci wrote 13,000 pages of notes and drawings. He wrote those manuscripts throughout his life. He used those to record his interests, his preoccupations, things that intrigued him, his thoughts, ideas, and creations. And so much more that humanity is now grateful to have inherited. There are countless others like Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, Anne Frank, Bill Gates, etc. Check out this article if you want to learn more.

Why not memorize everything?

Human memory is both fragile and capricious. Relying on it to retain all our knowledge is actually risky. Short-term memory (STM) is obviously limited in size and retention is very limited in time. Long-term memory (LTM) is seemingly infinite but subject to memory decay and interference. For instance, when learning new things and storing those in our long-term memory, it happens that the new knowledge interferes with the retrieval of known information. The truth is that we all keep forgetting things and losing access to information we know we have in our heads.

We can try forcing everything into our long-term memory, but it may not be the best solution.

On distractions, learning, and growth

Modern life is full of distractions. We are all swamped with information and distractions, and things are getting worse. Every single day, thousands of companies battle to catch our attention. Their goal is not to waste our time, but that's what they do if we let them! Of course, it's always up to us to decide how we spend our time, but it's very easy and very tempting to lay down and watch Netflix all day long. While that's a valid choice (to each its own), it is also meaningless. Meaningless fun is worth it from time to time, especially to avoid burnout, but living a good life requires growth.

If you instead try to grow as an individual, you will expand your horizons. Learning is addictive, like great TV shows. Once you're hooked, you'll never get bored. You'll want to explore more and more, and you'll dive into an ocean of knowledge. It is exhilarating and very rewarding, but it can also be overwhelming at times.

Today, learning is a critical skill for all knowledge workers and curious minds. In IT, my field of expertise, things change extremely fast, and the pace of innovation/change keeps increasing. I would be obsolete in a jiffy if I ever stopped learning new things.

It's awesome to try to grow and consume a lot of information, but if we forget most of it, what's the point? Alas, as I mentioned earlier, we cannot rely solely on our brains, so what are we to do?

What we need is a system to organize our personal knowledge.

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and the second brain analogy

Note-taking in general and Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) in particular can help us work around the limitations of our physical bodies. By taking notes, we can store information and create ourselves a "second brain". It in, we can safely stash our knowledge, ideas, thoughts, and memories.

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is all about helping us to collect, organize, integrate and store information. Not just anything, but the things we find valuable and interesting. I'll explore PKM further in future articles.

With today's technology, that second brain can be made of bits and bytes. It can be stored in the cloud and be accessible anywhere/anytime you need it. You can back it up, version the information, share it, etc. Your knowledge will not disappear or be subject to interference. As a digital native, I prefer going digital. Anything will do, as long as you create and grow your own system; a system that works for you.

But where to start?

Daily notes

Important events in our lives tend to be solidly anchored in our long-term memory. Although, most of the things we live fade away quicker than we realize. Do you clearly remember what happened today? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? The month before that? The further you go back, the fuzzier things will be. I personally have trouble remembering what I did a few minutes ago. You can ask my wife, she'll tell you about it 😂. When we don't have any external system and fully rely on our brain, we can only hope for the best, even if memorization techniques (e.g., spaced repetition) can certainly help.

I recommend practicing daily journaling. You can start small, and write a few sentences each day. The most important thing is to do it on a regular basis.

The goal of daily notes is to capture things that matter to you. For instance (in no particular order):

  • Important events (in your life and/or in the world)
  • Your ideas, thoughts, observations, emotions, etc
  • Your progress
  • Your achievements
  • Your experiments
  • Things you've read
  • Things you've learned
  • Interesting facts, links, ideas get exposed to
  • People you've met
  • Meetings you've had
  • Things you're grateful for
  • Things you want to do next
  • Places you want to visit
  • Future goals
  • ...

The goal of daily note-taking is not to log everything. That would defeat the purpose. No, the goal is rather to make your days more memorable.

It's so easy to let the daily life/work routine take over and let days/weeks/months/years pass us by. By practicing daily note-taking, you'll pay much more attention to how you live your life. Writing daily notes regularly will make you much more self-aware. It's like a window to your mind and your soul.

When I started practicing, I realized that my journal helped me a lot. It surfaced thoughts and ideas that I didn't express otherwise. It has helped me better understand myself, and listen to my own needs. At work, daily notes have helped me to never forget anything, which made me incredibly reliable.

Daily notes are also a great way to bring order into your life. I'll get back to this in a jiffy.

Daily note-taking is actually a mindfulness practice. It forces you to actually think about yourself and your own experience of life. And not only once a year, but on a regular basis.

Your notes will also allow you to "save" the context of events and learnings. It may seem useless, but it's actually very helpful to be able to correlate events in your life. And to understand what led you to explore X or Y. As a content creator, this is invaluable to me.

The hard part is turning the practice into a habit. To do that, it is important to keep it entertaining enough. Otherwise, you might abandon before you can reap the benefits. Try it for a few days, and reflect back. Go through your notes and pay attention to how it makes you feel. Does it help you to be grateful for important events in your life? Does it help you remember key learnings and discoveries? If the approach you've taken so far seems tedious/boring, then explore other journaling techniques. Experiment!

Sometimes, reminders are helpful to establish habits. Try scheduling journaling into your day. For instance, you can plan to take 5 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes before noon, and 5 minutes at the end of the day. That can help in the beginning, but I would not recommend taking daily notes only at fixed times. The main reason is that you might forget about what you've learned and what happened (thanks, flaky memory!). Also, writing things down right after the fact means that the emotions are still fresh. You know how you felt a moment ago. You still have the context in mind, which is invaluable.

If you practice journaling regularly, you'll realize how impactful/enlightening it is.

When and how?

Daily notes can and should be taken throughout the day. Whenever you find something noteworthy, scribble it down somewhere. I write things down using pen and paper when I'm not in front of the computer. I always carry a notebook with me. When I'm on the computer, I prefer to use digital tools like Obsidian. I always keep it open, ready to record my thoughts and discoveries. Whenever some idea pops up in my head, I try to write it down as soon as I can.

I go through dozens of notebooks every year and write down everything that occurs to me each day, an idea not written down is an idea lost. When inspiration calls, you’ve got to capture it.

Richard Branson

There are various approaches to journaling. An interesting one is bullet journals. You can either use pen & paper or digital solutions. Many studies have uncovered the benefits of writing by hand (e.g., relieve stress). But it doesn't matter much, as long as you find what works for you in the long run.

I currently use the following template for my daily notes:

  • Morning routine: a quick reminder of my daily morning routine (a topic for another day)
  • Plan for today: my initial plan for the day
  • Notes of the day: the "random" notes I've taken
  • Done today: what I've achieved
  • Discovered today: what I've discovered, learned about
  • Interesting links: wonders of the Web I've stumbled upon
  • Gratitude: what I'm grateful for
  • Shut down routine: a quick reminder of my evening routine (again a topic for another day)

I keep my daily notes structure quite basic. Maybe the above looks too complicated. If so, don't worry. Write what you want, how you want to write it. It's your journal, so it can be as messy or as structured as you want!

But again, note-taking is personal. Experiment to find what suits you!

If you want to learn more about the how then check out the book called How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. It's an awesome reference to take better notes.

I don't know what to write

Avoid putting too much pressure on yourself. Journaling is not supposed to be stressful. We don't always have something worth adding to our journals. We're sometimes stressed, sometimes overworked, sometimes too tired. It's okay not to write when you don't feel like it.

If you struggle to write, start with what's in your mind right now:

  • How do you feel?
  • Do you know why you're feeling like that?
  • What has happened in the last hour?
  • Was there anything interesting? Why? Why not?
  • What would you have liked to happen instead?
  • Do you have ideas to change that for the next hour?
  • Have you achieved your main goal for the day? If not, why?
  • Are you proud of something or someone?

Another approach that can be useful is to write morning pages. Check out the book about that too. Sometimes, those can help you walk past the famous writer's block.

In any case, don't blame yourself. There's no need. It's okay if the well is dry for now.

Journaling, learning, and knowledge management

It's pretty obvious that the education system is broken. We all need to take ownership of our knowledge and invest in ourselves. As a lifelong learner, my Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system is very important to me. It serves as my second brain.

Note-taking and PKM help better engage with content that we explore, internalize and retain more knowledge. The list of benefits doesn't stop there. Writing is thinking. Whenever I learn something, I express it using my own words. This allows me to better internalize ideas. When I do so, I take rough notes. Those don't have to be perfect; it doesn't matter. What matters is that the ideas are there and that my future self can understand those again later. In the PKM ecosystem, those are often fleeting notes and literature notes. Check out the two articles of Nick Ang to learn more about note types in a PKM.

There's more to it. Describing my discoveries as part of my journal allows me to maintain context about what I was doing around the time I learned something. This contextual information is very useful. My daily notes as the main entry point into my personal knowledge base. Here's how I conceptualize this:

Daily notes as entry point in the personal knowledge base

Whenever I take daily notes, I write down thoughts, ideas, or discoveries that I've made. That information is part of a clear timeline. And the surrounding notes capture the context. I can re-discover what frame of mind I was in, what my goals were, when and where I first heard about something, etc.

As I review, refine, condense and crystallize those rough notes, they ultimately turn into more permanent ones (atomic ones!). They integrate my personal knowledge base. When that transition occurs, I can link those notes to their origin in my daily notes. Digital tools like Obsidian and Roam make this very easy. But it is also doable using methods like Zettelkasten.

This means that I have end-to-end traceability about the knowledge in my second brain. I find this particularly empowering; especially as a content creator.

Over time, building a second brain helps to connect new ideas to older ones. This in turn reinforces learnings. By linking ideas together, we can create more connections in our minds. This allows us to apply ideas from one field into another, and derive new thoughts and ideas. Wonderful ❤️

Journaling, personal health, and growth

Daily notes are especially useful to be mindful about our own well-being. For instance, by evaluating our stress levels and keeping note of stressors in our lives, we can identify patterns. By exploring those, we can then think about counter-measures to live a more peaceful life. This works with other health issues as well.

A while ago I noticed a pattern with my 11yo son. He was regularly asking me to play video games. But, each time, I was too busy. There was always something I needed to finish first. He waited a bit, then asked again, but I was still busy. I would say "I'll be there in a few minutes", and always kept being late. Out of frustration, he would then annoy his sister and make her mad. This led to anger and caused a lot of stress at home. He needed my attention, and I wasn't present enough. In fact, all I needed to do was to plan ahead and adjust my work schedule to be more available for him. Since I did that, we had much less drama. Without my journal, I would not have noticed the pattern. But since I wrote regularly and had context, my notes helped me understand what I was doing wrong. It may be a silly example, but I have countless other stories where note-taking and journaling have helped me.

Journaling is great for personal development and can help us grow as individuals. Our journal is a safe place to express ourselves. Writing in the journal really means conversing with ourselves. Moreover, it also helps to better take care of our health.

Journaling and productivity

I must confess: I'm a productivity freak (I know, it's bad 😂). Journaling is actually a core tenet of my personal productivity system. Let me explain why.

At the end of the day, as part of my "shut down" routine, I take a few moments to review my day, and think about my goals for the next. The review gives me the opportunity to identify the reasons for which I couldn't achieve my goals, and to think about possible improvements in my workflow. Done regularly, this helps me be more reasonable. It prevents me from ending the week wondering why I couldn't get anything meaningful done. This keeps my inner critic in check. On the other hand, thinking and planning ahead helps me remove anxiety for the next morning. I enjoy starting a new day, already clear on what I want to achieve and why. This alone is very powerful.

One book that I can't stop recommending is Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. The main point is to define one highlight for the day; a single thing that you want to progress towards and put most of your energy into. This helps to reduce the noise and better focus our attention.

We make more tangible progress on focusing on less:

Picture courtesy of Jungwoo Hong
: https://unsplash.com/@hjwinunsplsh

By the way, that is the core idea shared by Essentialism, an awesome book written by Greg McKeown that I also recommend.

The list of goals for the next day is just a plan for myself. The list isn't set in stone. I usually course-correct as the day goes by. Nothing wrong with that.

But it doesn't stop there.

Periodic reviews and planning ahead

Daily notes and daily reviews make a huge difference for personal development and productivity. If you want to go to the next level though, you should consider additional types of periodic notes: weekly, monthly and yearly.

My personal productivity system relies on regular reviews, inspired by truly agile approaches and innovation principles:

  • Think
  • Plan
  • Act
  • Review
  • Adapt
  • Repeat

As I've mentioned, I try to plan my days ahead of time. I actually do the same for my weeks, months, and years. I sit down every week/month/year and think ahead. My aim is to align my actions with my short, mid, and long-term goals. Long-term goals are my north star.

To ensure that I don't deviate too much for too long, I also regularly review my notes. I summarize my achievements, key learnings, and check if I actually made progress towards my goals.

This ceremony helps me to stay focused and to keep improving. Usually, it's also the moment where I realize that I'm often overly optimistic about what I can achieve in any given period of time. It's humbling, but also interesting to set more realistic expectations for the future. As Amara’s Law states:

Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.

Roy Amara

Here is the template that I use for weekly, monthly, and yearly notes/reviews:

  • Goals: what I would like to achieve
  • Achievements: what I actually managed to do
  • Challenges: difficulties I've faced
  • Discoveries: wonders I've discovered
  • Gratitude: what I'm grateful for

Again, quite basic and approachable. My goal is not to write an essay each week/month/year, but to surface what's essential for me.

Naming scheme

In case you're interested, here's the naming scheme I use for my periodic notes:

  • Daily: yyyy-MM-dd (e.g., 2021-10-07)
  • Weekly: yyyy-Wxy (e.g., 2021-W40)
  • Monthly: yyyy-MM (e.g., 2021-10)
  • Yearly: yyyy

Simple, yet effective. To order things, I also create folders

Tools I use

Tools are not what I want to focus on in this article. But maybe you'd like to know what I use for digital note-taking and to maintain my PKM system. Currently, I've settled on Obsidian along with the Periodic Notes community plugin.

The Periodic Notes plugin is useful because it can be used to quickly create periodic notes according to pre-defined day/week/month/year templates. This helps me avoid wasting time copying and pasting things around:

Periodic Notes plugin configuration

If there's interest, I'll write an article about the myriad of note-taking tools that exist out there.

PKM Community

A while ago, I've created a new community for people interested in getting started or getting better at Personal Knowledge Management. My intent is to create a space where lifelong learners can share ideas, workflows, tools, interesting articles, tips and hacks about knowledge management and how to build a second brain.

The community is free for everyone to join. All you need to do is to click on the following link: https://dsebastien.net/pkm-community

Conclusion

In this article, I've briefly (to say the least 😂) looked at the history of note-taking and at the fragility of our memory. I've introduced you to the basics of journaling and of personal knowledge management. I've given you some tips and tricks about how to get started, how to avoid writer's block.

I've told you why taking daily notes can help us grow. We discovered how it can improve our well-being, help us retain more information, and become more productive. It bears repeating: journaling is a mindfulness practice. It forces us to actually think about ourselves and our experience of life.

I've made the link between journaling, knowledge management, and learning. Those go hand-in-hand. I've explained how periodic notes anchor our learnings within a specific context. Along with that, I've shared the templates, naming schemes, and tools that I use.

Finally, I've touched on how journaling fits into my personal productivity system. In particular, how periodic notes/reviews help me stay on track and achieve my goals.

I sincerely hope that this article will be useful to you and that you'll consider experimenting with journaling, and maybe even joining our PKM community on Slack.

That’s it for today!

PS: check out the Dev Concepts collection of e-books, join the Software Crafters community, the Personal Knowledge Management community, and come say hi on Twitter!

References

Discuss on TwitterEdit on GitHub