I journalled daily for a year and this is what I learned

Posted on: March 28, 2022

I’ve been journalling daily for 365 days. As habits go, it’s one that’s stuck. What have I learned from it?

Why journal

The reason time appears to move so slowly when you’re young, is that so much of what we experience is for the first time. Your mind works hard to learn and store that data for use next time.

As we grow older, much of life is done on auto-pilot. And for good reason. It would be exhausting otherwise. Humans like patterns and routines, because they’re easy to reproduce efficiently. But it’s one of the reasons life can appear to fly by as you get older. Things literally happen without you consciously being aware of it.

Journalling as a practice encourages you to take stock of your day, notice things, and capture them. This helps build better memories and prompts you to do things more intentionally.

I’ve always struggled with memory recall. It’s there, but hazy and the more I try to think about it, the murkier it gets. Articulating and recounting your thoughts each day not only acknowledges them, making them more prominent in your mind, but also gives you a tangible method for retrieving that information in the future.

Some people like to gratitude journal, whereby you take stock of things that you’re thankful for in your life. Whilst I appreciate this noble practice, I don’t formally do this myself. However, I do like to take stock of my achievements, however small. Simply acknowledging them by writing them down can provide a quick win.

The things you worry about today will not even register as problems in a year. Journalling is a great way to illustrate this, by looking back and seeing how you’ve progressed with your ability to deal with the emotion and trials and tribulations of life.

What I write

What I log has evolved over time, and this is exactly the point. You don’t know everything you want to capture at the start. But as you begin to see patterns evolving and things you’d like to track, you can simply add another data point (and in some cases, retroactively backfill if you have access to that data).

Events

If something significant happens outside of the ordinary, I’ll briefly describe how it went down, and typically share some thoughts on it.

Emotions

If I’m going through a hard time mentally, I find it a worthwhile experience to write down my thoughts. This doesn’t have to be organised or articulate, anything that helps clear my mind.

TV watched

I like to keep tabs on a) what I’ve watched and b) the frequency in which I’m watching it. How much time I spend watching TV can often be an indicator of my mental state.

Podcasts listened to

As with TV, I love to keep tabs of what I’m listening to, and what I haven’t listened to in a while.

Film reviews

I’ve used Letterboxd as a service for reviewing films I've watched long before I started to journal. But, as with TV, I like to keep tabs of the frequency in which I watch films.

To-dos completed & remaining

I’ve used To-doist for some time to keep track of (typically) long-running to-dos. I’m not a heavy to-do list user, but I started to keep a list as trying to remember long-term items in my head was causing me anxiety. At the end of each day I keep track of how many items I’ve completed that day and how many are remaining. This provides me with potentially useful metrics on productivity over time.

Food cooked

I’ve done nothing with this data yet, but I decided around the same time as I started journalling, that I’d track the meals that I cook & eat. It’s mostly used as an to aid meal planning and for when I need some inspiration.

Tags

This is a really useful one, because it allows me to see themes over time. Paragraphs are hard to parse en masse and even harder to find patterns within. I use tags as a summary of what my day consisted of. I add new tags as and when I see fit, but I currently have 18, and I haven’t added any new ones for a while. A day will typically consist of 3-5 tags.

How I log

I use databases in Notion. Notion is a lovely bit of software, but I have recently experienced some slowness, particularly on Android, which has caused me to reconsider its long term viability. In general, though, I love it.

One of the most useful features of Notion’s databases is its multiple views. Views help to visualise the database you want to see. I find the calendar views particularly useful. For example, I have views that show:

  • Social calendar - Since working fully remote, I’m more mindful of how often I get out and do something social with people outside of my immediate family. A calendar helps me to quickly see how social I’ve been recently
  • Health & Relationships calendar - this has been a really interesting one I added a few months ago, to help highlight periods of mental fatigue. If I’ve had a particularly hard day mentally, or my wife and I have had a hard time communicating (kids, amirite) I’ll tag the day with “health” or “relationships”. All these days show up in this calendar.
  • To-dos completed calendar - completed to-dos can loosely be interpreted as periods of increased productivity. Trends of completed to-dos allow me to reflect and maybe even harness that productivity.

Notion’s API inspired my Weekly Feed and its ability to export pages in Markdown makes it a wonderful tool for writing blog posts (including this one right now).

How my entries have developed

My journal entries started off very brief. Descriptive, but no real explanation or commentary. What started as succinct sentences is now often longer form paragraphs, with more contemplation. Over time I’ve found my journal to be more of an outlet, especially during periods of mental hardship.

Podcasts listened to got tacked on as a property 6 or so months in, when I realised I was listening to more podcasts than I was watching TV, mostly due to an increase in running. I was able to backfill episodes by consulting my Spotify history. This actually prompted me to switch from Spotify to Google Podcasts due to how difficult it was to view listening history. I find podcasts serve as an authentic indicator of my personality and interests.

What I’ve learned

It’s hard to keep a daily habit going for a year, but it gets easier once you get over the hump. Consistently logging at a particular time & place in your daily routine goes a long way, as it becomes ingrained and habitual.

I learned social time must be scheduled and initiated. I work from home, and have 2 young children; there is very little opportunity for serendipitous social interactions in my life at the moment. A social calendar helps me see at a glance how I’m doing at keeping up my social obligations, and if I delve a little deeper, which individual people I could do with making contact with. I’m not an overly social person, but I can identify the links between my mental health and lack of social interaction.

In hindsight, I could’ve worded this tweet better. But in essence, productivity is a bi-product of happiness and contentedness. I will put a task off due to “just not being in the mood”; equally I can knock out a task with little pre-planning or warning, just because my mood is high.

I don’t have the data visualisations to back this hypothesis up yet, but with the data I’ve collected over the past 12 months, I would love to start doing this and drawing more conclusions similar to this one.

Relaxing evening time with your partner is happy time. Since my daughter was born, my wife and I have had little time to do our usual evening routine of watching an episode of a TV show or a film. It’s easy to take this time for granted, because I really miss it since it’s been absent in my life.

What I could do better

Journalling is a great tool for remembering the various thoughts that occur during the day, but only if you remember to write them down at the time! Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and I know there was something that popped into my head earlier in the day that’s worth putting a pin in, but invariably it’s now gone.

I could definitely improve my process by jotting down notes in the entry throughout the day, and then collating and forming into proper sentences later in the day.

Occasionally I’ll forget to make my daily entry, and it always surprises me how much harder it is to recount the events of the previous day, certainly with any degree of detail. The mind quickly sheds the mundanities of the day.

As I alluded to earlier, paragraphs are not the easiest way to spot trends and visualise data. As I spot new daily patterns, I could really do with creating a new property for it. Not only can this be much more easily interpreted over time, but it’s a useful prompt when starting a new entry each day.

I’ve toyed with the idea of a “mood” property, where I summarise my mood at the end of the day as Happy, Neutral or Sad for example. I’ve not pulled the trigger on this yet, but I should be more open to collecting this sort of data, even if it ends up not returning any useful conclusions.