Journaling To Done (Getting things done with Journaling)

Nov 27, 2008 by

Do you regret on the mistakes you made? Did you forget about what you have to do? Are you making lots of assumption and decision you need to keep track of? Or do you need a place to put the information you need?

If you’ve never had any place to put all those things, most likely you will put it in your brain. Let’s see what David Allen said about that…

It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on. And it only adds to your anxieties about what you should be doing and aren’t.
~David Allen (Getting Things Done)

David Allen emphasized the need of a system to get things done. We need it to track all the things we need to remember. With a reliable system, we can let go our mind to focus only on one thing at a time, which is the next action of what we can do now.

Journaling To Done, or I call it JTD, is a system that I implement to work effectively as a software developer. It helps me to my day-to-day progress. It’s a tool for me to record the assumptions, the thinking process, the decisions, things I have to do, and things I learned all in one journal.

Today, I want to share with you in this article. It is also my tips on personal excellence, a contribution to Luciano’s Personal Excellence Project.

Let’s Journaling To Done (JTD)

Keeping a diary supports personal development.
~Stefan Sagmeister @TED Talk via 43Folders

What do you need to do to get started?

1. Get a note-book.

Pen and paper is still the faster way to journal. We can bring it anywhere, while traveling or during meeting. And it’s still one of the best GTD application according to Lifehacker.

With pen and paper, we can also add symbols or drawings easily. They captures our attention easily, and they speak thousand words.

For JTD, I will suggest to use a note-book with separate left column (see the image besides).

The left column is needed for you to draw symbols that you will recognize with a glance looking back at your journal. You can create your own symbols and add more of them as you start writing and find the need. That’s why it’s important for you to…

2. Leave the first page for symbol legends

As you write, you will make use various kinds of symbols. And you might find a need to refer back to this page to know what symbols you have created.

It will help you to standardize and remember the symbols. Attached is an example of the legend I have created after I started journaling at work.

3. Start writing

With that you can simply start writing. Put the date when you journal, and writing as you like. Journaling is for your own consumption, so don’t get caught up too much by grammar or sentence structure.

Don’t be too hard on yourselves as well. Flow with your thought, write down all the considerations you have, and you will see how things not as complex as you think it is. Writing makes thing simpler than it seems.

Why should you write for yourself?

  • Writing de-clutters your mind. Often we think that a problem is complex until we write it down. Once writing it down, we will see the options available clearly. If needed, simply make assumption that leads to your decision. This will make some grounds for your decision and actions that you can explain to your boss, your team, your friend, or even yourself.
  • Writing helps you to remember. Things written can be remembered better. When it’s something you need to remember or refer back, you can always use highlighter to help you identify them.
  • Writing helps you learn from your mistake. Part of growing is learning from our own mistakes and writing is a good way to “teach” ourselves about them. It’s a lesson of what you will do the next time you face the same situation. It’s also about what you can do to fix the situation. This will help you remember not to make the same mistakes again.

4. Don’t aim for perfection

No, I don’t ask you to write everything that you’ve done. It’s not supposed to be a perfect record of what you have done over the day. Use your journal as a de-cluttering tool. Consider how it can help you to make decision, identify next actions or tasks to complete, write down info you need to refer back, or learn from your mistakes and not to repeat it again. Journal with a purpose and enjoy the process, don’t let JTD burden you with another task you have to do. Be experimental and find out how journaling will help you the best.

5. End with next action

This is the main distinctive point between JTD and simply journaling. The writing and de-cluttering process are meant to lead you to the action you need to do. With the assumptions you make, the idea you have, the consideration on all the options, they should lead you to the next action you can do. You can have one or more actions, but you need to identify what you can start doing now. After you identify them, you need to drop your pen, leave JTD, and start doing what you need to do, now!

6. Use post-it notes to process your distraction

Yellow post-it notes
Creative Commons License photo credit: net_efekt

As you start writing, you might remember things that are not supposed to get your attention. These are some examples of the distractions you may have:

  • reminder of other things you’ve got to complete, or
  • an idea for other commitment you have, or even
  • emotional baggage and inner distraction, such as anxiety, worry or depression, disappointment with someone, or unspoken words or feelings you have. It might be working to simply ignore them, but it will be better if you process them. You need to make it complete so that you can concentrate back on the thing you need to do. Express your emotion, fear, hatred, or whatever it is while you’re writing, seek deeper motive, and love yourself back again. You can always end with a motivational message for yourself, quoting a verse from bible or that wise and encouraging quote you remember.

As you see, all of them are distractions, things that can steal us from our focus and productivity. The idea is to let distraction as a distraction. Write them on a post-it note that you can throw away after you write. Alternatively, if it’s something important, you can always gather it back and paste it somewhere else. Maybe on the later part of the journal when you make time to process them, but not now!

7. Create bookmarks/TOC with post-it notes

Another usage of post-it notes is to create bookmarks. If you have written something important in your journal, you may want to refer back to it again some other day. For that purpose, pick a post-it note, and paste it on the page with that piece of info. Paste it in such a way that it can be seen without opening the book.

If you think that putting bookmarks is troublesome and untidy, an alternative is creating table of contents with the post-it notes. Even if you don’t put page number on your journal, you can always refer the notes with the date you wrote them. If you have written lots of pages within the day, put the page number starting from the journal you have on that day. For example, page number 1127-05 means that the info can be found in fifth page of 27th November journal.

Write the reference in a post-it note, so that you can always organize that reference later, paste it on different part of the note-book. It can be on the first page, together with the legends, front or back cover of the note-book, or anywhere else within or outside the book where you can find them easily.

Creative Commons License photo credit: apesara

Concluding thoughts

JTD may not be a complete solution on getting things done. It may have to work together with other of your GTD system, such as calendar or to-do list program.

But JTD helps. It helps you make a complicated decision in your mind into clear options for easier decision making. It helps you to focus on solving the problem and find the next actions that you can do.

I hope that you will find this tip as something useful on your personal excellence. Enjoy the process, be experimental and do share with us if you find some tweaking to improve the process. For now, start journaling to done!

For your success,

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  1. Very good tip! Good luck!

    PS: I have subscribed to your feeds!

  2. Robert A.

    Thanks Sandeep! Glad you enjoyed my blog!

  3. Dan

    Great article.

    For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version and iCal are available too.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the “symbol legend” idea.

    I have a notebook to keep all my things and thought in but it’s still mess up.

    The idea of putting symbols in it really helps a lot. 🙂

    Raymond Chuas last blog post..5 Simple Steps To Eliminate Stress and Skyrocket Your Self-Confidence

  5. I keep a notebook with me at all times. Your idea of having symbols is good! I am going to try that.

    Shamelle -EnhanceLifes last blog post..Are You Constantly At The Mercy Of Circumstances?

  6. A short pencil is better than a long memory!

    rummusers last blog post..Giving And Receiving.

  7. I think writing for growth can be extremely powerful.

  8. I do something like this just in my daily work notes, but I use letters for various meanings in my margins. It works great though. I like the idea of using symbols, it would also keep me more entertained if I’m in a less than stellar meeting! 🙂

  9. Hi Robert, you have outlined this method very clear. I also call it as PDCA (Plan Do Check Action) system.

    Arswinos last blog post..Dare To Make Mistake, The Next Step Towards The Top of Success

  10. I have always been using pen and paper, nothing can really replace that for me. I have a very small notepad in my bag, I use it every single day. Probably the most valuable tool I have, a lot more valuable than my Mac 🙂

    Very interesting symbols, I am going to try to use them myself. The only problem is that I am really bad at drawing, and I won’t probably understand my own symbols 🙂

    Jens P. Bergets last blog post..How To Get Noticed On A Bulletin Board

  11. Robert A.

    Hi Jens,
    😀 mmm, maybe you can use this journaling as a way to practice your drawing as well 🙂 legend is helpful for me to recognize my drawing as well.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  12. Hi Robert,

    Yes, that might be a good idea. I really suck at drawing 🙂

    – jens –

    Jens P. Bergets last blog post..Definition of Benchmarking

  13. This was definitely a good read. I blog so I never really thought of journaling.  But keeping a journal with symbols and a key just makes sense.  And it might actually allow me to get some of the clutter that seems to be swimming around and leading to very strange dreams OUT of my head.


  14. Thank you I have to post this on my blog to for my readers!
    .-= Woodworker´s last blog ..Review Visconti Burgundy (red) =-.

  15. George

    Great post!



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