Tracking Your Success: Why You Should Keep a Daily Journal

It may seem a self-centered pastime, but keeping a journal is actually an excellent goal-setting tool. It can help you figure out a direction for your life, and then guide you where you want to go.

A journal you use for that purpose – recording, revising, and recommitting yourself to your goals – becomes a log of your successes, observations, achievements, problem-solving skills, and best ideas that you can refer back to again and again. But you can also include less serious subjects.

In my earlier years, I kept journals sporadically, usually when traveling or involved in some interesting project. I kept a journal for two years when I lived in Africa teaching English and philosophy at the University of Chad. I kept a journal twice during summer vacations – once in the French countryside and another time in Rome.

But when I started writing ETR, about 10 years ago, I began keeping a journal every day. I have done so pretty much nonstop since then.

Before my thumbs became arthritic, I wrote my journals in a book with a fountain pen. Now I do it on my computer. I liked the feel of writing out my words. And I drew illustrations, indulging my artistic fantasies. I can’t do that anymore, but I can import illustrations from the Internet.

I use my journal to get my day started. As a writer, I face the same blank page/screen every writer faces each morning. Rather than wait for the proverbial flash of inspiration, I begin by opening up yesterday’s journal entry, reading it, and using it as a springboard for the writing I will do that day.

My first effort is a sort of obsessive-compulsive account of the hours that have passed since yesterday’s journal entry: what I’ve eaten, what exercise I’ve done, what work I’ve done, etc. This is not meant for anyone else to read. (I’d be embarrassed if anyone did read it.) It serves to rev up my idling mind and limber up my fingers. I spend five minutes doing this, which is usually enough.

Next, I edit something that I wrote the day before. Often, it’s a poem or short story. But sometimes it’s an essay for ETR. This requires a bit more mental acuity. After a half-hour of that, I can feel the creative engine kicking into third gear.

Then I start my real writing. Fiction or non-fiction, this is the most important part of my writing day.

My journal is also the place where I track my health information – my weight, my blood-sugar levels, my doctors’ appointments and results – as well as the progress I’ve made on other goals in business and my personal life.

I used to keep my goals, objectives, and daily task list separately on a notepad. This past year, I’ve begun to include them in my journal, and that has worked out very well.

My sister A, who is an art director for theater and film, e-mails her family copies of her daily journal when she is on set. These are filled with photos and comments about her unusual life. I’ve never used my journal as a communication tool, but I can see from her example how it could be done.

To me, a journal should be like your house. It should be filled with interesting things that reflect the person you are. I hate houses that are designed by professional decorators. You walk through them and they all look the same. You know the people who own them, but you can find no evidence of their personalities where they live.

Keeping a journal can help you change your life. As I said, it can help you do better work, achieve your goals, communicate with friends and family, and get your working day moving. And it’s a terrific way to leave behind a record of who you were and what you were doing during your voyage through life.

If you are keeping a journal or thinking about starting one, here are three ways to make that journal work for you.

3 Powerful Ways to Benefit From Your Journal

1. Keep track of your goals.

Every month, I consult my list of yearly goals and create a list of monthly objectives. I keep both my yearly goals and monthly objectives on notepaper – a throwback to my handwritten days. But then, based on my monthly objectives, I put together my weekly and daily task lists – and those are input directly into my journal.

I highlight my priorities on my daily task list in yellow, and try to accomplish them all early in the day. And as I complete each task, I change its color from red to black on screen (the equivalent of scratching it out). This is a technique I’d recommend to you. The point is to give yourself a little psychological reward for completing your work.

At the end of each day, I note which tasks I’ve completed and which I’ve failed to complete. I also note how long it took me to complete each task. This helps me get better at estimating time commitments in the future.

The goal-setting aspect of my journal has become the most productive part. It may not always be the most fun, but it’s critical to the success of my long-term plans.

2. Stay creative and keep your writing fresh.

Writing in your journal every morning gets and keeps your creative juices flowing. You can record ideas for new products or services… draft memos to your team or letters to colleagues… jot down outlines for books you want to write… even practice your copywriting.

Copywriter John Forde recommends writing three pages of sales copy a day. He says it will keep your imagination in top form. I believe he’s right.

3. Remember things you’ve learned, books you’ve read, and observations you’ve made.

We all have great thoughts now and then. And what do we do with those thoughts? Scribble them on scraps of paper and then lose them, right? Nowadays, whenever I get a good idea, I make note of it by entering it in my journal and putting NTS (note to self) in front of it, highlighted in yellow. It is easy to spot these highlighted entries, so I can be sure they will be put on my goal list and not forgotten about (like so many of my good ideas were before I kept a journal).

I also record interesting facts and figures from my reading. (I make it a point to locate at least one useful fact or idea in every newspaper or magazine or business book that I read.) And I use my journal to list recommendations that I read or hear about: a new wine to try, a new book, a new CD from a favorite singer, a new restaurant, an exotic destination that I want to travel to.

It’s amazing how much good stuff you can accumulate once you get into the habit of putting things that interest you into your journal and highlighting them for future use.

So those are three important benefits of keeping a journal – but there are many more. A journal can also be a place to:

• record snippets of conversations that you can use later when writing your next (or first) novel or screenplay

• list reasons why you deserve a big salary increase (or reasons why you shouldn’t be let go during your company’s upcoming layoffs)

• identify all your assets and their locations, so your spouse or children can get to them in an emergency

• index your favorite recipes, quotations, images, etc.

• record the good deeds you’ve done and the blessings you’ve received

Keeping a journal takes about 5 to 30 minutes a day – well worth it when you consider the payoff: It will help you make better plans and accomplish more with your time.

And when you get much older, a journal can give you an unexpected bonus: hours and hours of fun, reminiscing about your rich, rewarding, productive life.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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  • Hi Michael,

    a daily journal has another added benefit: it can actually improve your memory, because – as a side effect or writing down the events of the day – you also “train” your brain to recall what happened in a more detailed manner than you normally would.

    I actually like to RECORD my journal. There are scientific studies that show that your brain is most active when you speak freely – it’s when the most “connections” get activated, the most synapses fire off.

    When recording my journal, I find that I tend to go off on tangents way more, and it’s harder to be as precise as with the written word. But with time and practice, the quality of my spoken words enhances. (You even could have your recordings transcribed – but then the question is: do you want something as private as a journal to be transcribed by someone else?)

    Thanks a bundle for sharing the process that you use. It’s interesting that you and many other great writes basically use the first minutes of writing just to “warm up”, before they really get into the meat.

    “I also note how long it took me to complete each task.”
    Wow, this is very powerful and I never did that! This is very valuable, specially for someone as “jumpy” and “chaotic” as me.

    All the best,
    Joe Paz
    The Memory Improvement Man