Task Management and Journaling: Your Actualizer
Another powerful personal habit is a combination of two habits: daily task management and journaling. If you already have both daily task management and journaling routines, you may find this advice redundant, though perhaps you’ll get some value from comparing this system to your own. When you start both of these habits and apply them daily for a month or more, we bet your personal effectiveness and self-understanding and self-control will grow immensely. Looking back at your previous months without either or both of these habits, you may be surprised at how much more you now get accomplished and how much new insight you have on yourself. You may even ask why you didn’t start these habits earlier, and want to share them with others.
Task management is a set of routines to handle information, workflow, and priority-setting in your life. We recommend starting with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) (2015), which offers a simple, popular, and very effective system. GTD, as its aficionados call it, also has many online support communities and digital tools that you can use to set up your own version of the system.
Journaling is based on the observation that when we externalize our thoughts about who we are and what we do, they improve in quality and clarity, and we can start to organize and review them via methods that are in many ways better, more deliberate, and more accurate than our memories. According to psychologist Adam Grant, organizational psychologist Karl Weick, who studies sensemaking, the construction of shared narratives, is fond of saying, “How can I know who I am until I see what I do? How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?”
Journaling can help you understand your true history and present state, but keep in mind that you will at first want to construct a very biased and self-serving narrative. Try to resist this, as it is self-defeating. The more you include the words and criticisms of others in your journal, and photos and video in your timeline (not your public Facebook timeline for your friends, which is too often an exercise in vanity and posing, but your private timeline, for yourself), the better you’ll be able to see yourself as you really are.
Eventually we’ll see many more people running wearable lifelogs, digitally recording much more of their lives, with software automatically summarizing and offering relevant past information for our current use and review. See Bell and Gemmell’s Total Recall, 2009 for one take on the future of lifelogs. In the meantime, a good, honest, and brief written journal is a great start, even if you only get a few sentences a day recording your highs and lows, events you are grateful for and things you think you may need to improve.
Journaling also uses a classic three step process of change management and social action: The process of Caring, Counting, and Acting. To effect change in any system, first you must decide to care about it, then to understand it you begin to count it (describe and quantify its critical processes). This in turn gives you the evidence to intelligently improve your actions.
Once you decide you care about better understanding and improving yourself, your next step is to commit to writing down (in effect, counting) a few things about your daily activities. The process of writing gives you much deeper and better insight into your present abilities, as you must use words to describe them (words you can communicate to others). It also gives you a far better and longer memory. In your reflective moments, you can look back (the last day, the last week, the last year) for patterns and trends in what you’ve written, and use that data to make more useful goals, find strategies for multi-solving goals, and improve your future actions.
Have you noticed that some days you have amazingly good performance, and others you are in the dumps? Would you like to get better at discovering and bringing into your life behaviors and strategies that help you have more of those peak days? Would you like evidence that your behaviors and strategies are working, or aren’t working, beyond your fallible memory, and the self-serving stories about ourselves that we all generate post hoc (after the fact) to rationalize our past behavior and actions? If so, journaling is for you.
You need only make a very brief account of your daily actions, including a few words that self-assess how well you’ve done at prioritizing your day and executing your plans. Kathleen Adam’s Journal to the Self (1990) is a good introduction to journaling. Combine GTD with some form of journaling, and you’ve got a powerful self-exploration and productivity system in one package. If you are willing to try experiments and to use digital devices in your journaling, you may enjoy the Quantified Self community, a global group of self-trackers who continually seek ways to get useful insights out of their personal life data.
You can call your combined task management log and daily journal your “Actualizer”, or action realizer. It’s a very simple system. Try to write an average of just ten sentences or sentence fragments a day in your Actualizer, each sentence describing when, what, and how you’ve done various projects during the day. This habit is the heart of journaling. The more you do it, the more foresighted you can become.
Keep your Actualizer online, in a tool like Google Docs, in a few browser tabs you can quickly add to throughout the day. We recommend you divide your Actualizer into the following five documents. The first three (Actualizers I-III), plus your online Calendar, should stay as open tabs in your browser that you use throughout your day. Here are the five documents we recommend:
Actualizer I – Activity Log (Five Sections, Google Document): At the top of Actualizer I, keep a brief list of your top 1. Icons (inspirational sayings) then a few 2. Plans, Goals and Priorities, then a brief summary of your 3. Traits and Skills (self-assessed, or via tests like StrengthsFinder), then a short list of 4. Healthy Habits that you try to keep. You will see Sections 1-4 every time you open Actualizer I, and they will motivate you to do better. Don’t let these sections get too long. You don’t want to have to scroll down too far to get to Section 5. As they grow, move the long versions to a separate document. Section 5. Daily Activity Log and Journal, is the main section of Actualizer I. In this section, list out every day of the upcoming month in day/date/month format (e.g, Mon 1 Mar, then Tue 2 Mar) in bold. Under each day, in normal type, you will add your ten or more sentences a day. Put the times of starting and stopping important things as well. Feel free to write a little about how you feel throughout the day as well. If you are feeling low, cranky, or tired, note it, get up, take a break, and make a note of when you’re back, and if your mood or energy has improved.
Actualizer II – Lists (Three Sections, Google Document): 6. Waiting for Others Activities, 7. Next Actions and 8. Near-Term Agenda. This is where you make your lists. First, lists of activities you are Waiting for Others on, so you can periodically help them stay on task. Lists of your Next Actions that aren’t already written ahead in your daily activity log, and lists of Near-Term Agenda items you plan to do as soon as time and resources become available. These three sections are GTD categories. Feel free to skim Getting Things Done (2015) if they aren’t obvious or logical to you.
Actualizer III – Hours and Counts (One Section, Google Spreadsheet): 9. Activity Accounting (Hours and Counts). This is a spreadsheet, with two weeks of columns, and a number of action item rows, where you count time spent (hours logged) OR numbers of episodes of important activities during the day. You can break this into 14 day periods, and use the SUM command to make automatic row totals in the right margin for each period. Keep your goals for each of these actions in the row titles in the left margin. In the rows, you log daily hours spent on important actions (work by project, reading time, social time, etc.), or the number of times you do something good for you (like exercise, nap, or take work breaks). You can also count, in red, a few actions you are trying to cut down (TV watching, staying up too late, addictions, etc.). One of these red rows should be reserved for counting every day you failed to use your Actualizer. That was a day when you didn’t have sufficient self-awareness, a day when your personal foresight was of lower quality. By counting those days, you will generate motivation to minimize them. Every fourteen days, look at your totals, change your next two week goals if necessary, and resolve to do a bit better.
Actualizer IV – Someday/Maybe. (One Section, Google Document): 10. Someday/Maybe Plans and Ideas. This is place to put interesting plans and ideas that you think you might one day do, but which you don’t feel any urge to do soon. It’s also where you move Near-Term Agenda items if you don’t execute on them within a reasonable period of time, such as six months, in order to get them out of your mind. This document is only open when you want to look at your longer-term ideas and plans.
Actualizer V – Archive. (12 months, Google Document). Google docs get slow if they get too big. So once a month, cut and paste last month’s Daily Activity Log notes out of Section 5 in Actualizer I, and into a (Current Year) Actualizer Archive document. Make a new document for each year of your life. When you transfer each month into your Archive, write a brief summary paragraph, three sentences minimum, on last month’s performance, the highs and lows for you, and what you want to do different next month. This brief reflection and review is a very helpful habit, and it will give you new ideas for getting better.
Google Calendar. Calendars are another critical tool for personal organization. Consider recording all your critical appointments in your calendar first, then your Actualizer second. Use notifications if you have a problem with time consciousness, and push them to your phone. Wear your phone on your belt, if need be, or get a phone watch, so your notifications are always with you.
Try to start each day with at least one project, taken off of a list, which is an important priority, but not an urgent one. Recall our discussion of Stephen Covey’s First Things First (1994). This should be a short project, usually an hour or less, that you’ve picked proactively out of your Next Actions or Near-Term Agenda, or that you came up with that morning, or scribbled on a notepad by the bed the night before. Keeping a notepad by the bed will help you get a good night’s sleep, as it gets things out of your brain and into your task management system.
When you consciously choose to start each day with a planned activity, the rest of your day may end up being reactive, but at least the beginning of each day starts out in a prioritized, proactive manner. On good days, you can keep priority consciousness throughout the entire day, the bedrock of personal foresight.
Ten sentences of Activity Log each day, counting the hours and instances of those things you care most about daily, and one summary paragraph a month are a very small commitment of daily time and energy. What’s hard about journaling is not the time or energy needed, but rather, the mental effort, the willpower (self-control) to make the decision. It is the mental decision to care about observing and improving your own thoughts and behaviors that is the hardest part. Make a daily commitment to yourself to try this experiment for three months, and we predict you’ll want to stick with it. If you do, you’ll be significantly more foresighted for the rest of your life.
The extent to which you are able to follow your Actualizer habit is an excellent indicator of how conscious (self-aware) you are, and your level of willpower and energy each day. Those days when you’ve written less than ten sentences, or nothing at all are days when your self-awareness, focus, or energy was low, you were overwhelmed by urgent events, or you decided you needed a break. Note those breaks in your monthly summary, and keep moving on. Very soon they will drop to a small number, you’ll be resisting them and conscious of their occurrence, and your daily personal foresight will flow strong, deep, and fast, like a river guiding you to where you want to go.