Task Management and Journaling
Let’s close this chapter with two very powerful personal habits: daily task management and occasional journaling. If you already have your own systems for these habits, you may find this advice redundant. If not, read on. When you start these, you will be astounded at how much more you get accomplished (task management) and how much new insight you get into your past and present self (journaling).
You will then ask yourself why you didn’t start these habits earlier, and will want to share them with others.
I. Task Management: Your Actualizer
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.
In a good task management system, 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. Combine your task system with some form of journaling, which we’ll discuss next, and you’ve got a powerful self-exploration and personal growth system as well.
You can call your digital and paper task management system 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.
1. Your Digital Actualizer
Keep your Actualizer in the cloud, in a tool like Google Drive, 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 a 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 digital 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 be 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.
2. Your Paper Actualizer
Unlike what some folks will tell you, using paper to record notes when you are out in the world is still quite useful. Paper is also useful by your bedside, to get a great nighttime idea out of your head and into your actualizer. Smartphone notetaking sucks, and you are often using your phone for other things. Until we have wearable computers that can translate, visualize, and organize everything we say, which may be another decade yet, recording some of your thoughts by hand, on paper, is still going to be the fastest way to get them down, and the best way to remember and interact with them later as well. Let’s look at a good paper actualizer now. Mine has two parts:
A. Mobile and Exercise Notepad with Sticky Notes
For handheld notetaking, both for exercising and for your time away from home or work, you want a lightweight and compact exercise notepad, with a cover to keep out your sweat. Consider getting a few, and keeping one in the glovebox of your car, so they are always accessible. The ideal fit for a one-handed notepad is either 3” x 5” for smaller hands, or even better, B7 paper size (3.5” x 4.9”) for most of us. If you are like me, and listen to podcasts on your smartphone while exercising, this notepad becomes your dedicated notetaker. Taking physical notes like this is way faster than typing them into a crap smartphone keyboard, and you will interact with and remember them better too, because these are going to be sticky notes, the first choice of idea generators everywhere. In fact, just getting one or more of these notepads, and keeping it in your back or breast pocket will turn on your idea generating, list making, and action-oriented juices. Trust me.
Ideally your notepad sheets will come with light horizontal rules, so you can write better lists and sentences. When you get home, if you have time, and you have made just a few notes, you can get them into your digital actualizer, and recycle the note. More likely you won’t have time, or will have taken too many notes. But using sticky notes allows you to stick them to your activity ledger (discussed next) to get them off your desk when you get home. That lets you prioritize just the most important ones to leave on your desk. If you make more than one note on your run, bike, walk, or drive, peel it and stick it to the inside of your notepad cover. Try to date your notes too, in the upper left. Month/year is fast and usually sufficient.
Unfortunately, Post-It and the few other sticky note companies haven’t figured out this use yet, so consumers can’t buy B7 size sticky notes. Post-It does offer lined 3 x 5 notes, but the lines run landscape, not portrait, and you want portrait lines writing while holding the pad. They don’t even have white. AliExpress (the lower-priced Amazon from China) doesn’t have any Chinese suppliers that offer them either. So today, the best mobile solution I’ve found is unlined yellow 3 x 5 sticky notes, with the adhesive on the long side instead of the top, where it should be. These are minor annoyances.
A great waterproof cover is Rite in the Rain All-Weather Cordura 3” x 5” Notepad Cover ($10). Use it to protect your sticky notepad from your sweat when you exercise or take saunas. Just like morning showers, which are long known as places where we generate insights, you will find 15-20 min saunas are one of the most inspirational times of your day, and you will want a waterproof notepad (or smartphone) handy. Consider getting a home infrared sauna (they start at $1500 at Home Depot), so you can sauna before your morning shower, to double up your inspiration time. You can read or watch something interesting on a tablet or smartphone while you sauna if you like as well. See my note on the health benefits of frequent saunas in Health – Five Cyclic Habits for Vitality and Longevity (“Vital Cycles”).
The Pilot G2 Pixie Mini Gel Retractable Rollerball Pen is a good plastic 4.5” ink pen. It’s $35 for 12 ($3 each), the least expensive dependable 4.5” plastic pen I know of. You’ll need a plastic pen for the sauna, as metal pens, and some smartphones, get so hot they burn. You will also want Rite in the Rain’s All-Weather 3 x 5″ Spiral Notebook for the sauna. It is quite pricey at $6 for 50 sheets of paper, but the pages are waterproof. They are also white and lined, with perfect spacing between the lines. If they made these in sticky paper, they would be perfect. Even though they are expensive, I recommend writing on only one side of these pages, so you can staple, tape, or gluestick them into your activity ledger if you can’t make time to get them into your online actualizer before they start cluttering your desk, which is often the case.
B. Activity Ledger
A physical activity ledger is a place to stick all the notes you couldn’t get rid of during the day, all the paper notes you should be taking during phone calls, and any other paper notes you want to take at your desk or office, in chronological order. Your ledger should be 8.5 x 11, so you can even staple in full-sized or half-sized paper notes every few days, whenever you use full sized or smaller notepads, to get that paper off your desk and into your ledger, decluttering your environment and your mind. You can also use your ledger to reorder the most important bits of physical paper, moving the most important notes to the current pages of your ledger. Moving physical sticky notes gets old quickly, so that will motivate you to get the most important ones off the paper and into your digital actualizer, so you can crumple up that paper and shoot it into your recycling bucket.
Ideally you want your activity ledger to lie open flat so the ledger’s binding should be either “lay flat”, “smyth sewn”, or spiral. Spirals are the cheapest. One I like is Blueline’s MiracleBind 8.5 x 11 Notebook. This is a spiral notebook that lies nicely flat, where the spiral is covered by a binding that that can be Dymo labeled. Their 8.5 x 11 notebook has 150 pages. It’s a bit pricey at $12, but it gets the job done. You may need 0.5-4 of these a year, depending on how much paper you generate and need to get off your desk.
You may also want a ledger stand, so you can prop your ledger up to make it easy to see, at the edge of your standing desk, and you should be able to write in it while it is on its stand. I find this Nice Production Book Stand (16 x 10 inch) ($23) does the trick. Finally, the handheld rechargeable Dymo LabelManager 280 ($17) is great for making your ledger’s spine binding labels (eg, “Activity Ledger 1/17 to 6/17)”, when it is full of paper and notes and it is time to put it on the shelf. You can also use this handy Dymo machine for any other labeling you need.
Before you shelve your ledger you will want to flip through it, pulling out particularly important sticky notes and sticking them in your new ledger. Once it’s shelved, you can be comforted that all your paper notes are there on your bookshelf, so its easily accessible for those days when you are feeling reflective and are ready to go through it, looking for hidden gems and neglected actions to reprioritize. Consider occasionally taking your old ledgers to a coffee shop, along with your stand and your laptop, and giving yourself an hour or two with them every once in a while, to flip through them, think reflectively, and transfer particularly useful stuff into your digital actualizer.
You can digitize your old ledgers anytime too, if you want. Of course the longer you wait, the cheaper home scanners or OCR services will be, and the better the software. For most folks, I wouldn’t fret about digitizing them. More important is pushing yourself to go through your old ledgers on occasion, and finding great ideas and actions.
Reviewing your old ledgers once in a while will put you in a very reflective mood, which is a great transition to our next section.
II. Journaling: A Journey to Understanding Your Self, with its Inertia and Growth, Strengths and Weaknesses, Hopes and Fears
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. Kathleen Adam’s Journal to the Self (1990) is a good introduction to journaling.
Org psychologist Karl Weick, who studies sensemaking, is fond of saying, “How can I know who I am until I see (and write down) what I do? How can I know what I value until I see (and review) where I walk?” That’s the spirit behind journaling. It is a way to a deeper understanding of your self, both its highly inertial (unchanging) parts and its ever-learning edge. The better you know who you are, the better you can develop priorities, strategies, relationships, and an environment that brings out your best self, no matter the challenge.
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.
If you are willing to try experiments and to use digital devices, 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. 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? Would you like to see yourself as an always changing being, one that can get better at managing your weaknesses, and building on your strengths? One constantly generating visions, and having to set priorities?
If so, journaling is for you.