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Five Minute Journal - Daily Journal Techniques and Tips

By Brian Sunter

Posted in Writing

I've been journaling on and off for about the past 15 years. I feel it's helped me improve my writing skills, productivity, self-awareness, and thinking.

Intro

I've always struggled to journal consistently by opening a blank page and writing a stream of consciousness. My new method is inspired by the "Five Minute Journal" approach, which is to spend just five minutes writing a few bullet points in response to some prompts first thing in the morning. This simple, quick habit provides a lot of benefits in just a few minutes a day and is a good base to build a writing habit on. The hard part is being consistent and simply opening your editor to get started writing. Some days I'll write just a few simple thoughts, but often I'll get on a roll and have a lot more to say.

Why Journal?

I feel the most important benefit of journaling is improving your thinking ability. Writing helps you practice organizing coherent thoughts and articulating yourself. It's really difficult to do this by thinking alone or by talking. It's important to write down our first-person account as things happen because our future selves will look back on events differently. Our thinking patterns evolve in subtle ways over time and our hindsight bias causes us to rewrite history. It amazes me to look back on my entries from 10+ years ago to see how differently I used to think, what used to be important to me, and the things I was worried about. Reflecting on my entries has improved my self-awareness. Journaling has helped advance my personal goals as well. I use journaling to create goals, track my progress, and hold myself accountable. In addition, written communication is an important career skill, especially with the rise of remote work and messaging apps. It can be a superpower to increase the leverage of your ideas and reach more people.

Five Minute Journal

These are the prompts I use for my Five Minute Journal:

  • What Am I Grateful for?
  • What Would Make Today Great?
  • What Am I Worried About?

What Am I Grateful for?

I try to reflect on the good things happening in my life lately. Several psychological studies suggest gratitude journaling, in particular, helps improve mental well-being. These entries can be small things like nice weather, sleeping well, or watching a great TV show. They can also be bigger things like appreciating your family, having good health, and a stable job. For me, these entries are sometimes repetitive or ordinary, but I find the practice of focusing on the good in my life puts me in a positive state of mind for the day.

What Would Make Today Great?

I use this to make a mini-plan for the day. I like to define at least three "must-do" tasks as well as a set of achievable goals and activities, which if completed would constitute a successful day. Before, I was stuck in a cycle of feeling like I never accomplished "enough" no matter what I did, but I realized I never even defined what "enough" was. I also find it beneficial to separate planning and execution, since I'm often in a different state of mind coming up with ideas than when I'm executing on them. I'm less productive when I'm switching between deciding what to do and acting on it. Seeing everything planned together helps me identify if I'm taking on an unrealistic amount of work. I can also start thinking about how to tackle the tasks early on and throughout the day.

What Am I Worried About?

I have a tendency to worry about things, but I feel writing down what I'm concerned about or problem areas in my life helps me stop ruminating or thinking about it throughout the day. Usually the time you recognize a problem isn't the best time to solve it. Knowing I'm going to return and create an action plan prevents me from having intrusive thoughts during the day. Over time, you can look at all these entries to see if there are any common themes. Looking back on things you were worried about that turned out to not be a big deal helps you feel better.

Extra Journaling

If I can complete my five minute journal, I often add on a few additional writing practices.

Evening Questions

I have a similar version of my morning journal for the end of the day to reflect on how things went and things could be improved. These are some of my evening journaling prompts:

  • How Am I Feeling?
  • What's Something Good That Happened Today?
  • What Did I Do Well?
  • What Could I Have Done Better?

How Am I Feeling?

I've started something recently where I subjectively rate each day on a scale of 0-10 depending on how happy and productive I was that day.

What's Something Good that Happened Today?

This is an exercise to put me in a positive state of mind before bed. It's similar to my gratitude entry, but for at least one specific thing that happened during the day.

What Did I Do Well?

This is pretty self-explanatory, but I like to reflect on what I did well and what I tried that was successful.

What Could I Have Done Better?

I spend some time reflecting on what didn't go well and how I could do better next time. If I don't follow through with something or do something that moves me further from my goals like breaking my diet, I try to acknowledge it and think about what I should have done instead.

Morning Pages

Morning Pages is a practice from a book called "The Artist's Way" intended to improve creativity. The idea is to push yourself to write a stream of consciousness each morning of 750 words or around 3 pages. This usually takes me around 30-40 minutes. They say it's important to push yourself to write the whole 750 words because the second half is usually the most interesting. They also recommend keeping them private. This is similar to traditional journaling. I occasionally do this when I have some extra time in the morning, but it's quite a time commitment.

Writing Prompts

Another exercise I enjoy is responding to writing prompts. The undirected stream of consciousness writing is difficult, so I often enjoy writing to a specific prompt. I try to write a short paragraph response to a different one each day before bed. Often writing prompts are focused on creative fiction writing, but I prefer the ones in the form of questions. These are usually floating around the internet in lists called "icebreakers", "questions to ask yourself", and "journaling prompts"

For example:

What life lesson did you learn the hard way?

What do you wish you spent more time doing five years ago?

What’s something you know you do differently than most people?

Here are some lists that I've been working through:

Roam Templates

I use Roam Research to do my daily journaling. I use these templates under the roam/templates page and expand the template on my daily notes page. I use backlinks so I can link and reference my other writing. Roam includes several useful built-in features like a timer and word count

- # Morning Questions
    - [[Morning Questions]] #daily
        - [[What Am I Grateful for?]]
        - [[What Would Make Today Great?]]
        - [[What Am I Worried About?]]
        - [[What Am I Thinking of?]] 
- # Evening Questions
    - [[Evening Questions]] #daily
        - [[How Am I feeling?]]
        - [[What's Something Good That Happened Today?]]
        - [[What Did I Do Well?]]
        - [[What Could I Have Done Better?]]

Conclusion

I try to do the morning five minute journal every day no matter what, I almost always do the evening journal, and I occasionally do the writing prompts and morning pages. I've found this journaling process very helpful for improving my overall thinking and self-reflection. The effect is subtle but I can feel my thinking improving. I enjoy looking back on my old journal entries. I hope to continue for a long time and continue to evolve my techniques.

Brian Sunter
Brian Sunter

Whatever problem you have, I will solve it.