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Published on June 11, 2018

Writing Journal for a Better and More Productive Self (The How-To Guide)

Writing Journal for a Better and More Productive Self (The How-To Guide)

How many times have rampant thoughts distracted you from your work? How many times have ideas popped in and popped out before you had a chance to capture them? Or maybe clarity has gone missing in action and you would like to find it again?

As a busy person, it is not uncommon for your mind to become overwhelmed trying to manage and process all the thoughts, the to-do list that is a mile long, the conversations had and the ideas that float in and out.

So what is a busy person meant to do with all the “stuff” that takes up valuable mental real estate? Write in a journal.

At first I was resistant. The thought of doing something that required what I believed to be work on my part turned my stomach. Not to mention, I had no clue what to write each day.

After about a week of journaling, I started to notice my mental clarity improve which ultimately lead to more productivity. And now after several years of using a writing journal, I look forward to it and if I skip a day, I really miss it.

In this article, I am going to share with you not only the benefits of a writing journal but also some simple ways to get started that won’t take up too much time, ways that positively impact your own mental clarity and that contribute to your productivity.

Why writing journal matters to your success

Some of the busiest people I know complain about the same thing — the inability to turn off their brains; or worse, the inability to focus on the tasks at hand because of the high volume of thoughts and ideas they have.

Enter a writing journal.

That journal is a safe place where you share your thoughts, your ideas, your questions and your concerns without interruption or the concern of another’s opinion or judgments. It’s a place to explore, pontificate and even complain.

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In short, it is a great place for brain dumping so that you have the mental space to be more productive. But that is not the only benefit to a writing journal. Here are a few others:

It is a great way to have an “a-ha moment”.

Imagine you are in a conversation where all the sudden you hear yourself say something and a light bulb turns on. Writing in a journal serves that same purpose. With a journal, it is not uncommon that as you are capturing your thoughts, new awareness is being created.

“Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.” ― Christina Baldwin

For example, if I am struggling to find a solution to an issue, my journal provides me with the space I need to get the issue out of my head and onto paper. It’s not uncommon for questions to surface that I then answer; enter the clarity and a-ha moment.

It creates contentment and grounding.

Writing in a journal engages a form of mindfulness. It is the mindfulness that helps you to feel more grounded.

“The five-minute journal is a therapeutic intervention, for me at least, because I am that person. That allows me to not only get more done during the day but also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person — which is not something that comes naturally to me.” — Tim Ferriss[1]

It diminishes the chaos.

Medical reviewers Paul Ballas and Maureen Fraser report,[2]

“Keeping a journal helps you establish order when your world feels like it’s in chaos. It helps you get to know yourself by revealing your innermost fears, thoughts, and feelings. Look at your writing time as personal relaxation time, a time when you de-stress and wind down. Write in a place that’s relaxing and soothing—maybe with a cup of tea. Look forward to your journaling time, and know that you’re doing something good for your mind and body.”

It is a safe place to process and clear the air.

The things you stress over or worry about as well as any negative thoughts are similar to bacteria. When you keep them in the dark recesses of your mind, they grow.

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By writing about them, you shine a light on them which causes them to shrink. Freeing up that valuable mental real estate to focus on something that is much more productive.

The same is true for anything or anyone that bothers you, whether that is the annoying co-worker, the argument with your partner, the project that went awry; it does not matter. If it is bothering you, it is worth journaling about to clear the air.

Not to mention, it gives you the opportunity to spot the lessons to be leveraged the next time someone or something annoys you.

It is good for your health.

Psychotherapist Maud Purcell in her article The Health Benefits of Journaling:[3]

“There is increasing evidence to support the notion that journaling has a positive impact on physical well-being. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Other research indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker believes that writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, acting as a stress management tool, thus reducing the impact of these stressors on your physical health.”

It is a great tool for prioritizing.

A journal is a great place to capture all the things you want and need to do so that you can begin to prioritize and plan. Getting it all down on paper helps ensure that you are not missing anything important.

Not to mention, your journal is a great place to capture the wins, the steps you took with a project and any insights you gained. That way the next time a similar project or priority makes its way across your desk, you have a plan that you can recycle and re-use.

With the benefits in mind, are you ready to give a writing journal a whirl?

A step-by-step guide to start writing journal

Here is an easy to use step-by-step guide to help you get started:

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Step 1: Get clear on the purpose or objective for journaling

What do you want to gain from a writing journal?

Getting clear around your purpose or objective for journaling sets a clear intention for your journaling. It is that clear intention that helps you to journal on a consistent basis in order to increase your productivity. (The operative word being “consistent”.)

Important Note: Make sure that your purpose or objective is one that resonants with you. For example, maybe it is a form of self-care, or maybe you want to map out your next business idea. Since feelings drive actions, if you feel good about the prospect of journaling, you are more apt to do it.

Step 2: Pick your poison

Electronic or paper journal? There is no right or wrong mode to use for journaling; it is whatever is going to be easiest and the most comfortable for you to use.

When I first started journaling, I picked out a really cool notebook and pen that I used only for journaling.

Today I use both an electronic and paper journal. I use the paper journal and colored pens for my gratitude journaling and morning pages. And I use Good Notes and my Apple Pencil (because I like the handwritten approach) for my bullet journaling where I capture my ideas, things I need to research and outlines for my projects.

Important Note: Start out simple and small, even a piece of paper from loose leaf notebook works!

Step 3: Create a writing space

Whether that is at your kitchen table, a comfy chair in the corner of your living room or propped up on pillows in your bed, it is important to find a place where you feel comfortable writing. A place where you won’t be interrupted.

Step 4: Choose the time of day that works for you

Mornings before you begin the day or at night before bed; whenever you have some free time in your schedule that you can take 5-10 minutes to write.

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When I first started, I tried different times of day on for size until I found a time that consistently worked. I tried writing in between clients, I tried writing right before bed and I tried writing in the morning as a part of my morning ritual. Morning time became my favorite time to write because I was less distracted by the day’s events.

Give different times a try and see what works best for you.

Step 5: Begin

Most importantly, do not worry about what to write. Worrying about what to write makes using a writing journal a task instead of a powerful tool.

You can even start out by writing “I don’t know what to write” and go from there. Let whatever is on your mind come out on the page.

Start journaling now!

For the next 30 days, commit to writing in a journal. Whether you use the stream of consciousness approach of morning pages or journal prompts to get the writing juices flowing, allow the next 30 days to be a time of self-discovery, increased productivity and clarity as a result of your journaling.

And as reminder:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Find a consistent time that works for you over the next 30 days.
  • Leave the perfectionism at the door and just let whatever is coming up, come out on the pages.

There is no right or wrong way to use a journal. The key is allowing it to be your assistant in creating more space in your brain so that you can be your most productive self.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

More by this author

Pam Thomas

Chief Change Officer @What's Within U; Helping people dig out from the ruts that keep them stuck personally and professionally.

How to Train Your Brain to Crave Lifelong Learning (And Why It’s Good) How to Stop Worrying About the Future: 8 Practical Techniques How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety Writing Journal for a Better and More Productive Self (The How-To Guide)

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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