How I Use Journaling to Capture Ideas and Build New Habits

ball point pen on opened notebook

I realized a few years ago that two of the smartest and most successful people I know took notes on everything. Both used notes heavily to capture ideas, quotes, learnings, etc. and frequently referred to these notes to recall ideas or remind themselves of something they may have forgotten. They also used the act of writing these notes to distill or solidify thoughts. This realization kicked off my experimentation to create a journaling and note-taking practice that worked for me.

I began with a few simple goals for my system:

  1. Capture good ideas, concepts, or questions
  2. Review old notes to remind myself of previous entries
  3. Create external structure to support the habits of using this tool

These have since evolved into the following:

I use a tool called Evernote to capture all of my notes in a folder called “Diary” but you can use any writing tool that works for you.

Currently, I have two types of notes. One for anything from random snippets to long-form prose throughout the day and a second for distilling those into more structured form. These work as follows:

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Daily note capture

  • I either create a new note named as today’s date or open today’s existing note
  • Any notes for the day go in this document, usually in bullet point format, or sometimes in prose
  • If any topic becomes specialized, lengthy, or comes up on repeated days, I may create a new note elsewhere and link to it to centralize that information. For example, I have a folder dedicated to notes from readings or talks

Periodic note distillation and review

  • Weekly: I copy a template called “Weekly Template” into a new note named as “<date> — Weekly Review” — then I fill in the template (more on this later)
  • Monthly: I do the same with a “Monthly Template”
  • Annually: I do the same with an “Annual Template”
  • Each of these periodic templates involve reviewing the previous days, weeks, months, years to extract important notes that I want to carry over
  • These templates continue to evolve over time to emphasize different parts I consider important

Building a Habit:

One of the most challenging parts of starting this was building the habit of writing things down. I still miss a lot of things. The best way to start this is to start small. Consider that even a single sentence is better than nothing.

I have a couple of methods I recommend that have worked for me:

  1. Set aside a time to journal and mentally connect journaling with a habit you already have. This could be first thing in the morning, right before leaving work, after brushing your teeth, or right before bed. Remember that it doesn’t have to be ten minutes. It could be one.
  2. Create triggers for yourself. You need something to prompt you to write down things you’ve learned. You’ll find more of these over time, but some that I have are: talking with a friend for advice on a problem, reading a non-fiction book, listening to a lecture, reading a blog post, trying to solve a problem at work. The more specific these are the better. Some of my triggers are better than others in this regard, so I more frequently remember to write things down when I’m talking with a friend for advice than trying to solve a problem at work.

Refining Your Templates:

Feel free to start with my templates or to throw them away. Using a template is intended to give myself a structure to help me think in a specific way. First, I capture highlights from my notes, and then I ask myself how those highlights will change my actions. I do this to remind myself to consider the step beyond gaining new knowledge. I don’t answer this question for every highlight, but I do stop and consider it. Another prompt I have is to consider something nice I can do for someone in my life. I want to do more of this in general, so by building it into the journaling habit, I’m able to do it much more frequently. I’d encourage you to iterate and improve your templates to encourage yourself to do more of the things you want and less of the things you don’t.

This process is essentially a skeleton onto which you can hang whatever actions you’d like, once you have it built into a habit for yourself.

A few ideas to consider adding to your templates:

  • Calling a friend you haven’t talked with in a while
  • Reviewing your monthly budgets
  • Find a scientific article to read this week
  • Review your to-do list for the week and decide what the most important items to finish this week are
  • Review your upcoming calendar and block off time to meditate
  • etc… (be creative!)

Getting Started:

If this sounds like something you’d like to do, here are some steps to get started:

Start by asking yourself, “is the benefit I’m going to receive for this worth the effort I need to build it into a habit?”

If you answered yes to this, find your note-taking tool of choice (Evernote works well). Open a note and save it with the title of today’s date, “MM-DD-YY”. Write one interesting thought down from this article. Then, using your calendar of choice (digital or otherwise), set a reminder for a day of the week where you can reliably take one hour to review your notes for the week and fill out a template. Make it a recurring task to remind yourself to do your weekly review at this time.

That’s it! Get started. If you find yourself doing this regularly, you will likely find yourself wanting to set up a regular cadence for monthly or quarterly reviews. If you find yourself wanting do do a yearly review, create a template and get started. (Pro tip: put a link to this blog post in your first note, then you can just link back here and use mine to start — see how useful this could be?)

My Templates:

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