3 Reasons Why You Should Keep a Productivity Journal

Every day at 4pm, my phone dings with a reminder to write a journal entry. And (almost) every day I stop what I am doing and take a few moments to write about my day. It’s a simple act, but it is a crucial part of my productivity practice.

Unless you read all of the productivity nerd blogs like I do, you probably have no clue what a “productivity journal” is. I didn’t either until a few years ago, but in that time this practice has become deeply important to my growth and productivity.

While more explanation is warranted, a productivity journal is simply a collection of daily entries summarizing your priorities, accomplishments, failures, and struggles.

Why is keeping a productivity journal so important for me? Why do I think everyone who is interested in growth and productivity should keep one? It comes down to three benefits.

A journal maintains our focus on what matters most

I don’t know about you, but I often lose sight of what matters over the course of the day. Every morning I start with a review that keeps me current with all my various inboxes and sets my priorities for the day. And very often by 4pm I have either finished everything I needed to, or got pulled off course by distractions. Either way, I tend to end my days with a cloudier view of my priorities than when I started.

The actor of journaling resets my focus. Sitting down to record what happened, detailing successes and failures, and thinking through what’s next clarifies the day. It puts the activities of the day into perspective. Did I meet my goals? Did I fail my team? Do I need to change something in response? What is one key thing I must do tomorrow? The act of thinking through these questions helps to settle my mind and organize my thoughts.

A journal is raw material for reflection

Reflection is a major part of my approach to productivity. In fact, it is the thing that keeps me on track. Leaving the much larger subject of reflection for other posts, the salient point is that regular, honest reflection on our decisions and outcomes is crucial to successfully implementing productive practices.

The journal serves two specific functions in my approach. First, by keeping a journal, each day I take time to reflect on the day. This has a self-ordering effect of sorting the days actions and decisions into a few camps. I can reflect on what was successful and what wasn’t. I also contemplate how I sinned or struggled to love others well. And finally I start to grapple with what the next day will bring. These areas all inform my understanding of the day. They are an immediate touch point for me on what matters most.

Second, the permanent recording of these events and thoughts serve as grist for further reflection down the road. Reviewing a week, month, or even a year’s worth of journal entries reveals patterns of success and failure both. The raw data of each day’s thoughts can be used to construct a far more accurate view of my life and choices. It is the starting point for considering what changes need to be made so I can live a life that glorifies God.

A journal is a great transition out of your work day

The final reason I find journalling to be so important is that it helps me begin to unwind my mind from the daily tasks, issues, and frustrations of work. It sums up the day—for good or for bad—in a way that allows me to put work away and switch modes.

This frees me up to focus my thoughts on my wife and what she needs, or on personal projects that lie in wait at home. It helps me transition from one area of life to another cleanly. It sorts the mental debris of the day in an ordered way for the next day’s work. It’s cleans up the mental workbench, and shuts off the workshop lights.

The importance of journalling does not lie in the journal itself, but in the act of recording and reflecting each day. A small break at the end of the day to reflect has made an huge difference for me, and it may do the same for you.

Why Productivity Practices Matter for All Christians

Jesus was the most productive person ever. That might sound obvious to some, or trivial to others, but I believe that truth is incredibly important to believers living in the modern world.

What do I mean when I say that? What’s my point? It’s simple really:

Jesus always did the right thing, with the right people, at the right time, and in the right way, always.

When we learn to do the right things, with the right people, at the right time, and in the right way, we become more like Jesus. For the believer the end goal of improving our productivity is actually sanctification.

Of course, there are other results and purposes behind improving our productivity. I totally agree with Matt Perman when he asserts that our productivity is about doing all that we can, with all that we have, for the glory of God. Being more productive (in the sense that Jesus was productive), absolutely leads us to love our neighbors, families, churches, communities, and the world. It leads us to a greater impact for the kingdom of God. Being more productive is absolutely about glorifying God, as is all of life.

But, in the day-to-day mess—especially when it’s hard to be disciplined and organized—what drives me forward is this simple idea: becoming more productive means that I am becoming more like Jesus.

Three benefits I discovered in a morning routine

This year, I found a powerful ally in the battle to be productive. Routine. Last week I let my routine go, and the impact was not small.

I was quite sick, and it killed my morning routine. My wife can attest that I am a terrible patient. When I get sick it's as if the world is ending. I'm sluggish, cranky and very lethargic. It's not pretty, and I know it's a fault, but there it is. Last week I was particularly affected in the mornings. Usually by the afternoon I was able to focus on work and be somewhat normal. Before noon though? Forget about it.

The biggest casualty was my morning routine. Since the beginning of the year, I focused on building a consistent morning routine. For the last five weeks, on many more weekdays than not, my routine looked like this:
1. Get up
2. Turn on The Briefing podcast
2. Fix coffee
3. Make breakfast
4. Read the Bible
5. Write in my Day One journal
6. Work on one of my writing projects
7. Quick daily GTD review
8. Get ready for work

This all takes around two hours. If I am up between 5:30 - 6am, I can easily be done before work. While my adherence to an early wakeup time was not perfect, the results of the routine were very encouraging when I was. As a result, the lapse in my routine last week made its value even more clear.

I realized that my routine does three very important things for me, and I don't think I am unique. I bet a similar routine, based on your personal priorities, can bring you the same benefits.

1. Reinforced priorities

Every day, my priorities are: my relationship with God, my relationship with my wife, my writing and my work. While some are obvious (my time reading the Bible helps keep my relationship with God active), and others may not be (my GTD review ensures that any commitments I've made to my wife are on my radar first thing in the morning), every item on this list directly serves one or more of my priorities.

By starting the day with this routine, the rest of the day is already anchored in what matters most to me.

2. A clear and focused mind

The first week of the new routine was hard, but after several days I noticed that each day I executed the routine I was in a better mental position to start my day. With a good breakfast in my stomach, the Word of God bouncing around my head, and one more morning's worth of progress on a project that matters to me under my belt, the rest of the day almost seemed to be an easy coast downhill.

The value of a clear and focused mind cannot be overstated. We think and create best when our minds are free from distractions and worries. The effect this has on your productivity is essential.

3. Daily progress towards my goals

This is my main reason for establishing my morning routine. I realized that with everything I must accomplish, and the time and energy my daily commitments take, that sitting down in the evening to work on my writing was ineffective. If I could find the time and I was not too tired, my brain was usually stuffed full of baggage from the day and could not focus.

Making space for creativity first thing in the morning ensured two things. First, I would have the time to get the work done. Second, I would have a clear and rested mind to create from. This made all the difference in the world.

This week I will fight hard to get back into my routine as I get healthy again. While there is always a temptation for me to slide back into my old ways, the improvements I've seen over the last five weeks are more that enough motivation not to.

If you've never tried a consistent morning routine, you should consider it. I think you will be surprised by how much you like it.

Four things you can do to read more

A common refrain I hear from many of my friends is a desire to read more. I get it. I have a long list of unfinished books, and a longer list of those I want to read.

The fact is, that for any writer, aspiring or established, the importance of reading is paramount. A writer does not create out of nothing, but uses the material he knows as compost for growing new ideas. For this reason, I want to increase my reading time significantly. Over the last several months I have done so.

Do you feel the same way? Do you want to spend more time reading? If so, I think you can, with these four tips:

1. Pick your place(s) to read carefully, then stick to them

At home, I have a chair in the living room that I read my Bible in every morning. If I try to read it elsewhere it’s not the same. There is something about that chair in the quiet of the morning.

Find the places that work for you. For me, it’s that chair, my home office and my bed. In those locations my mind is used to reading, and this has a powerful reinforcing effect. Regardless of what makes a location great for you, find the few places that are, and read there consistently. Form a habit.

2. Reduce, or even better eliminate, distractions

If you see me at work, whether at home or in the office, I have my headphones in. I’m always listening to podcasts or music. To get anything done, I almost feel like I have to. But that doesn’t work for me when reading. It is too distracting.

Distractions go beyond sound, too. I now treat my reading time the same way I treat my writing. I reduce or eliminate as much input as I can. This means that when I sit down to read or write I do the following things:

  • Use a dedicated e-reader or the actual book. No tablets. The temptations and frequency of distraction is just too high
  • Turn off music and podcasts. If I need to block sound or I must listen to music, I only listen to music without words
  • Absolutely no TV
  • Put my phone on silent, or even the ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode
  • If I am in my home office, I will quit the email and social media apps on my computer that have audible alerts
  • Have a glass of water, or cup of tea/coffee close at hand

Your list is probably different. But, the key question to ask when you consider the inputs around you while reading is this: will it pull me out of the words on the page and interrupt my thoughts? If the answer is yes, then get rid of it.

3. Have multiple options

I keep generally three to five books going at any given time. This kind of variety allows me to pick an option to suit my mood, and when I can do that I am less likely to pick up the TV remote or waste time on the Internet. It’s important to have a number of books available that you want to read, spread across genres. For some people this may mean simply having a list of what you want to read so you can move right on to a new one when you are ready.

Also, life is too short for bad books. If you don’t like what you are reading, then stop. Move on to something else. You will read more books and learn more things if you don’t let boring books and other people’s opinions drive what you read.

4. Have a plan, and make it a priority

This is most important point. If you really want to spend more time reading, then you have to make it a priority. If it is the last thing on your list for the day, it will more than likely not happen.

Having a plan and setting your reading time aside as a priority can help prevent these times from slipping away from you. Every reader will be different, but my plan is simple. For me, the Bible is first thing I read in the morning, and I always carve out time each evening for a least one chapter of one of the other books. Find your own rhythm and plan, but make it conscious. Write it down, or curate a small stack of book by your bed or reading chair. Be intentional about what you are reading.

Reading is a very personal habit, so not all of the details may be right for you. But, I do believe having set locations to read, reducing distractions, and having multiple options will help you read more. And, if all else fails, make it a priority.