Minimalist Journaling & Self-Improvement Tracking (For People Who Aren’t Good At That Kind Of Thing)

Do you like the idea of journaling, but have trouble doing it? Are you in awe of the beautiful notebook pages you see online, but barely have time to scribble out a grocery list? Do you get overwhelmed by the idea of habit tracking?

Me too! That’s why I spent several years developing a journaling/tracking system that is fun, easy, and effective. It’s based on two principles.

Basic Principles

  1. Quick And Simple. To me, any system (ahem, Bullet Journaling) that requires detailed instructions is too complex. I want it to be immediately obvious how this works. No codes, no complexity, and NO rewriting of anything. Sorry, BuJo evangelists, but I have better things to do than copy lists over and over.
  2. Meaningful. Notebooks are nice. And expensive. I don’t want to fill them up with my daily chore lists and charts of how many times I went to the bathroom. I want a journal that I can look back on for a snapshot of my life at a particular time. I want to be able to recall what I was doing and feeling, and to gauge whether I’ve made any progress towards becoming a better human being.

In addition to these main principles, I have a couple of other design parameters.

  • Flexible. I use GTD to track my projects and obligations. You might prefer Bullet Journaling, or some other approach. That’s totally fine, because you can add whatever to-do-tracking approach you want into this system. In fact, if you feel compelled to track your bowel movements and coffee purchases for posterity, you can do that, because it won’t conflict with anything in this system.
  • Paper-Based. Call me old-fashioned, but I think journaling means using a physical journal, not an app. You can follow this system in an electronic format if you prefer, but that’s not my intention.
  • Inexpensive. I don’t want to buy anything, and I’m not selling anything. A printable PDF of the pages I designed can be downloaded right here. Feel free to use them, to make your own, or to just draw them into a notebook.

How It Works

This is the core of the system: the weekly spread.

After trying every journaling system in existence, I found that a single-page weekly log was the perfect format. The limited space encourages concise writing, and makes it easy to feel successful by jotting down only a few words.

As you can see, the Weekly Log page is entirely self-explanatory. The days of the week are already typed in. All you have to do is fill in the date, and then jot down whatever you want to remember about the day. That’s whatever you want it to be. There are no rules. There’s an eighth box for weekly reflections, helpfully labeled “Reflections,” so that you remember what it’s for.

The second part of the weekly spread is the Behavior Tracker. This is my alternative to the various “habit trackers” you may have seen. Frankly, the whole idea of habit tracking is overwhelming to me. Logging how much water you drink, how often you complain, you many steps you take … It’s just too much. More importantly, what does all that fragmented data do for you? Does it help you become a better person? I’m not sure it does. What makes you a better person is improving your behavior in general. So, instead of tracking individual habits, I created a more broad-based Behavior Tracker with the specific intention of helping me move closer to my goals of self-improvement. I’ve never seen anyone design a behavior tracker that relates specifically to comprehensive self-improvement goals, so I believe this is original, but I’d be interested to hear of anything similar that’s already out there.

As you can see in the key, I’ve categorized behavior into four domains: Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Personal. If you’re a fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can think of these as roughly corresponding to the four basic needs: security, connection, significance and growth.

In each domain, I’ve listed the key behaviors that I want to focus on. My reference to “Positive Intelligence” refers to the exercises suggested by Shirzad Chamine in his book of the same name. Yours might be different, but these are probably a pretty good start. My suggestion would be to start with these, and then customize to suit your individual needs.

A weekly Behavior Tracker page accompanies each Weekly Log page. Each day, you simply assess how much attention you gave to each category (on a scale of 1 to 4). Connect the dots to make a line chart that shows you, in visual terms like a stock-market chart, how you’re doing from one day to the next.

One note: attention is a combination of time and energy, and we have limited amounts of both. For example, if you spend the day focused on your livelihood to a level of 4, you’re probably not going to have the bandwidth to focus on personal growth. Because of this, I’ve found that a cumulative score of 10 is about as amazing a day as I can have. Depending on how you grade yourself, your results may differ. But understand that you can’t do EVERYTHING at the same time. Conversely, if you see lots of 1s, you can probably do better.

It’s easy to lose track of the big picture in daily life, and journaling is no different. I like to do a brief monthly summary to record what the view is from 20,000 feet. This also makes it easier to look back on the journal and see what was going on at a particular time.

That’s the core of the system, but I do have a few other pages that I’ve found useful.

I hate having to re-learn things over and over, so I created a page to helps me capture and carry forward the lessons I’ve learned.

This page also has a Facts & Figures box. This is for easily-forgotten info like the size of my HVAC filter and the highway exits that have rest areas. I don’t need that information all the time, but it’s nice to have it at my fingertips for when I do.

This is where I keep track of periodic obligations like when I paid the credit card bill or last bought dog food. I simply write the item in the left-hand column. Whenever I complete that task, I fill in one of the small boxes next to it with the date. This way, if I’m trying to remember when I last changed the oil in my car or mowed the lawn, I can look it up easily.

Give It A Try!

Although there’s nothing ground-breaking about any single aspect of this system, I’ve found the overall impact to be quite significant. Download the PDF here, and leave a comment with your thoughts!

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.

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