They say to examine the trailblazers who came before you and learn from their experience. But what about learning from your own?

I thought it would be a great way to reflect on the habits and stories that I’ve developed for myself over the years. Never did I imagine that I’d be sharing this process with someone else, let alone multiple people. But here we are.

It started out as a way to be accountable to myself and truly examining—without judgment—the habits and stories that have shaped who I am today. I would look back at the choices I made and look at them honestly to notice if I’d listened to my inner self when I made them, or if I ignored her and spun away from center. The latter was a common occurrence.

I would muster the courage to break down my walls, peel off the masks, shed the skin, all of the relative metaphors, and help myself so I could better help others. And so, in March 2018, I began in earnest developing a journal process that I have honed and refined and shared with just two of my friends.

How My Journal Process Started

The first iteration was mostly based around to-do lists. I had been reading The Path to Personal Power by Napoleon Hill, which inspired me to define my major purpose in life. It was an obsession that grew and grew in me, like a seed I’d planted and nurtured until it sprouted in an incredible explosion of energy and passion while driving in what could only be described as schizophrenic weather on my way to a work conference in San Diego. But that’s another story.

In one of my earliest entries, I committed to three to-do lists: “Personal Care” listed first, then “Chores,” then “Work.” I drew arrows instead of check boxes or bullets—little arrows to direct my attention to the task. I love the intention, but whether or not it’s actually effective to use arrows over check boxes I’m not sure. Most list makers have their personal preference, so I won’t be overly prescriptive of arrows.

The first list, “Personal Care,” typically had 3-5 recurring tasks that I had to complete before the day’s end. These included meditation, yoga, a jog or bike ride, reading, and connecting with love or sharing gratitude for three people in my life. That last one has actually dropped from the latest version of the journal process. I’ll get to that later.

“Chores” helped me keep track of things I needed to do to maintain order at home that day. For example, I would jot down a reminder to pick up Shoshito peppers from Trader Joe’s for the night’s dinner, do a couple of loads of laundry, that sort of thing. I’d also include travel tasks on this list—for instance, on April 10, 2018, I included a task to write out my packing list for our trip to Peru.

The last list was “Work” tasks for clients or side projects related to my business. Typically there would be 3-5 items for clients and maybe 2-3 items for side projects. I always prioritized the most important client work first, then tasks associated with prospects, and placed side projects last.

At the end of the day, I’d review my lists and see how many items I actually crossed off. Anything I didn’t complete, I’d circle them and review them before making making my lists for the next day. I didn’t often write my to-do list the night before, as many people do.

Flipping through the first month, I stuck with this three-category list making practice with moderate success. I neglected my daily journal process while I was in Peru, stopping April 13, 2018 and picking it back up on May 2, 2018.

On April 11, 2018—before our South America adventure—I started writing a focus word at the top of a day’s entry. I’d add this after drafting my lists, choosing to write the first word that came to mind. Some of those words were, “Humble,” “Community,” “Responsibility.” I stopped this practice on May 8, 2018.

I struggled that May to keep up with my daily tasks. There are at least two entire days in which I didn’t cross off a single task from my list. I’m sure I actually got work done that day and took care of myself, but I didn’t bother to track my accomplishments. It concerns me a bit to look back and see myself neglecting my journal, but I also know that I care much more about committing to it today because I’ve since shifted my approach.

On May 17, 2018, I started writing affirmations at the top of each entry. A recurring affirmation was, “I set clear boundaries.” That affirmation still comes up for me in my current approach.

When My Journal Process Began to Shift

My process began to shift in earnest on June 4, 2018, when I started using the left side of the page for my three lists, and adding a list of affirmations to the right. At the top of the page, I started writing two words and drew a box around them: Pause + Notice. These two words are incredibly important to my current process, which you’ll learn more about below.

Though it didn’t last—I actually brought back the single word at the top of the page starting June 14, 2018. I continued my list of affirmations, which included a note about setting clear boundaries. Something about these changes was working, as I was crossing more items off my list than I had before. Then, on June 21, 2018, I actually started following through on a task I’d added to my “Personal Care” list back on June 4—visualization.

My visualization task was now finally being marked as complete, thanks to coming up with the idea of drawing a “mind map” or word web below my list of affirmations on the right side of the page. In the center of an oval I wrote my name, then drew six lines and connecting ovals around it with enough space for words or phrases that I associated with myself.

It was clear this was shifting my approach to my tasks, opening me up to examine habits I’d formed and new habits I wanted to incorporate into my life. In my “Personal Care” list, I started to include exercise, cold showers, and hydrating. I was getting closer to something that could really serve me on a daily basis.

Expanding My Journal Process to Pause, Notice, Choose, Reflect

After July 6, 2018, I took two days off from journaling to assess what was working and what I needed to change. By July 9, 2018, I decided I needed to expand my daily journaling from one page to four—a huge expansion from my original approach of short task lists. This marked the moment I took journaling more seriously than I had ever before, recognizing that this tool could truly help me improve all areas of my life and be more intentional with my time.

The first page was labeled as “Pause,” and it was where I wrote the date and time I started writing. I jotted down my affirmations and drew a large mind map, adding the single word to the top of the page and drawing a box around it. I was setting intention for my day.

The second page was called “Notice,” where I would reflect on how I was feeling in that moment—physically, mentally, emotionally. I filled an entire page with notes about neck tension, bloating, needing to connect with a friend or family member, and my level of motivation. I wrote down the date and time at the top of the page as well; it was usually 10 minutes later than the time I wrote on the “Pause” page.

The third page I dubbed “Choose.” I brought back my three task lists for this page. My gratitude list remained under “Personal Care,” as well as my tasks to exercise, hydrate, and take a cold shower. Under the “Work” task list, I created sections for tasks associated with specific clients and projects. At the bottom of these three lists, I wrote a quote with attribution. The top of the page also had the date and time.

The fourth and final page of this daily journal process was “Reflect,” which I completed at the end of the day. This is an honest assessment of how I did with my task lists and if I did anything that day to address any of the concerns raised in the “Notice” section. It started as a simple list of bullet points, then was a full page, then just a paragraph. I soon dropped off on this section. I noted in my journal July 16, 2018 that this part felt critical part of my self-assessment and growth, and after that I recommitted to writing reflections.

I was getting closer to a process that would work for me. It was just a matter of time before I came to a point where I could figure out how to tweak the reflection process and refine how I approached my effort to pause, notice, and choose.

On July 22, 2018, I decided to drop my affirmations list and use the “Pause” section to free write my thoughts. It seemed to make more sense for “Pause” to be a literal stop to still my mind and body, and to truly observe what’s happening.

The next day, some of my affirmations reappeared in paragraph form in the “Notice” section, as a way to center myself after pausing to write down my thoughts, feelings, and desires. This was the last time I used a mind map, and the boxed word/phrase disappeared from all future entries.

My “Choose” section for July 23, 2018, included two additional lists: “Monthly Goals” and “Yearly Goals,” that only appear for this entry. I realized that my daily practice needed to be tied to longer-term goals, but my daily journal isn’t the place for tracking them. Ruling these out helped solidify the process I’ve been following now for four months straight.

Refining My Journal Process to a Simple Daily Practice

As of November 29, 2018, I’ve committed to a simple daily journal practice for four months with four categories: “Pause,” “Notice,” “Choose,” and “Act.” I dropped the “Reflect” section because I realized that “Notice” is my space for immediate, in-the-moment reflection. It’s my space for analyzing the honest record of how I’m feeling physically and mentally in the “Pause” section.

Reflecting immediately upon my self assessment has helped reinforce accountability for my actions. For example, if I write under the “Pause” section that I’m feeling bloated, or my neck is stiff, or I feel unmotivated, I write it without judgment. Then, when I’m done with that section, I look back over it and “Notice” patterns associated with my assessment. I can flip back through my journal and see if the note is a recurring feeling or thought, and look deeper into why it’s there.

I uncover quite a bit in the “Notice” section, which is why the next section is dedicated to affirmations. I need to remind myself, in those moments of judgment, that I can set clear boundaries, be intentional with my time, and stay centered. These phrases, among others, reflect how I “Choose” to act in my life, so I write down each day the ones that serve me in that moment.

The “Act” section is for my actions. Starting July 25, 2018, the “Act” section had my three lists—”Personal Care,” “Chores,” and “Work.” Next to each list, I wrote down one of my values that correlated with that list. For example, next to “Personal Care,” I wrote, “I value my health” and drew a box around that short sentence. I did the same for “Chores,” (“I value my environment”), and “Work” (“I value my freedom”).

This seemed to be a bit much, because I fell off the wagon July 27, 2018. I completed shortened versions of the “Pause” section that day through July 31, 2018, only to get back on a new track by August 2, 2018. This time, I again tweaked the “Notice” section to be a paragraph of affirmations, and the “Choose” section to be a list of different affirmations. I dropped the values sentences and made the “Act” section very similar to how my journal process started. This lasted four days.

I was all over the place. I couldn’t find what fit. So on August 6, 2018, I went back to having the “Notice” section be an analysis of the “Pause” section, and for “Choose” to house my affirmations. And then I fell off the wagon again.

The entire process I’d been building went out the window, and I made short to-do lists from August 7-13, 2018. It wasn’t until August 15, 2018, that I went back to “Pause,” “Notice,” “Choose,” and “Act.” I don’t know why I couldn’t stick to this at the time, but I didn’t journal for five days. Then, on August 20, 2018, I went all the way back to my first process—focusing solely on “Personal Care,” “Chores,” and “Work” lists.

Finally, sometime between August 25, 2018, and September 4, 2018, I decided it was time to commit. I’d done enough testing of different formulae, and there was enough data to determine what would be the most effective for me.

So, I took four pages to write it all out. I would create a separate document for my monthly and yearly goals, designing a simple structure that would take me five years into the future. I reaffirmed what I wanted, and what goals I needed to set and timelines to follow in order to get what I wanted.

One of those goals was creating this blog. The introductory paragraph to this exact post was written in those pages.