Life Journaling

“Perfection is the enemy of good.” – commonly attributed to French writer and poet, Voltaire. 

“Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.”  

As pretty much everyone else has said in their yearly roundups and reviews, 2020 was, to put it mildly, a bit rubbish.

One of the best things I did this year was to start outlining monthly goals and tracking data. It meant I could prioritise my time effectively and put the work into the areas that needed it most. Not only that, I started tracking aspects of my life and health that allowed me to see patterns and changes, which in turn meant I was able to analyse my productivity and do a bit of ‘body-hacking’. How did I do this? With something that I called a Life Journal.

I have tried bullet journalling many times in the past and given up within the first month or so as its always seemed too over-complicated, time consuming or I failed to see the benefits. Much in the same way that I can never keep a regular diary – I have to dip in and out of it when I feel like it – it was a habit I could never seem to stick to.

Making A Habit Stick

It is only a couple of days away from the end of 2020 and I have a full and complete journal to show off for once. So why was this attempt different, and what did I do?

At the beginning of the year, when everyone is often thinking about resolutions for the oncoming months, I started reading about habit forming, specifically the 21/90 rule. 

This requires you to commit to a new goal for 21 days without a break. After those three weeks it should start becoming a habit. Do it for another 90 days for it to become a permanent change in your life.

If you can commit to something for 111 days (3 months and 3 weeks) the 21/90 theory says that you will cement this action into being something that you do regularly and (hopefully) enjoy doing.

Find The Why

Before I started thinking about what my journal might look like I had to ask myself the Why? – “Why do I want to do this journal?” 

I believe the Why for any new project or idea must always come first, even before the What and the How.

“Why will I stick to this version of journaling when all my previous attempts have failed? Why is tracking this data important? Why have I chosen the physical form over digital?” 

The answers to all of those questions were simple. As someone with ADHD on the autism spectrum I was tired of feeling like a hamster on a wheel, never really optimising my output or being able to identify the areas that I could improve in. I had plans to level-up my writing career in 2020, and that required a level of strategising and planning. Added to that, my health wasn’t where I wanted it to be and I knew that keeping accurate data would help me address problem areas. 

Put simply: I wanted to keep a record of useful data that I could use to improve myself in 2020.

Second to all of that were some other pressing questions:

“What will I get out of it? How will it function? When will I add to it? How much time can I give it?”

Did I want it to be functional, personal or introspective? Did I know what kind of data would be useful to track? Did I want it to be visually appealing so I could share it on social media in some way and inspire others? This seemed pretty unimportant at first, but as time went on I realised how useful it was to share parts of it.

As for time, my morning routine always started with a cup of coffee first thing, so when better to spend five to ten minutes every day filling in a journal? It was easy, realistic and didn’t feel like I had to make any grand gesture or put a massive effort into making it happen. 

Tracking with grids

I really liked the idea of A Year In Pixels and I loved how simple a design that could be. So I made some grids (well, my husband did, as he’s much better at that kind of thing!) and thought about what to track. 

I decided on:

  • Head Weasels / Mood Tracker
  • Sleep Tracker and 
  • Did I Exercise Today? 

All these grids had a colour key and all I had to do was colour in a square each day. So simple, and yet so effective.  

I also thought about things which would be useful to me throughout the year. I was curious to know how many books, films, TV series and new music I enjoyed across a 12 month period, so I decided to add a monthly Entertainment page. This came in really useful when I wrote my yearly roundup.

To manage my story submissions, I kept a record of everywhere I had sent my work and whether it got published, plus a separate page for everything I published myself or had featured on other blogs. My acceptance rate this year was 1:3.5. I sent out work to 28 markets and had 8 acceptances, which I am extremely happy with. 

Setting Goals – Checkpoints, Not Monoliths

I thought about my goals for the year in terms of Life, Health and Work and gave myself an ideal outline of goals which were attainable and practical. 

When thinking about goals I find it useful to consider three points: 

  1. Make them specific and actionable – eg. “Exercise more” is too vague. “Take a ten minute walk every day” is more clear. 
  2. Realistic and sustainable – “Write 1000 words every day” is a fine goal, but “write for at least fifteen minutes every day” is something you can stick to. Small wins will add up to bigger ones. 
  3. In your control and changeable. “Go to bed at 11pm” is ideal, but “Aim for seven hours of sleep a night,” gives you a realistic and flexible goal. 

I wanted to challenge myself and strive to improve, so setting myself short-term monthly goals felt like I could keep moving forwards. Progress, not perfection became my mantra and gave me permission to be messy, to not always keep things neat or pretty, and to not beat myself up if I didn’t tick everything off each month. The primary goal was to always keep moving forwards. Any goals I gave myself were moveable checkpoints, not monoliths carved in stone.

I also set aside space to think about my writing goals for the year, setting myself challenges and focusing on areas which I really wanted to tick off, but with no specific, monthly timeframe.

When COVID-19 hit and New Zealand went into lockdown I added another tracker to record the days spent in different levels. Rather than making me focus on the negative, I found it very useful to mark down milestones, and it felt really important to me document something that was quite clearly world-changing. It also prompted me to write down my Quarantine Questions which I believe really helped my mental health.

Where have I ended up?

The rest of my journal became filled up with a number of creative things:

  • Quotes I Loved 
  • I Was Brave – I Felt the Fear and Did it Anyway 
  • Week Day Routine 
  • Insulin Needs and blood test results
  • A Place for Thoughts (which became a diary of sorts)
  • Story Ideas and Planning

plus many others.

What I have ended up with is a really useful, interesting and fun insight into how I work, what I like, and where my strengths and weaknesses lie.

The journal has helped me identify areas of my health which I could improve on such as getting better control of my diabetes. It has motivated me to plan my time better, and work smarter not harder. I have realised the types of writing I like most and how better to plan projects. I can see that I am far more physically active than I used to be and that makes me very happy.

Above all, it’s helped me let go of the idea that any journal had to be perfect to be meaningful – functionality takes precedence over aesthetics.

The focus should always be on moving and improving, and your list of goals should inspire you to do that, not make you feel guilty if you fail. Every word you write is progress.  

Remember: Progress not perfection. 

And now, I’m planning my Life Journal for 2021.

If you want to use some of the tracking grids and entertainment icons that I use in my journal, sign up to my mailing list and I’ll send them to you free of charge. 

If you would like to share your journalling story with me, you can reach me on Twitter @Tabatha_Writes, or email me:

This post was co-authored with developer, technologist and writer, David Gary Wood.