How my reflective practice journal helps me manage my life

I’ve long needed to write notes on paper. Whether for course lectures or in interviews or as part of a brain-dump, I’ve found note-taking helps me slow my brain down and think more critically about what I’m hearing, observing, or thinking.

Even so, I’ve never been a big fan of journaling, or of keeping a diary. Growing up, I didn’t want anyone to read my private thoughts. I also didn’t think my thoughts were worth setting down if I wasn’t going to do anything with them (i.e. publish them for others’ consumption).

A few things happened to change my mind

  • I began to feel increasingly constrained by preprinted planners. The Franklin Covey system I’d used in university was practically a part-time job in itself to maintain (no matter how much my mother loved it), and expensive to boot. The Planner Pad had a great “funnel” concept that allowed me to see everything on one page, but there was virtually no space for the amount of thinking or planning I actually do.
  • Apps like GTD mashed up with my Google Tasks and Inbox never worked. I don’t think they were too complicated so much as they simply weren’t on paper. Being able to see most everything at once, instead of one screen or view at a time, was important to me.
  • Towards the end of last year, as part of my year in review (but before losing my job), I realized that part of the burnout I experienced this time (and, well, the other times, too) was that I was spending too much time mindlessly doing — running from one project to the next, always in reactive mode. I wasn’t taking the time to examine whether my efforts actually had any value, and that limited my effectiveness.

Something in my life needed to change. As a likely Highly Sensitive Person, I needed to become more intentional, and at the same time, more forgiving of both myself and others.

A friend’s enthusiastic endorsement of bullet journaling had led me to start a system that relied on a plain lined notebook, rather than on a preprinted planner. I found that some elements of Ryder Carroll’s system didn’t work for my brain (looking at you, index pages), so I adapted — which is, after all, a key tenet of bullet journaling.

Reflective practice: Watching yourself work

Somewhere along the way, I discovered the concept of reflective practice. I don’t even recall what I Googled to arrive at Michele Martin’s blog, but I really liked the way she explained the concept and the questions she posed to help with deep thought.

Around the same time, serendipitously, an IndieGogo ad for a personality-based planning app caught my attention. I admit — I cribbed the elements in the four different interfaces so that I could mix and match because I believe that our brains have elements of all different personalities; so again, I didn’t want to feel boxed in. I wanted to decide which elements would work for me, and how to organize them. (If planner apps work for you, though, and you love the idea of a personality-based planner, go for it! The app is called Evo and you can find it here.)

I started to keep a daily journal that detailed what I was doing for:

  • Wellness. I include things like meditation and hot salt baths in with my yoga, hiking, and walks.
  • Reading. I include the notes and thoughts that will help me inform my book reviews.
  • Foreign language. I practice in the Duolingo app, but I also watch Russian TV and try to translate social media posts, so I record each of these activities — as well as when I don’t study — in Russian.
  • Gratitude. In university, keeping a daily gratitude journal pulled me out of a major depression. I learned to see, for instance, the crocuses poking their heads up through the snow on an otherwise gloomy day. This practice helps with burnout, too.
  • Intentions. Sometimes they’re for me. A lot of times they’re for others: someone who’s having a rough day, or someone who needs something. This reminds me to be generous with my emotional energy.

While the “daily” spread itself took up way too much space and I had to switch to a weekly system, I’ve found I’m able to fill in daily things over a two-page spread. Each evening I take the time to review my day, and to plan for the coming day. Instead of an index list, I pull from my list of monthly goals, which ties back to my goals for the year.

Tweaking my reflection as I go

This is far from perfect, of course. I resist structure, for one thing. The idea of an unfettered, big block of time is something I’ve always had a hard time shaking, even though I know rationally that it’s all too easy to squander without structure.

Also, sometimes monthly goals are a little too intuitive. In other words, I haven’t broken them down enough, so that something like “lesson plans” for my children’s book series is too big and murky. My writing down a goal in that way suggests the lure of that big chunk of time in which I’ll be able to focus on nothing but that goal, which is, of course, highly unrealistic. Other things might come up, and I might simply not be in the mood for that particular goal on that particular day.

Something I’ve done over the last couple of months, then, is to sit down and brain-dump all the things I need to do — as well as my thoughts on doing them. What does a particular goal or task actually require? Why am I resisting it? What are small ways forward?

Most importantly of all, my reflective practice is part of my meditative practice. It’s helping me to observe how I work without judgment. For example, I don’t beat myself up anymore for experiencing resistance. Instead I observe myself, analyzing where the resistance comes from. It’s a much gentler way to spot gaps or weak points, which I can more intentionally fill.

Journaling, the way I practice it now, helps me to sort and put things in perspective. If something’s sticking, I keep a separate journal to explore my thoughts and feelings. Giving myself and my brain space helps me to be more intentional and thoughtful — and in the long run, hopefully, strategic about how and with whom I spend my time.

How do you journal or plan your days? Do you keep a reflective practice?

Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

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