How good are you at focusing?
If you’re a knowledge worker, being able to direct your attention is crucial. Without the ability to decide what to work on from moment to moment (and acting on that decision), you won’t be adding any value.
With the avalanche of information hurled at us every moment of every day through our devices, it’s difficult to filter out the irrelevant and focus on what’s worth focusing on.
Like time, our attention is in limited supply yet we spend much of it unwillingly. Notifications rarely pull our attention to what we should focus on. And in business settings, there are often other people telling us what to do via calls, email, and direct messages.
All that technology was once meant to help us, but now it has taken over most of our lives. As knowledge workers, we spend much of our days staring at screens. And when our working day ends, we simply switch apps and stare at the screen a few hours more. All the while our attention is pulled in all ways by algorithms others created.
How can we break this cycle? How can we discover what’s worth focusing on from moment to moment?
Gain clarity through journaling
We can discover what to focus on by setting a vision for ourselves and adjusting as we move closer to it.
Journaling has been the most effective tool to gain clarity and set course towards my vision. For more than five years, I’ve been writing for and to myself. In that period, I’ve become aware of unhealthy behaviors and nudged myself onto a straighter path. I’m still no sage, but I’m a whole lot more pleasant to myself and others.
One of the realizations that journaling has given me is that I’m not a single person. Now, before you think there’s something wrong with me, let me explain.
I see myself as a trinity, as roughly three persons; there’s my past self, my current self, and my future self. By thinking and caring for all three of them, my life has improved significantly. I learn from my past self in the present. My present self distills lessons from the past and sends them forward to my future self. That’s the cycle of self-improvement that journaling is ideal for.
In this article I show you how I came to the journaling practice in a time of crisis (it always is) and how you can leverage Roam Research to cultivate a practice of your own. Throughout, I’ll share the templates I use and why I’ve structured them the way I have.
Let’s get started with a bit of background before getting into the technical details.
My journaling story
I have a particularly strong strain of ADHD. That means that I get bored within minutes of doing any activity, unless it provides a steady dopamine drip. Games for example.
But as games don’t pay the bills and nor help me manage my emotions, I needed another way to deal with life.
About five years into my corporate career, I noticed that I was miserable. I wasn’t focusing on what I deemed worth living for, but didn’t know how to steer my attention consistently. While I had control over many things, my attention wasn’t one of them.
Trying to deal with uncertainty and overwhelm, I was drawn to philosophy. Ancient Greek philosophy, to be precise. Hanging out with some guys who were much more conscious than I was, I got into contact with Stoic philosophy.
Journaling was one of the techniques that ancient Stoics (capital S) used to reason and train their minds. By conversing with themselves on paper, Stoics were essentially meditating out loud.
As soon as I read Marcus Aurelius’ private diary (Meditations), I started a daily writing ritual. Every morning and evening, I would freewrite. No prompts; just letting it all out. It was cathartic, even as I was confronted with all the bullshit I was doing to myself.
Journaling has saved my life, literally. By writing I started to hold a mirror to myself every day. What I started to see was an unhappy, obese, and alcoholic kid who never grew up. I was still a scared boy, not taking ownership of anything. Journaling made me see it, and work my way out of it.
By journaling every day, I got to see and appreciate the process of change. Instead of setting outcome-based goals, I listened to the Stoic teachers and started to set process-based goals. Only what’s in my control is worth focusing on, and that’s what motivated me to change. I suddenly saw that I do have agency, no matter on how small a scale it might be.
While still not easy, my journal gives me the guardrails to discover what I need to focus on—and then focus on it. Because without expressing a specific intention, I’ll be distracted within minutes. But as long as I stick to my process goal of writing in my journal, I know I’ll become a tiny bit better every time.
A system for daily journaling
While I started out with the relatively simple practice of freewriting in the mornings and evenings, I discovered over the years that I needed a bit more direction. If I were to focus, I couldn’t let my mind wander freely all the time.
Not wanting to rely on the whims of my mind to remember to do something, I started to craft journaling templates. Taking freely from philosophers before me, I found prompts that helped me think more clearly and move to action.
Since I discovered Roam, keeping up a journaling habit has become even easier because of the frictionless way Roam works. The rest of the article will discuss the three main templates that I use every day:
- Morning orientation
- Interstitial journaling
- Evening reflection
Together, they form a system that powers the cycle of setting intentions and checking up on them. And by journaling throughout the day, I make sure I stay on track.
Let’s have a look at each template.
To wake up and offload anything from my dreams, I like to start the day with a bit of freewriting. Also called morning pages, I sit in front of my laptop and just let everything out. Personally, I don’t aim to write 750 words; all that matters is that I empty my mind.
Additionally, to get my grumpy head straight, I think about what I’m grateful for. These are often simple things, like the sun shining that day or the smell of fresh coffee prepared by my flatmate. Especially during lockdown, cherishing these small things in the morning made a lot of difference.
Finally, I look ahead to what’s planned that day. I do this to prepare mentally, visualizing how I’d like to see things go. For example, if I know I’ll have a tough meeting that day, I’ll set the intention to stay calm no matter what happens, and visualize how I can best make that intention a reality.
Preparing yourself for the worst is a Stoic technique called premeditatio malorum, or the “premeditation of future evils.” This does not mean you should worry, as a Stoic will use this time to plan and prepare, keeping in mind the worst case isn’t bound to happen. The Stoic prepares and then let’s go.
Use the following template to empty your mind in the morning and prepare yourself for the day ahead:
- #roam/templates Morning orientation - ## Morning orientation - On my mind this morning:: - - I'm grateful for:: 1. 2. 3. - I want to achieve today:: 1. 2. 3.
Start by freewriting about what’s on your mind. Then, name the things you’re grateful for before setting your intentions for the day.
Planning your days in the morning may make them more intentional, but how do you make sure that you actually achieve what you’ve set out to do? If you’re like me, you will have forgotten your intentions ten seconds after writing them down, distracted by something else.
To repeatedly bring my attention back to my intentions, I’ve created a prompt for throughout the day. Every time I check my TODO list, I write a few lines about what I did before, what I’m about to do, and what I want to achieve. This is where the term interstitial journaling comes from, coined by Tony Stubblebine, creator of Coach.me, who has completely replaced his TODO list with a journal.
So why would you want to journal between doing tasks? It’s because when you finish one task and focus on another one, part of your mental space will still be occupied by the previous task. Journaling between tasks gives you an opportunity to put a pin in one thought and free up that mental space for the next.
Use the following template to offload your thinking about the previous task, focus on the upcoming task, and decide what you’d like to achieve:
- #roam/templates Interstitial journal - /Current Time - I've done:: - - I'll do:: - - I want:: -
Space and then
/Current Time to get the current timestamp.
Nested underneath I’ve done, write about what you’ve just worked on. This will clear your mind.
Answering I’ll do, write about what you’re going to work on. This will prime and focus your mind on the task ahead.
Finally, underneath I want, you write about what you want to achieve in the next work cycle. This will be your goal. If possible, try to think of a process-based instead of an outcome-based goal.
At the end of the day, I want to know how well I did fulfilling my intentions. In the silence of the night, I scrutinize my behavior of that day—while being as patient and loving for myself as possible. After all, everything is feedback.
I got the idea of the evening reflection from the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, who lived in the first century CE. In a letter to a friend, he described how he ended each day:
“I make use of this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I conceal nothing from myself, I pass nothing by. I have nothing to fear from my errors when I can say: ‘See that you do not do this anymore. For the moment, I excuse you.’”
Seneca then urged to improve ourselves by asking the following questions:
- What bad habit have I put right today?
- Which fault did I take a stand against?
- In what respect am I better?
While Seneca’s questions are useful, I’ve grown fond of the following variation, also known as the Plus, Minus, Next framework:
- Plus: What did I do well today?
- Minus: What could I have done better?
- Next: How could I act next time to be the best version of myself?
By revisiting my morning journal and asking myself these questions in the evening, I hold myself a mirror. The interstitial journal entries that I wrote throughout the day are like an audit trail, allowing me to retrace my steps to see (and learn) where things went different than planned.
Here’s the Plus, Minus, Next framework in a Roam template:
- #roam/templates Evening reflection - Plus: What did I do well today?:: - - Minus: What could I have done better?: - - Next: How could I act next time to be the best version of myself?:: -
Let’s journal together
While a great help, having prompts is not enough. If you want to make journaling a practice, a habit, you need to find a way to do it consistently. Few behaviors become habits without first doing them consciously and consistently.
There are several ways to make something a habit, but going at it alone makes it less likely that you’ll succeed. It’s easier to do something consistently if you’re held accountable and learn with others.
In the coming weeks there will be more articles and events about using journaling to gain mental clarity and focus. I’ll be teaching some ways to get you started and make the practice stick, for example by linking your new journaling practice to existing habits.
RoamStack isn’t just a community of power users who love Roam Research’s features. We’re a diverse community of intelligent people who share their struggles and solutions for effective knowledge work—Roam just happens to be at the center of how we do it.
If you want to stay up to date with new content and events about journaling, leave your name and email address below. You will get the weekly RoamStack newsletter with a roundup of free resources from the community, and be the first one to know about Roam journaling initiatives.
Let’s cultivate our journaling habit, together.