Decoding your Mind: How and Why I Journal
Sharing my method to data-empowered journaling and self-reflection
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My first encounter with a journal was "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" in second grade. At the very start of the book, Greg, the aforementioned
wimpy kid
, clarifies that it is a
JOURNAL
,
not
a diary. While I don't remember much else, it was my first encounter with popular media putting journaling into the public light. And despite these media references normalizing the upkeep of some sort of record of your life as it unfoldsーa narrative accompaniment of sortsーI never picked it up or came across friends who would talk about it. It was associated with being dorky, silly, weak even. Why do you
need
a journal, can you not
remember
what happens each day? And it certainly never feels important in the momentーof course I remember all the minor details of the day: how Emily and April aren't talking anymore due to the chocolate milk feud or how Mrs. Harris called Preston out on his constant fart jokes. Personally, I had my own qualms against journaling, having been engrained to associate math and science as the ultimate form of achievement through societal notions and the influence of having two engineering/science focused parents who loved what they did. I saw writing as an extra, unnecessary ability. Ironically, I never thought about how I was actually able to learn those idealized subjects: through the power of clear writing and a symbolic language. Even when I did find sparks of joy in homework assignments to create a myth or a structured critique of
Brave New World,
I clamped them down and attributed them to distractions.

In the first year of
, I revisited my dark past with writing. In a fit of inspiration from reading miscellaneous blogs, I decided to start my
after a particularly formative experience listening to some tech CEOs talk about their dreams in New York City (my
was on this; 🚨
be warned. it's not the prettiest
). Writing felt hardーas it always has. But it also felt satisfying, giddy, empowering even. There's just something about putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard with that intent) and opening your flood gate of pent-up feelings and thoughts that feels so liberating. It feels like you're Marie-Kondo-ing your mind, ushering out the new entries onto the page in front of you before they have a chance to collect dust, to be nicely arranged and sorted later. You're donating your thoughts to the journal charity, but instead of being purged from your life forever, they're immortalized in all their glory for later browsing.

Now, imagine a bag of your thoughts

After my first foray into writing seriously (and by that I mean just considering it not a waste of time), I journaled on and off, mainly diving into it whenever I felt an urge to release that I couldn't put off. Because it depended on seizing a passing moment of intense clarity, I didn't keep up with it consistently and it quickly fell off as a priority. It wasn't until last spring that I started consistently journaling every day when I found this system where I could track data points I cared about and structure the journal how I wanted. At this point, I've kept up with it now for almost a whole year with only a few misses. It all started off with the idea of crafting a very personalized experience by combining a template of curated questions to prime the right mindset and a method to collect custom data I cared about. Since then, it's been an ever-evolving process with a focus on experimenting to find what works and not being afraid to make drastic changes (especially since the only user is me, see more
). It grew to encompass a place to check off daily habits I want to build, a log of interesting thoughts, ideas, and questions that cross my mind during the day, and even charts split on every axis imaginable to dissect and analyze the data I'm collecting about myself.

journal_view.png
my nightly data entry companion

As seen above, every day I go through and dutifully fill out this template in Coda, filling in the "Day" section with interesting thoughts throughout the day that I jot down quickly in Apple Notes as they occur, and dumping my thoughts in the "Night" section. The doc pulls in my Google Calendar events, the template I define, and a list of my daily habits for me to check off. At first, it definitely felt more like a chore than anything else, but I've grown to become used to decompressing in this way by unloading my day's joys and stresses into this box. It helps that recording the factors in this way gamify the process a bit, giving me some extra dopamine hits for completing my habits and associating positive reinforcement with doing the behavior I want to cultivate.

It may seem a bit strange to end my day with some manual data entry (who doesn't love data entry), but it's my way of quantifying something that's normally unquantifiable. By putting a bit of extra work on myself every day, I reap the compounding benefits of my accumulated data. Similar to the appeal of
, which compiles a high-level view of your year through daily 1-second videos, I'm slowly curating a high-fidelity artifact of my progress through the game of life. I wouldn't say the data is giving me crazy revelations about how I'm living my life, but I enjoy being able to look back from a birds-eye and match how I was feeling with life events.

Data from
Nov 1, 2019 - Jan 31, 2020

Day Rating over Time
2
Created with Highcharts 7.2.2DateDay Rating11. Nov25. Nov9. Dec23. Dec6. Jan20. Jan12345
(some days missing because I was out of town and got lazy
😢
)
Day Theme Breakdown
2
Created with Highcharts 7.2.2Family 👪Work 💻Friends 🍻Fun (Hobbies) 📸🧗...Me time 💭Traveling ✈️Food 🍜
Habits Day Rating Breakdown
3
Created with Highcharts 7.2.2RowCompleted Avg PostIncomplete Avg PostDelta PostPracticeChinese1...Trysomethingnew ...Learnone newthin...Exercise20 minsMeditate5 minsConvers…Conversation with ...Post pho…Post photography p...Read 15minsWrite 10mins024
(can't tell if statistically significant
🤔
)
Daily Habits Completion Breakdown
3
Created with Highcharts 7.2.2RowComplete Days PostIncomplete Days PostRead 15 minsPost photography p...Write 10 minsMeditate 5 minsExercise 20 minsTry something new ...Learn one new thin...Conversation with ...Practice Chinese 1...0102030405060708090100
As you can see, once you have the data, you can do all sorts of wild things to psychoanalyze yourself. I try not to read too deep into the data because there are lots of factors and biases that aren't accounted for, but every once in a while, I get some interesting general observations about how I'm doing emotionally, where I'm spending my time, and whether I'm aligned with the habits I'm trying to build or not. For example, you can see that
draw a random...
doesn't have any entries because I realized I was frequently skipping out on it and marked it inactive to focus on others.

Another habit I tried to do more as part of my New Year's resolutions was doing
. I tied this directly to my habit of
trying something new
and having a
conversation with a stranger
, and as seen above, there is a pretty significant difference it makes in my perception of the day if I complete them. Lots of what the data says (I feel better on the days I exercise) are intuitive. You usually don't need all the data laid out in front of you to have a general sense that things are going poorly or that you feel more lethargic when you don't stick to a consistent sleep schedule. So do I feel the desire to record and measure the data because I feel a greater sense of control when I can see all the data laid out? Or does the mere act of recording help encourage and make following the habits easier by making it tangible?
All that said, regardless of whether you record obscure data points about your life when you journal, the act of writing down your thoughts is incredibly important and rewarding. For me, I have an odd tendency to remember very inconsequential, specific details about events throughout the day but forget the high-level key points of what happened, especially if the information density is high. By keeping a daily log for my thoughts, I have a process of dumping the cognitive load that builds up throughout the day into a place for safekeeping and free up my mind to focus on the present rather than trying to remember the important pieces of the past. I can decouple the act of recording information from the act of filtering and analyzing, which makes each stage all the more effective. Through doctored questions, I'm able to encourage the kind of behavior and mindset that I want to see in myself. The act of answering is akin to decoding the puzzle of my thoughts by filling the crucial elements to expressing my inner workings. It's also very therapeutic to have a place where you can let it all out unfilteredーa place where you can truly speak your mind even if you know you shouldn't be feeling a certain way. And because the thoughts that go in are so raw and honest, it simulates an eerily accurate window into a former version of yourself: your thoughts, feelings, and priorities.

image.png
something I loved to decode as a kid,
except now I'm filling in parts of my mind

I'm curious to hear thoughts on how others structure their journaling or systems for thought, why you journal, or if you have ideas on what personal data would be interesting to track!

If this journaling approach appeals to you, check out my
(feel free to message me any questions if you come across problems building it out to your liking!).

If you're curious, check out a live monitor on how I'm doing and how I'm spending my time in the last month in
that gets automatically populated with data from my journal.

Thanks to
,
, and
for thoughts/feedback.

Check out my
for more ✍️ and info on me 👨‍💻, or follow me on
📸.

🆕I'm also on
nowーcatch excerpts of my random logged thoughts throughout the day and get updates on when I write!


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