Where does positive change in life come from? What is the key ingredient, the compass? Mindset is an obvious answer: it’s no secret that how we view ourselves, other people and circumstances determines the direction in which life flows. Many of us want a mindset that is optimistic yet flexible, focused on growth and reaching the goals we set for ourselves. Yet, thinking how we know we should think demands practice and hard work. So, how do we train our minds to stay resilient in the face of challenge, look at the bigger picture and pinpoint where we need to improve in order to move forward?
Through unbiased self-evaluation, you can search for a more nuanced answer and overcome our instinctive tendency to search for simple conclusions. This, in turn, paves way for personal development by identifying the exact problems at hand, their origins and how they stand in the way of your goals. We must, in a sense, learn to take an aerial view of our lives.
Journaling is one of, if not the best way to practice self-evaluation and reflection. Many people, from scientists to historical figures and writers, identify their journaling habit as a centrepiece aspect of their success.
Others are skeptical of how a little notebook can supplement their journey to self-improvement. This used to be me. I worried about investing precious minutes into something without a tangible, immediate outcome. Yet by giving it a go, I learnt that journaling has a strong grounding influence. This in itself makes it worthwhile. Putting pen to paper streamlines the countless thoughts swirling around our heads. We can hold onto anything useful while taking out the rubbish. We can understand ourselves better and live each day with an uncluttered mind. And you guessed it – we can use journaling to get closer to our objectives and reflect on our personal development, whatever that term may mean to you. Just like they can help us organise our time, finances, tasks, journals put our thoughts in order and bring to light significant facts we may have otherwise missed.
I’ve talked before about how productivity and becoming your best self go beyond to-do lists and one-size-fits-all solutions. You need to personalise your approach and think within a longer timescale. Here’s where journaling can assist you. It’s your platform to reflect on yourself and your life as extensively as you wish, combining an emotional outlet with a roadmap for future action. And of course, effective journaling does not mean time consuming. Think five to ten minutes a day, or a couple of sentences. That’s all you need to give yourself momentum.
I’ve compiled a list of 25 prompts broadly related to productivity and reaching your goals to give you some ideas. Use these, and anything else that comes to mind, to initiate a journaling habit. Remember to be as specific as possible in your answers and journal consistently, because it is very much an activity the benefits of which are maximised in the long run.
PROMPT 1: Explain what productivity feels like and means to you as vividly as possible.
What distinguishes being at peak productivity from your usual workflow? Use the senses – does the pen/keyboard feel different under your fingers? Can you feel a different sort of energy moving through you?
PROMPT 2: How do you deal with feeling unmotivated? Are you someone who needs a lot of inspiration to get started on a task?
Undoubtedly, we feel less upbeat and energised than usual at certain points in our lives, and solve this in different ways. Some people push on with their work regardless and accept that motivation will return eventually, others employ various techniques to feel inspired once again. What do you relate to more? To what extent does feeling unmotivated impact your workflow?
PROMPT 3: What is your priority in life at the moment?
When juggling multiple goals, we need to remember that one or two automatically take precedence over the others and remind ourselves of what they are. Prioritising, after all, channels the greatest percentage of your efforts toward what truly matters and shapes who you are. Write down your current priority, and discuss the extent to which you have been successful in balancing it with the other aspects of your life.
PROMPT 4: Name five values you strive to personify.
Understanding what values we stand for gives us a moral anchor, aids decision making and gives everything we do a sense of purpose. Write down five (or more!) core values that resonate with you on a deeper level and an explanation of why they are significant to you.
PROMPT 5: What are your three biggest distractions, and how do/will you go about reducing them?
Acknowledging that something is a distraction increases the amount of time in your day for valuable activities. What disrupts your workflow the most – is it particular websites, electronic devices, thought patterns? What do you reach for when tempted to procrastinate? Distractions come in obvious forms, like social media and TV. Often, however, they are much more subtle (for example, checking emails or spending too long writing your to-do list). Thinking about and writing them down will make you more likely to catch your attention drifting away from what you should be focusing on in a given moment.
PROMPT 6: List three things you did today that bring you closer to where you want to be in five years’ time.
Big or small, all of our daily endeavours shape our future. From reading a new book to organising your workspace and finishing an assignment ahead of the deadline, what did you do today to contribute in any way to your long-term goals?
PROMPT 7: What is your biggest accomplishment over the last week, and what do you wish to do better over the next?
We should track our progress as often as possible. This involves appreciating what we’ve done well, as well as searching for where there’s room for improvement, because we can channel our strengths towards our lacking areas. Implement a weekly progress check in your journaling habit to keep yourself on track and accountable.
PROMPT 8: Name five people who have inspired you recently, and explain why.
Finding correct role models empowers and motivates us to work harder towards our goals. Whether they have already achieved what you are after, or reflect the qualities and attitude needed to do so, other people have an infinite capacity to inspire your personal development. Make a list of five individuals – it does not matter if they are famous, close to you personally, or somewhere in between – and exactly what it is about them that you look up to.
PROMPT 9: Talk about an obstacle you overcame today.
Regardless of how large or small, it is natural for us to encounter obstacles and setbacks. Accept that their existence may be beyond your control, but take time to acknowledge your victories, even if they are not obvious straight away.
PROMPT 10: What is a habit you want to develop? How will it help your long-term goals?
Examples of habits include practicing meditation in the morning, getting into a new workout routine, allocating a certain time each evening to develop a new skill. Choose yours mindfully and think of how they link to where you see yourself in the future. And remember, the link could be implicit: for example, going for a run in the morning will leave you energised and boost your performance in your studies.
PROMPT 11: If you struggle with procrastination, what do you think causes it?
We struggle with procrastination to varying degrees, but oftentimes the phenomenon has a subtle underlying cause. For some people, this is perfectionism and fear of failure. Others struggle with overwhelm. Whatever your core issue may be, write about it with detail and honesty. This is stage one of finding an actionable solution.
PROMPT 12: Outline your definition of success.
An overarching definition of success does not exist. Sure, more often than not the word connotes general wellbeing, stability and satisfaction with oneself. But depending on factors ranging from their upbringing to worldview and unique purpose in life, people believe different things to make up such an equilibrium. When unsure of your own unique meaning, you may chase after someone else’s and find it more elusive than ever. Therefore, take time to clarify what success actually means to you. This will, in turn, impact your approach to goal setting and fulfilment.
PROMPT 13: What lesson did you learn from the last book you read?
Books are vessels of knowledge. Fiction or non-fiction, some teach us lessons that shape our entire outlook on and approach to life. Look back to your most recent read, think about the author’s intended message/s, and write down the one you believe to be the most consequential.
PROMPT 14: Give an example of when you helped someone else achieve one of their goals.
Recognising that someone else’s success does not imply the absence of your own is a pivotal step in personal growth. When people come together, help one another and teach one another, great things take place and unforeseen results are achieved. Describe an instance of when you helped someone else get closer to their goals or solve a problem, and how this made you feel afterwards.
PROMPT 15: Identify your biggest time management mistake.
It’s no secret that good time management makes room in your schedule to not only get more done, but find balance between work, health and recreational activities. However, optimising your time management skills takes practice and commitment; most of us know from experience that it is easier said than done. We must be transparent with ourselves and spot mistakes before they start to take a toll. For instance: do you frequently over or underestimate how long certain activities are going to take? Do you spend too much time on something that can be reduced or eliminated from your to-do list?
PROMPT 16: List five ways you have changed since this time last year.
When we look back at bygone months and years, the scale of change in our lives can overwhelm us. While a change in circumstances (such as moving to a new place or entering a new stage in your education) is an obvious example, the person you were a year ago may be just as unrecognisable, or different in subtle yet meaningful ways. Think of five ways you have changed in the last twelve months, focusing on emotions and attitude, and how this affected your life as a whole.
PRIMPT 17: Do you prefer reading fiction or non fiction? Why?
Some people like books with a direct focus on self-improvement to answer their questions. Others prefer fictional tales that contain lessons applicable to real life, or non-fiction books on general subjects of interest to them. Survey your bookshelf and the type of material it contains, reflecting on the typical genre you go for when choosing what to read. Why do you think that is, and what would you like to read more of in the future?
PROMPT 18: Name the last three instances when someone gave you feedback. How did this make you feel, and what did you learn from it?
Feedback from other people is crucial to progress. Sometimes, we simply don’t have that frank ‘outsider’s’ perspective. Emotional factors bar us from spotting flaws and barriers to further progress. For example, when writing on a subject you are passionate about, it may be hard to hear that your ideas are vague and backed by insufficient evidence, but necessary if you want to make the finished product as good as it can be. If an area of your personal life is suffering, honest advice from friends can show exactly where you’ve gone wrong. When considering the feedback, try to think of a lesson learnt even if you did not agree with the other person. How you respond to the feedback is a lesson in itself!
PROMPT 19: When was the last time you listened to your intuition, and what was the outcome?
Making decisions, most people use a combination of impartial analysis and intuition in varying degrees. Recall the last time you placed more weight on the latter, and describe whether your intentions aligned with the outcome.
PROMPT 20: Name one area of physical health you excel in, and one you would like to improve.
In busy or stressful times, our physical wellbeing often shifts from the spotlight. However, staying healthy builds our mental resilience, prevents burnout and correlates with long term success. Use your journal to track whether you are taking care of your mind and body. For example, do you effortlessly adhere to your gym routine, but need to work on sleeping longer hours? Is your fruit and veg intake sky high, but time spent outdoors – almost negligible?
PROMPT 21: Discuss a big decision that frightened you initially, but paid off in the end.
The decisions we make throughout our lives range from mundane and inconsequential to pivotal and irreversible. The latter includes things such as choosing a university degree, changing careers and leaving behind a toxic relationship. With uncertain outcomes and possibility of regret further down the line, they generate turbulence in anyone’s mind. As a reminder that initial fear often signals prospect and opportunity, talk about a time when you had to make a decision that pushed you out of your comfort zone but resulted in something that could not have been achieved in its absence.
PROMPT 22: How do you respond to setbacks and failure? Why? How would you like this to change?
Undoubtedly, even the most successful people out there stumble and encounter circumstances that hinder their goal-seeking effort. Our response to failure, however, dictates our broader horizons. It teaches us otherwise elusive lessons about ourselves and the world as a whole, reinforcing our ability to stay strong in difficult times. Reflect on whether you would consider yourself to be someone who moves on easily from failure, or overthinks each hurdle in your way. What do you think is the reason behind your answer?
PROMPT 23: Name one way technology enhances and hinders your productivity.
The world is polarised about the effects of technology. On one hand, it faultlessly assists us in the workplace and at home alike. On the other – it is a waste of time, and a distraction. We must take a nuanced view to find a healthy relationship with technology, acknowledging the benefits and shortfalls, because when used correctly, it need not be a negative influence at all. Talk about the role technology plays in your daily schedule, talking about how it helps and obstructs your trajectory towards goal fulfilment. How can you turn the latter into the former?
PROMPT 24: What would you like to learn more about? How will you go about doing this?
Learning should be a lifelong goal, beyond formal education. In light of the resources available to us (from smartphones to public libraries), we can educate ourselves on any topics and subjects of interest to us, therefore taking our intellectual development to the next level. Is there a subject, whether philosophy or science or an area of literature, that has always fascinated you? If so, write a brief action plan and a set of goals for the upcoming weeks related to this.
PROMPT 25: If you had five minutes to teach someone to be productive, what key principles would you name?
At times, we have a tendency to overcomplicate productivity. And much like success, the meaning of productivity shifts depending on the context in which we consider it. If you had five minutes, as opposed to several thousand words or an extensive presentation, to teach an absolute beginner how to be productive, what points would you cover and what trivialities would you eliminate in your explanation? Think about turning theory into practice, and how you would teach the student to apply the broader concept to their own objectives.
A journal can be used to write about and track absolutely anything, which is what fascinates me about them the most. At times, all you need at the end of a busy day is an empty page, a pen in hand and an urge to write without direction. However, guidance can give your journaling habit some structure and focus. Use these prompts how you wish (25 day challenge, perhaps?!) and always keep in mind what you want to achieve through your journaling habit.
Let me know in the comments: do you journal? If so, do you do it for fun, to assist your goals, or a combination of both?