The 5-minute journal

The 5-minute journal

I have had a love-hate relationship with journaling since I was little. Basically, I have always wanted to journal. It’s something I’ve always felt I should do. Yet, whenever I’ve set out to do it, one of several things usually happens:

  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I don’t know who I’m saying it to.
  • I don’t actually know why I’m doing it or what value it has.
  • I get the horrible feeling that I could die and someone would actually read what I wrote.
  • I get on a roll for few months and eventually stop for various reasons, then feel like it’s hard to pick up again after time goes by.

On a couple of those latter occasions, I’ve even started up in whole new notebooks because it felt too odd to start again in the same one with a big time gap. And that just feels like a waste. So add, “feels guilty about wasting paper and nice notebooks” to the list of reasons why I haven’t been successful at journaling.

None of this is rational, mind you. And none of these reasons have even helped me give up on the idea of journaling, which would make more sense.

Cue a blog post by Alex Denning that I happened on last fall. He got the idea from Tim Ferriss who got the idea from someone else, but the concept is quite simple: spend 5 minutes in the morning, and 5 minutes in the evening, answering a couple of simple questions.

I started early January (not a resolution per se, but resolution adjacent), and have managed to keep the journal every day (except on a few occasions when I’ve been traveling, and I’ll just stop bringing it with me now because it’s a lost cause – though I’m able to pick up again easily once I’m home).

The results are quite extraordinary.

I am grateful for…

I had also long heard that actively practicing gratitude could be quite powerful, but outside of Thanksgiving Day it always seemed like so much new-agey nonsense. Of course I was grateful, what difference did it make if I said it out loud or wrote it down?

I am finding that it makes quite a bit of difference.

The exercise does not ask you to list all of the things you’re grateful for, but to write down 3. This means honing in on what’s most important to you, the things that you are most grateful for. It could be overall gratitude, or in that moment. The point is to not spend an hour thinking about it or analyzing the possibilities. Just write.

In the three months that I’ve been keeping this journal, my first item hasn’t changed: my health. My health is always on the top of my list because it is what I am most grateful for, knowing that without it so much more in my life wouldn’t be possible or would be adversely affected. Writing it down doesn’t make it more true than it was before, doesn’t make me more grateful, but it does make me more conscious as I go about my day and make choices that affect my health.

It’s also been interesting to see how the other items change (or don’t) over time. Every once in a while I’ll add a fourth item because I’m feeling particularly grateful for something that day. Not adding something to the list doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for it; writing the list creates focus around what I value the most, forcing me to be more sensitive to those things and people throughout my day.

It forces me to ask myself, “Am I living in a way that accurately reflects what matters to me most?”

What would make today great?

It never occurred to me to start off my day asking this simple question. It was always more like getting to the end of the day and thinking, “Wow, ok, that didn’t suck too bad.” And it’s really empowering to take back the control and set the tone for my own day.

Where do I set the bar? How do I define “great”? What do I want out of each day? Because yeah, I get to decide. And the bar doesn’t have to be neck-breakingly high. I quite honestly feel that it’s better if it’s not.

Sometimes tasks and specific things end up on this list, which again, should be no more than 3 or 4 items max. Increasingly over time, I find they’ve become broader stokes:

  1. Get in a nice long walk.
  2. Feel on top of my work load.
  3. Write something.

And every once in a while I’ll throw in just for fun:

  1. Surprise me.

Daily affirmations

More new-agey crap for some, but if you embrace it, it’s crazy-good therapy and yet another tool for shedding light both on what’s important and what ails you. Who doesn’t have doubts and fears that can hold them back in their day? Even the most confident or ego-inflated people I know have their demons or kryptonite.

The distinguishing feature of a daily affirmation is that it almost invariably starts with “I am ___”.

  • I am loved.
  • I am capable.
  • I am enough.
  • I belong.

I am a super hero…


You know what matters most, you know the tone you want to set and how high to place the bar, and you have affirmed your place in the world. Anything is possible now.

This exercise isn’t only interesting for the day, because saying these things “out loud” has a transformative effect. Embracing that transformation is the best part. Seeing how what’s important to you today, how you think about what makes your day great today, where you feel you need to affirm yourself today, might not be the same tomorrow, because you’ve brought the thoughts to the forefront of your consciousness, allowing them to change shape and create new meaning and understanding.

Amazing things that happened today…

I had a really hard time with this one for a while. “Amazing”? Who has 3 amazing things happen to them every day? It seemed like a lot to hope for, a lot of pressure put on, and a huge potential for disappointment should amazing things not have happened.

But I persevered. I decided not to fight against the idea of amazing, but rather question what it could mean.

Did it have to mean mind-blowing orgasms, palette-exploding gastronomic experiences or winning big bucks in the lottery? What could qualify as amazing as I looked back over my day, reflecting on how I spent my time and lived up to my own potential?

One of my favorites: “Amazing food fail: chocolate, bread w/ butter, popcorn, galette des rois (2 parts !) sad ”.

Some other good ones:

  • “Olivier said he loved my singing.”
  • “Went for a walk and got drenched.”
  • “I arrived in the Alps, beautiful!”
  • “Walked ~4km in the snow in my sneakers (hiked!).”
  • “Spoke to [my cousins] on the PHONE <3.
  • “I got hired!”

It turns out that it hasn’t been about lowering my expectations for amazing so much as looking for the amazing—without thinking of it as necessarily good or bad—in simple, everyday things. Amazing doesn’t have to be mind-blowing, it need only surprise, astonish or delight.

How could the day have been even better?

So it’s not enough to have 3 amazing things happen during the day, now I need to think about improving on the day even more? Gah, seems like a lot to ask. Yet again, it’s an interesting and challenging exercise.

What things keep coming up? What important things aren’t finding ample place in my day, or where am I spending time on things that aren’t that important?

  • Watch less TV.
  • Spend less time on social media.
  • Write more.
  • Do more yoga.

Recently, not often, but on a couple of occasions, after thinking about it for a minute or two, I simply wrote:

  • It was a good day.


Do you journal? Maybe you have another template or an experience you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it! smile