41 Powerful Journaling Exercises for Mind Expansion and Effective Behavior Change

Michal Korzonek |

Based on the work of some of the greatest world-class experts on productivity, complexity thinking, health and wellbeing, among others.

Note: pdf version of this article (along with many other goodies) available via our Patreon.

Do you feel stuck inside your own head? Do you crave change, but don’t know where to start?

What you need is a paradigm shift.

This article provides you with a list of journaling exercises based on tested tools by world-class experts and thought-leaders (from fields as diverse as health and fitness, habit-building, productivity, business, minimalism, and relationships—among others) that will help you get unlocked, see things differently, and start fresh.

Some of them were already exercises in their original form (such as Tim Ferriss’s ‘Fear-Setting’), and the other ones were adapted from principles and models (such as the ‘Quality/Quantity Trade-off’ or James Clear’s ‘Plateau of Latent Potential’) and turned into journaling practices that you can apply to your own experiences.

Some of them might change your life, and some might not be a good fit for you, but hopefully, each new experiment will unlock new insights and propel you further on your path.

How to use this article?

Ready? Let’s do it.


I. Take a Step Back and Expand Your Perception

1. ‘Deeper Why’

Source: Benjamin Hardy

What about __ is important to me?_

[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]deeper why All the images (journaling exercises) in this article were created by Silvia Bastos.[/caption]

In 2017, Benjamin Hardy published an article where he explains the importance of investigating your deepest why—the real reason why you want the things you want and do the things you do.

According to him, here’s why it’s important to know this:

  1. Because clarity leads to motivation;
  2. Because operating in alignment with your core values boosts your performance.

To find your deeper why, ask yourself: “What about ____ is important to me?”_

When you have the answer, go deeper and ask: “what about [answer] is important to me?” Repeat the process up to seven times until you reach the answer that most profoundly resonates with you.

Here’s an example:

[Thing I want:] A better job.

[Question:] What about having a better job is important to me?

[Thing I want:] Making more money.

[Question:] What about making more money is important to me?

[Thing I want:] Having less financial anxiety.

[Question:] What about having less financial anxiety is important to me?

[Thing I want:] Being more patient with my family.

[Question:] What about being more patient with my family is important to me?

[Thing I want:] To be loved and listened to.

Before you complete the exercise, make sure you read Benjamin Hardy’s article to know the deeper why of why you should do it in the first place: “How to Consistently Act From Your Deepest “Why” and Optimize Your Time”

2. Beginner’s Mind

Source: Zen Buddhism

An empty mind is ready for anything.

beginner's mind journaling exercise

When it comes to problem solving, mainstream education usually reinforces a “_one answer to one problem”_ approach.

This gets you stuck in a functional fixedness bias, where you always look at problems from a familiar viewpoint—which hinders natural bursts of creativity. As Abraham Maslow once famously said, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

The great news is, Scott Jeffrey wrote an amazing article where he offers four different exercises to access the beginner’s mind mindset, and consequently elevate your creative work and enhance your ability to learn.

How to use the spread in this section?

  1. Choose one or more of the exercises in Scott Jeffrey’s article;
  2. Copy the spread to your journal;
  3. Apply your chosen exercises throughout this week;
  4. Take notes on your spread.

To fully engage in a creative/learning process, let go of the ‘I know’ mentality, and approach the problem with a beginner’s mind—just as if you were seeing it for the very first time.

As Shunryu Suzuki points out: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Read more about this: ‘How to Adopt a Beginner’s Mind to Accelerate Learning and Increase Creativity’ by Scott Jeffrey.

3. ‘Life Calendar’

Source: Tim Urban

“Am I making the most out of this week?”

[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]life calendar journaling exercise The reason why this one looks different is that it’s way too complex (and big) to draw on your journal. I recommend buying the 24in x 36in calendar at Wait But Why—it’s big, it’s high-res, and it will last you a lifetime (which is kind of the purpose of it).[/caption]

Your time is very limited and therefore precious. If you live for 90 years, that gives you a total of 4680 weeks to live (and you’ve already spent a big chunk of that).

Tim Urban came up with this brilliant idea called the ‘Life Calendar’: a visual representation of your lifespan, where each week corresponds to one square.

Although it sounds simple, it’s super powerful: as you review and fill in a new square every week, you can feel time passing by. You realize you won’t live forever, which is great to keep you on track, enjoying each day, and pursuing your goals.

But the purpose is not simply to count weeks: you can use your calendar to make sure you are using each week in the most beneficial way possible. As you mark each week on your calendar, check whether your weekly activities:

  1. Bring you enjoyment,
  2. Improve your future or the lives of others, or
  3. Do both of the above (ideal outcome).

Don’t forget to read Tim Urban’s ‘Your Life in Weeks’—he gives practical (and also hilarious) examples of how to use the calendar which are extremely useful and inspiring.

4. The Medicine Wheel

Source: Indigenous wisdom

Balance is not a noun—it’s a verb_._

The medicine wheel has been used for centuries by indigenous tribes from all over the world as a compass, a guide to give them direction in life.

How does it work?

Well, as it usually happens with this kind of ancient wisdom, different interpretations and traditions tend to appear with time. The basic concept is to use the four elements as a framework to help us achieve balance. Here’s a version that can be applied to our modern, busy lives:

How can you use it?

When feeling out of balance, see which quadrant of the Medicine Wheel is in excess and engage in activities that belong to the diagonally inverse quadrant. This will “tip” the wheel back to center, and bring you back to balance.

To find out more about which activities to use for each quadrant, and more information about what each of them represents, check out this article: ‘Journaling Techniques to Master Balance and Grow Faster’ by Silvia Bastos

5. Ikigai

Source: Somewhere and someone in Japan, during the Heian Period (794-1185) [1]

Life’s purpose combines what you love, are good at, can be paid for, and what the world needs.

Ikigai [from Japanese: ‘iki’ [生き] meaning life, + ‘gai’ [甲斐] meaning value or worth] is an excellent framework to help you identify your optimal life direction, and reflecting on your long-term goals, ideal lifestyle, and economic viability.

The concept can be depicted as a Venn diagram with your ikigai placed at the center, where four sets overlap.

Draw the spread in your notebook, then take some time to reflect and fill in each section with information that’s true to you—and hopefully you’ll get some clarity on your personal ikigai.

If you need more ideas for how to use it, I offer step-by-step instructions in this article: How To Chart A New Course For Your Life With 3 Simple Diagrams.

II. Plan, Strategize, and Take Action Like a Fortune 100 CEO

6. ‘Begin With the End in Mind’

Source: Stephen Covey

Know where you’re going so you know what steps to take.

begin with the end in mind journaling exercise

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey has brought to life a timeless principle: begin with the end in mind.

In other words: make sure that you always keep your bigger purpose/goal/mission in mind when you engage in any smaller tasks. This will help make sure your actions are meaningful, you waste less time, and you get where you want to go.

This principle can be applied to any area of life—from personal-development and relationships to business and projects.

How can you apply it? Well, since there’s a whole chapter dedicated to it in one of the most popular self-development books ever, quite a lot. But you can start here:

  1. Begin with defining your end goal (who you want to be or what you want to achieve);
  2. Clarify your principles and values, which will guide you towards your goal on daily basis;
  3. And finally, plan smaller tasks and jump into action.

If you need more clarity about any of the steps in the process, you can read about the main takeaways from this principle in this article: Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind

7. ‘The Flywheel Effect’

Source: Jim Collins

“Greatness is created by a series of good decisions, extremely well executed, over a long period of time”—Jim Collins

flywheel journaling exercise

There is a common belief that people and companies become successful as a result of one major “breakthrough moment”.

Fortunately, after a lot of investigating and asking people and companies about their “big breakthrough” events, Jim Collins found out that this is just a myth. It turns out it’s not one big decisive moment that determines greatness: it is a series of interlinked events that trigger each other to make success inevitable—a metaphoric ‘flywheel’.

Jim Collins calls it ‘The Flywheel Effect’, and it can be applied both to business and personal life. In his interview with Tim Ferris, he gives the example of his own personal flywheel:

Curiosity for big questions > research > good ideas > books and teaching > impact > fund access > curiosity >…

As in:

Curiosity for big questions inevitably leads to him engaging in research, which is bound to produce (at least a few) very good ideas. Those are naturally destined to lead towards writing and teaching, which is likely to have impact on the world, consequently leading towards accessing funds, allowing to fund another project, and thus completing the loop.

A flywheel builds a compounding momentum over time with each loop adding up to the cumulative effect. If you do “a”, you can’t help but do “b”. If you do “b”, you can’t help but do “c”—and so on. It requires constant optimization, but it can be maintained and repeated for decades.

You can use the spread above to brainstorm the activities that, brought together in a sequential way, inevitably lead you towards greatness and success.

However, this is just a very basic explanation of ‘The Flywheel Effect’; if you want to learn in depth about it and build your own powerful flywheel, read Jim Collins’s book ‘Turning the Flywheel

8. High Impact Actions

Source: Rafael Sarandeses

Engage in actions that are most likely to bring you the desired result.

high impact actions journaling exercise

Knowing your goal is not enough. You also need a clear path, outlining the most effective steps you could/should/will take.

In his article published on Better Humans, Rafael Sarandeses defines these as ‘High Impact Actions’.

High Impact Actions should be:

  1. Predictive of your goal (if you do them diligently, you are very likely to achieve it);
  2. 100% within your control;
  3. Easy to do on a regular basis;
  4. Inserted within a tactical timeline (quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily);
  5. Turned into habits, routines and processes.

So forget about accomplishing random daily tasks or engaging in purposeless habits for the sake of being “more productive”: what are the most effective, 100% within your control, regular actions that will lead you towards your goal?

Start by reading Rafael’s article—you’ll learn a lot from it. Then define your goal, define your HIA, and then—it’s time to take action.

9. Explore/Exploit Trade-off

Source: Probability Theory

Should you look for a better option, or stick with what is already working?

explore/exploit journaling exercise

The multi-armed bandit problem in probability theory gave origin to the “explore/exploit” concept, which can be applied to several areas in life (such as art, business, learning, and personal development). In his article ‘Explore/Exploit’, Josh Kaufman offers a very clear explanation of the pros and cons of exploring versus exploiting while working on a project or trying to achieve a goal.

So how does this principle work?

To find the best path towards your goals, you need to experiment with different options—you need to test, and be aware of other possibly more effective routes. However, every new exploratio_n has an opportunity cost: _less time to exploit the current option.

Exploring only leads to collecting a lot of information, but not making sufficient progress on any of the available paths. In contrast, exploiting only risks missing out on better solutions.

For example, if you started a new diet a few weeks ago but still see no results in terms of weight loss, you might want to try a new one. However, by doing so you might be giving up too early to see results—not exploiting the current enough to realize it’s actually ideal for you in the long run. But what if this is not the ideal diet for you? How to solve this dilemma?

Effective strategies include a combination of exploring and exploiting in various proportions. Here are some examples:

What projects are you currently working on? What’s the best strategy for each of them? Reflect on it, and then experiment by consciously dividing your time between exploring and exploiting for each of them.

If you’re still not clear on how this works, start by reading Josh Kaufman’s ‘Explore/Exploit’ article.

If you need inspiration for applying this to your own life, Wikipedia contains an extensive list of possible strategies.

10. Make Smaller Circles

Source: Josh Waitzkin

“It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.”—Josh Waitzkin

make smaller circles journaling exercise

The key to mastering any skill is to first learn its most basic components. In his book The Art of Learning’{:target=”blank”}, Josh Waitzkin explains that before mastering the big, powerful moves that have led him to become world champion in _tai chi chuan, he first had to spend hours learning basic, small, slow movements, such as the subtleties of a few-inches-long punch.

When learning anything, pick an isolated component and break it down into tiny details which make it work. Want to learn Japanese? Start with learning the alphabet. Pick up a new instrument? First, master the scales—and only then will it be time to work on your vibrato.

Keep mastering the basics until they are fully integrated into your subconscious, so that later your conscious mind will have enough available energy to deal with new complex challenges.

11. Quality Threshold

Source: Scott Young

Finish your product, instead of endlessly trying to increase its quality.

quality threshold journaling exercise

Mastering a skill is a result of the time we dedicate to perfecting it.

Throughout his life, Vincent Van Gogh produced around 900 paintings most of them within a 2-year period. The thing is: not all of Van Gogh’s paintings were masterpieces—but it was his production volume that lead to creating the ones that were.

Focusing on “getting it perfect” is often a psychological barrier preventing us from completing a product, which in turn reduces the amount of production cycles, leading to fewer chances for feedback and skill-refinement.

So how can you produce enough quantity to get better at what you do, but still dedicate enough time to each product to make sure you can create quality content?

Scott Young wrote an article that covers that in a very clear, actionable way. It’s called ‘How to Be Prolific’, and it explains how to find the sweet spot between quality and quantity when producing work.

The exercise in this section was based on the advice given by Scott in his article (which is what I recommend you start with to get a more in-depth knowledge of the subject)—some steps to make it as effortless as possible to become prolific and improve your craft:

Scott suggests “create a “Vocabulary” for Your Work”—a database of tools that you have to learn or invest in once, and that will make your craft or process easier in the future;

Master atomic skills required to create your product, through repeating of the production cycle;

Identify and remove the barriers keeping you from completing products.

The trick is not to completely disregard the quality of the product, but instead—especially if you struggle with finishing things you started—shift your focus to increasing your output.

As Voltaire said, “the best is the enemy of the good.”

12. Process Thinking

Source: Nick Saban and Lionel Rosen / Ryan Holiday

_“We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.”—_Ryan Holiday

process thinking journaling exercise

There is one high-performance hack that a lot of us are unaware of. Psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen originated the insight; football coach Nick Saban applied it to his team’s success; and Ryan Holiday wrote all about it in a fantastic article.

It’s called process thinking, and it’s about the importance of staying focused on our immediate next steps.

We often get obsessed about our long term goals, but never end up achieving them because we don’t optimize our short-term actions. Keeping our goals in mind is crucial, but in order to get there, in order to progress in real time—right now—we need to focus on the next consecutive point on our journey.

Do you want to lose weight? Set a goal, but then go for your first walk today. If you want to start a blog, it’s great to keep the ideal audience numbers in mind—but don’t forget to start writing your first blog post.

Whatever is your Z, keep it in mind (begin with the end in mind) but then quickly focus back on how to get to point B.

Do you need more inspiration? Ryan Holiday’s article not only goes in depth into how Nick Saban lead his team to success by applying this principle, but also offers other useful insights on how you can do it yourself. Check it out: Here’s the Strategy Elite Athletes Follow to Perform at the Highest Level.

III. Make Great Decisions

13. Circle of Competence

Source: Warren Buffett

Focus on what you know, learn about what you don’t know.

[caption id=”attachment_593” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]circle of competence journaling exercise The image on the left was based on the one in Shane Parish’s article.[/caption]

Here’s a truth for you: you don’t know everything.

But here are the good news: you don’t need to.

In order to increase the likelihood of success in any area of life, all you need to do is focus on the narrow area where you have real expertise, while gradually expanding it by learning new things.

Warren Buffett calls this area ‘circle of influence’, and he attributes his success to always staying within his: “The size of that circle [of what you know] is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.”

Shane Parish from Farnam Street wrote one of the most insightful articles out there on this topic (even if very short), called ‘Understanding your Circle of Competence: How Warren Buffett Avoids Problems’.

So here’s your exercise:

  1. Read Shane Parish’s article to get a clearer grasp of the concept of ‘area of influence’;
  2. Copy this spread to your journal;
  3. Reflect on the questions on the left and write down the answers;
  4. During this week, aim to stay within your area of influence, as well as expanding it.

It’s totally fine to say “I don’t know”. Pretending that you do is a slippery slope—as George Bernard Shaw said, “Beware of false knowledge, as it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

Own what you know, admit what you don’t, and expand your knowledge wherever it might help you grow.

14. Decision Matrix

Source: Dwight Eisenhower

Focus on what is important, not urgent.

decision matrix journaling exercise

The Decision Matrix, popularized by Stephen Covey, is a visual tool for effective time management. It helps evaluate which tasks should be carried out, delegated, or dropped, by dividing them into four different quadrants:

  1. Important and urgent (e.g. crisis situations, pressing deadlines, etc.)
  2. Important but not urgent (e.g. long-term planning, relationships, exercise, etc.)
  3. Not important but urgent (interruptions, activities not contributing to your goals)
  4. Not important and not urgent (distractions)

Quadrant 2 activities are at the core of effective personal management. They contribute directly towards your long-term mission, values and goals.

Spending most of your time in quadrant 2 practically guarantees that good things will happen, starting with removing the amount of crisis situations keeping you in quadrant 1. The rest should be either delegated or dropped.

To use this spread, think about the activities that you do on a regular basis, place them on the correct quadrant, and then reflect on ways to create more time for quadrant 2 activities.

If you want more information about the Decision Matrix, Brett and Kate McKay wrote a great article about it: The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life.

15. Pareto Analysis

Source: Vilfredo Pareto

Identify what’s critical to your success and focus on it.

pareto analysis journaling exercise

According to the Pareto Principle (known as the “80/20 rule”), 80% of results come from 20% of actions taken.

If most of the benefits come from just a small percentage of your actions, the most effective strategy towards success is to identify and focus on those things first.

Here’s how you can apply the Pareto Principle:

  1. Specify your goal or problem;
  2. Identify factors contributing towards that goal or problem;
  3. List them in descending order of contribution towards the goal or problem;
  4. Focus on the “vital few” rather than “trivial many”.

Note: This process is applicable to all areas of life (business, health, relationships, productivity, etc.)

If you enjoy Excel sheets, Duncan Haughey created a step-by-step walkthrough of conducting your Pareto analysis with an .xlsx template.

If you’d rather read a book, Richard Koch wrote a brilliant one.

16. Opportunity Cost

Source: Friedrich von Wieser (early 20th century scientist)

Every choice has a hidden price: not benefiting from the alternative choices.

opportunity cost journaling exercise

I could try to explain the concept of opportunity cost myself, but why would you read my words if you can read Seth Godin’s instead? Here’s how he explains it in his brilliantly concise article, ‘Opportunity cost just went up’:

“If you have $100 to invest and you buy this stock instead of that bond, the interest you gave up in making your choice is your opportunity cost.

“At the dinner buffet, you can take as much food as you like, but you can only consume so much food. Which means that eating the jambalaya means you won’t have room to eat a dosa. That’s your opportunity cost.”

Every choice you make has a price.

Understanding the concept of ‘opportunity cost’ is key to effective decision-making, as it helps see the real cost of your actions and eliminate the ones that are not worth it.

In the words of Warren Buffett: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.

Before you say yes to any offer or opportunity, ask yourself: “by saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?” and then, “Is it worth it?”

17. Gap Between Trigger and Response

Source: Viktor Frankl

_“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”—_Viktor Frankl

gap between trigger and response journaling exercise

We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we get to choose what to do with the things that happen to us.

In other words, what psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl meant is that we don’t have to react impulsively to things that happen to us—we can choose to respond consciously, and this is where we can determine the quality of our lives.

Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D wrote an article for Psychology Today where she offers some practical strategies to turn Frankl’s words into action:

To use the journaling exercise in this section, first identify your common triggers and reactions; then, take a look at Leslie Becker-Phelps’s article to learn her strategies, identify the ones that suit you best, and start experimenting with them.

IV. Face Your Problems Like a Zen Master and Get Them Out of Your Way

18. Fear-Setting

Source: Tim Ferriss

“Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel and enjoy doing so: action.”—Tim Ferris

fear-setting journaling exercise

Tim Ferriss claims there is one exercise which has produced his biggest business and personal successes.

He calls it ‘Fear-Setting’.

Very often we avoid taking action because we’re afraid of the consequences. But just like fear of the dark, very often we fear things just because we don’t know them. ‘Fear-setting’ is a powerful tool to dissect worst case scenarios, exhaust solutions, and get to a state of mental clarity from which are able to take action.

I took the liberty to create a visual, journaling version of Tim’s exercise. However, I highly recommend reading Tim’s instructions before you fill it in, as he goes in depth into each question and offers useful examples.

After that, draw the spread in your notebook, take some time to think, and write down your answers.

And then—because none of this makes sense without the last step…

Take action!

P.S.: I first read about this exercise in ‘The Four-Hour Workweek’ by Tim Ferriss, which, if you’re interested in living your ideal lifestyle, managing your time better and yes, facing your fears, you should totally read.

19. Procrastination Loop

Source: Charlotte Lieberman

At its core, procrastination is about emotions, not productivity.

procrastination journaling exercise

Procrastination is a negative habit loop, reinforced through “amygdala hijack”—a bias that makes us focus problems (e.g. feeling bored) rather than future ones (e.g. missing an important deadline).

Charlotte Lieberman explains all about how procrastination really happens in her article ‘Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)’. Here’s the core idea: procrastination is an emotional feedback loop.

  1. Challenging emotion surfaces (e.g. self-doubt, anxiety, stress);
  2. Procrastination provides temporary emotional relief (especially “socially acceptable procrastination” such as reading or tidying up);
  3. You feel bad to see you’re procrastinating, so the emotions become even stronger, and the loop starts again. You’re trapped.

Charlotte also offers very practical solutions to break this loop:

  1. Be curious about your thoughts and emotions: when you feel like procrastinating, analyze that feeling in depth (this way you can get to the root of why you are procrastinating);
  2. Consider your next action: if you were to do the task you’re avoiding, what would be the first step? This helps you break down a big problem into small, actionable chunks;
  3. Make your temptations more inconvenient: place obstacles on the path to your temptations. For example, if you tend to check Facebook often, hide your phone in a drawer;
  4. Make it easy to do the right thing: remove any points of resistance that make what you need to do seem hard.

After you read Charlotte Lieberman’s article and dive deep into her instructions to end procrastination, fill in the spread above—and then start turning your words into action.

20. Good Problems vs. Bad Problems

Source: Mark Manson

When deciding about what you want to do, ask yourself: what kind of problems do you enjoy dealing with?

good problems journaling exercise

According to Mark Manson in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, whichever path you choose in life, you will face problems.

In fact, problems never stop, since solving one problem always leads to the creation of a new one.

Therefore, instead of hoping for an effortless path, he suggests you choose your path based on the kind of problems you enjoy solving and which make you grow. For example, you might find it enriching to overcome writer’s block, but tiring to constantly listen to the complaints from your current boss at the job you hate.

Good questions to ask yourself:

Let Mark Manson be your guide: “The path to happiness is a path full of shitheaps and shame.”

So choose the good shitheaps and shame, and then face them heads on.

21. Theory of Constraints

Source: Eliyahu Goldratt / Taylor Pearson

A chain is never stronger than its weakest link.

[caption id=”attachment_602” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]theory of constraints journaling exercise The graph on the left is an adaptation from the images in Taylor Pearson’s article.[/caption]

The Theory of Constraints (TOC)—conceived in the 1980s by Eli Goldratt, one of the founders the Israeli company Creative Output—is a management framework that views any system as being limited in achieving more of its goals by a small number of constraints.

In other words, in order for any system to become effective, the bottlenecks need to be addressed.

While originally created for business purposes, the theory of constraints (or business production function) is also highly relevant for personal growth. People (or businesses) fail to grow because they waste resources on ineffective solutions, such as fixing what’s already working without addressing major bottlenecks.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight solely by increasing the amount of physical exercise, while ignoring diet and recovery, you are likely to fail. Similarly, attempting to increase your productivity by extending the working hours without improving physical and mental wellbeing is likely to result in burnout.

How can you apply this principle to improve your personal effectiveness?

First, identify and remove real bottlenecks.

Then, create systems to maintain the newly increased production limit over time.

Taylor Pearson wrote an extremely comprehensive article where he goes in depth into the principles of TOC, and offers solutions to identify and remove bottlenecks. It’s one of the best business articles you’ll ever read.

22. Plateau of Latent Potential

Source: James Clear

“If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential.”—James Clear

[caption id=”attachment_603” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]plateau of latent potential journaling exercise The image on the left is based on the original ‘Plateau of Latent Potential’ graph from the book ‘Atomic Habits’[/caption]

The Plateau of Latent Potential is a concept introduced by James Clear in his book ‘Atomic Habits’. He calls it “a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.”

Very often, sticking with a new habit (like doing sit ups every day) will show no visible results for a long time, until one day you suddenly reap the benefits (oh, are those my abs? I’ve never seen them before!)

This only happens because of the compounding effect of habits: the improvements were happening all along, but they’re usually barely noticeable until we cross the Plateau of Latent Potential—the threshold where the results become big enough to be visible.

Copy the spread above to your journal. Choose a habit you want to build, choose a symbol to represent it, and then track it every day. If you don’t see progress straight away, use James Clear’s graph on the left to remind you that habit progress is often not linear, but instead an exponential function where small improvements compound over a long period of time.

23. Hofstadter’s Law

Source: Douglas Hofstadter

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

hofstadter's law journaling exercise

We are biased to make over-optimistic assumptions of completion times, even when imagining the worst-case scenario.

There is no simple fix for this problem. However, Jane Collingwood wrote an article with very practical tips and different approaches for becoming better at estimating time and meeting deadlines, such as:

Start by defining an important task you need to complete. Then apply Hofstadter’s Law when you estimate the completion time, read Jane Collingwood’s article, and choose your favorite tactics to finish it on time.

V. Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

24. Habit Loop

Source: Charles Duhigg

When I see [CUE], I will do [ROUTINE] in order to get [REWARD].

habit loop journaling exercise

Charles Duhigg’s habit loop is an effective framework to bring you clarity on the nature of your habits, as well as help you quit them and form them.

Let’s say you want to quit smoking. Here’s how you can use the habit loop framework:

  1. Identify the routine (how the habit happens):
  1. Understand the reward (it’s usually there to meet an underlying need behind the habit):
  1. Isolate the cue (habit triggers):

You can shift habits by modifying the existing loop:

25. Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Source: Sir Dave Brailsford / James Clear

“Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” —James Clear

aggretation of marginal gains journaling exercise

In 2003, the British cycling team led by Dave Brailsford radically increased the level of their performance by gradually improving every aspect of riding a bike by 1% (e.g. redesigning bike seats, finding the best muscle recovery gels, etc.)

Within five years, the team went from virtually no successes to dominating world-class cycling events, including winning 60% of all medals available at the 2008 Olympic Games.

It was by studying cases like this one that James Clear wrote about his book Atomic Habits, where he explains how focusing on tiny, 1% improvements in every area of life compounds into tremendous results over a relatively short period of time.

In fact, if you can get as little as 1% better every day, you will increase your overall performance 37 times within one year. In contrast, daily repetition of bad habits and tiny errors will decrease your performance almost down to zero.

Which habits could you build in order to improve yourself by at least one percent every day?

Maybe it’s meditating for five minutes. Maybe is going to the gym. Maybe it’s making a phone call a day to someone you love. Choose one, and start your ascent tomorrow.

26. Habit Stacking

Source: SJ. Scott

It’s easier to build multiple habits when they’re connected by one single routine.

habit stacking journaling exercise

To make habit building more effortless, you can use existing habits as cues to form new ones. In other words, you just “stack” habits onto each other, turning them into connected links of the same routine.

Scott created a 13-step-process to turn small, positive habits into a simple-to-complete sequence. Some steps include “picking a time and location”, “creating a logical checklist”, and “focusing on repetition”.

In order to create your own habit stack, read S J Scott’s article, follow his process, and then apply the following formula to fill in the journaling spread in this section:

After I {current habit}, I will {new tiny habit}.

For example:

After brushing teeth (existing habit), I will floss one tooth (new tiny habit).

After flossing, I will switch my phone to flight mode (new tiny habit).

Then, I will stretch for 1 minute (new tiny habit).

Then, I will read 1 page of fiction (new tiny habit).

This strategy works extremely well in combination with the tiny habits method developed by BJ Fogg. Focusing on small wins removes resistance (it’s much easier to floss one tooth than all of them), which in turn helps to build consistency. As new habits become automatic, they can be easily expanded and/or built upon.

27. Behavior Change Matrix

Source: Nir Eyal

There are four different types of behaviors. If you want to change one, you first need to identify it.

[caption id=”attachment_608” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]behavior change matrix The matrix on the left is an adaptation from Nir Eyal’s Behavior Change Matrix.[/caption]

In order for any behavior-change strategies to be effective, they need to be adapted for each specific type of behavior.

In order to help people choose the best strategies for them instead of aimlessly jumping from trend to trend, Nir Eyal created the Behavior Change Matrix, which divides all behaviors into four different quadrants:

Amateur behaviors are automatic responses requiring little willpower (such as brushing your teeth). They are generally easy to build using an external trigger (e.g. alarm) as a reminder for the desired behavior.

Expert behaviors require a high degree of self-control and mastery and are common across experts in various disciplines (from professional sports to science). They generally require long periods of diligent practice (e.g. performing a neurosurgery).

Addictive behaviors require a significant amount of willpower to break, as neural loops drive the addict to prioritize satisfying their urge over long-term wellbeing. They require drastic measures, such as abstinence, change of environment and involved support from others.

Habitué behaviors are generally relatively easy to resist (e.g. having that amazing chocolate cake). The techniques build equanimity to face the discomfort arising from not fulfilling the desire.

Ask yourself: “Which behaviors do I want to quit/form?”, and place them into their appropriate category in the matrix.

Then, to learn how to tackle each of them, read Nir’s article ‘How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)’, which will show you different strategies to tackle each specific behavior.

VI. Become a Communication Master, Grow Your Network, and Build Awesome Relationships

28. Feelings and Needs

Source: Marshall Rosenberg

Behind every conflict, there is a challenging feeling and an unmet need.

feelings and needs journaling exercise

Nonviolent Communication is a methodology developed by Marshall Rosenberg to help us deepen human connection, solve conflict, and better understand each other.

Its main premise is that the things we say and do when we’re angry, sad, or upset are simply a way to alleviate those feelings and fulfill our unmet needs the best way we can.

The key to solving conflict is to:

  1. Whenever someone says something that’s hurtful, don’t take it personally;
  2. Instead, ask yourself: “What could this person be feeling and needing that makes them act in this way?”
  3. Try to identify their feelings and needs and empathize with them. Maybe they’re feeling annoyed and saying those things brings them relief. Maybe they feel lonely and just want to be heard.
  4. Focus your response on those feelings and needs, instead of defending yourself from their words (“You seem really angry—is it because you feel that you’re not getting the respect you need?”)
  5. Alternatively, share your own feelings and needs (“I see where you’re coming from, but when you say it in that way I feel hurt, as I don’t feel my point of view is being heard.”)

This is easier said than done, but you’ll be surprised to see how healing and powerful it can be to hear someone else reflecting these things back at us in challenging moments.

Very often, all it takes to end conflict is this: to listen, and to feel listened to—not for our thoughtless words, but for what’s really going on inside of us.

29. Win/Win or No Deal

Source: Stephen Covey

“In the long run, if it isn’t a win for both of us, we both lose. That’s why Win/ Win is the only real alternative in interdependent realities.”—Stephen Covey

win win journaling exercise

According to Stephen Covey, negotiations can happen under six different mindsets (which can be applied to all sorts of interactions—romantic, business, family, friends, etc.):

Win/Win seeks a solution beneficial to both parties, which prevents eventual losses in the long-term.

Win/Lose is the authoritarian/competitive approach, where the victory of one party means a clear defeat for the other.

Lose/Win leads to capitulation and letting the other party “have their own way”.

Lose/Lose often arises when two Win/Lose people get together. They are based on “getting back” or “getting even” and disregard individual losses, as long as the outcome hurts the other party.

Win is the most common mindset, focusing on winning without considering the outcome for the other party, leaving it up to them to protect their own interests.

Win/Win or No Deal is the higher form of Win/Win mindset, where both parties agree to either find a mutually beneficial arrangement or forfeit the agreement all together without any unmet expectations or hard feelings.

Whether it’s a discussion with your mother about what’s for dinner, setting emotional boundaries in a relationship, or an agreement with a new business partner, always aim for ‘Win/Win or No Deal’, as this will assure that everyone is respected.

In the words of Stephen Covey, the author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:

“With No Deal as an option, you can honestly say, “I only want to go for Win/ Win. I want to win, and I want you to win. I wouldn’t want to get my way and have you not feel good about it, because downstream it would eventually surface and create a withdrawal. On the other hand, I don’t think you would feel good if you got your way and I gave in. So let’s work for a Win/ Win. Let’s really hammer it out. And if we can’t find it, then let’s agree that we won’t make a deal at all. It would be better not to deal than to live with a decision that wasn’t right for us both. Then maybe another time we might be able to get together.”

30. Network Constraint

Source: Ronald Burt / Michael Simmons

A large, open network is the best predictor of career success.

[caption id=”attachment_611” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]network constraint journaling exercise The image on the left is based on a chart by Ronald Burt, shared by Michael Simmons.[/caption]

In an insightful article based on extensive research from the world’s top network scientist Ronald Burt, Michael Simmons explains how building large, open networks can enrich your life in several ways, such as giving you access to unique opportunities, working as a translator of ideas between groups, and having a more accurate view of the world than other people.

In contrast, living/working within a small, closed network of interconnected people will dramatically reduce your exposure to new ideas and reinforce already well-integrated patterns. As a consequence, you are likely to stop growing.

Although open networks have challenges—such as feeling like an outsider or not being understood—the benefits are worth it. As an example, multiple studies have found that access to an open network is the single variable responsible for half of the predicted difference in career success.

What does your current network look like? Is it closed, or is it open and expanding? Use the spread above to represent your current network, and then take notes of how you can optimize it.

Here’s an example:

31. Reciprocity Decay

Source: Study by Chuan, A., Kessler, J. B., & Milkman, K. L [2] / Coglode

Our desire to give back wanes rapidly with time.

reciprocity decay journaling exercise

Life is full of favor exchanges. You cover for a co-worker’s shift, or help your friend to move furniture. And eventually, you might want something in return.

Conventional wisdom suggests to wait before asking people to return favors. However, it’s been proven that you shouldn’t: people are more likely to reciprocate good deeds when only a short time has passed in between.

In fact, requests sent only a few days after are the most successful. This means you don’t need to wait forever before you ask someone to return your favor, just because you’re afraid they’ll think you had second intentions from the start. People are more open to giving back than you think—it just helps to ask while the exchange is still fresh.

There is nothing unhealthy about reciprocity in relationships, and when communicated with transparency and compassion, it can bring countless benefits.

Coglode has a great overview of a study conducted on hospital patients that illustrates this framework.

32. Interpersonal Triads

Source: Dave Logan and John King

“The most valuable relationships are not made of two people, they’re made of three. A third person will always stabilize and grow the relationship between the other two. It’s called a triad, and the more you create, the stronger your network.” — via CultureSync, Tribal Leadership

interpersonal triads journaling exercise

A triad is a three-way relationship where each person is responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two. According to the authors of ‘Tribal Leadership’, triad-based structures are the major reason why 24% of American organizations stand out from the rest.

Here are some of the reasons:

If you’re still not convinced, check out this article on CultureSync which explains more about how triads work.

So how can you apply this to your personal life?

Instead of inviting a coworker or a partner for a cup of coffee, invite two. Then, make an active effort to facilitate the relationship between them (e.g. if it’s a first time introduction, tell them what’s great about each other—not many things make someone like you more than hearing you say good things about them to someone else).

33. Congruent Communication

Source: Patrick Ewers

We can make communication more effective by completely aligning our words, tonality, and body language (the three main channels of Congruent Communication) behind a singular message.

congruent communication journaling exercise

Patrick Ewers, founder of Mindmaven, explains that words compose only 7% of our communication abilities, while tonality and body language are far more impactful (38% and 55%).

Think about it: when emailing or texting, you’re only using 7% of your full communication potential (and word exclusive communication is often misinterpreted).

On the other hand, if you tell someone a positive message (content) but your tonality and body language indicate otherwise (context), your communication will be incongruent, and therefore likely to be misunderstood.

Congruent Communication—a term coined by Patrick Ewers—is when words, tonality, and body language are completely aligned behind a single message. It “dramatically reduces the likelihood it’ll be misunderstood, and subconsciously builds massive trust with those you interact with”.

Are you using all three channels to their fullest potential? Or are you constantly experiencing misunderstandings? Use the spread above to reflect on your communication skills and apply congruent communication to your interactions.

VII. Live a Better, Healthier, and More Balanced Life

34. Sleep Heat Map

Source: Dot Zacharias

All aspects of daily life influence our sleep: which ones are affecting yours, and how can you improve them?

sleep heat map journaling exercise

The Sleep Heat Map is a tool created by Dot Zacharias aimed at helping you increase the ROI of your sleep improvement by focusing on the areas of your life that impact your sleep the most.

There are 16 sleep-affecting factors, divided by 3 categories (environment, mental and physical), and arranged from left to right in increasing order of difficulty.

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Copy the Sleep Heat Map to your journal;
  2. Score each category from 1 to 10 (10 = “no problem here”, and 1 = “this one needs a lot of work”);
  3. Write down some keywords about what you can do to improve in each box.

Check out this article to learn more about each category and how to use the Sleep Heat Map: Sleep Heat Map. What’s Stopping You From Sleeping?

35. Longevity is a Function of Lifespan and Healthspan

Source: Peter Attia

Longevity is a function of how long you live and how well you live.

longevity journaling exercise

Living a long life (lifespan) is not enough: in order to enjoy it, you also need to be healthy and have energy (healthspan). Ideally, you want to have both.

That’s why Peter Attia, a leading expert in the applied science of longevity, came up with the following function:

Longevity = f (Lifespan, Healthspan)

He explains that, in order to extend your lifespan, you need to delay the onset of atherosclerotic disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease.

To preserve your healthspan, you need to maintain three main elements:

  1. Your brain (cognition, thought processing, memory…) ;
  2. Your body (muscle mass, movement, strength, flexibility, and freedom from pain);
  3. Your “spirit” (social support network and sense of purpose)

Are you just concerned with living a long life, or are you doing your best to increase the quality of your life as you’re living it?

To answer that question, you can start by reading Peter Attia’s excellent article where he further explains the concepts of longevity, lifespan, and healthspan.

Then, use the journal spread above to brainstorm ways in which you can level up your healthspan preservation, by coming up with ideas to maintain your brain, body, and spirit.

36. 10,000+ Hours

Source: K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

World class performance comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

10,000 hours journaling exercise

You might have heard that in order to master any skills, you need 10,000 hours of practice.

Unfortunately, that’s not the full picture.

Mastering a skill is not just a matter of time—it’s about a very specific kind of practice referred to as deliberate practice, as well as having enough available mental and emotional resources available (here’s the study). That means that, in order for those 10,000 hours to be effective, we also need deliberate rest.

Even the most dedicated people can handle only up to 4 hours of highly focused effort per day, translating into a little less than a decade of 5 day/week 4h practice in order to reach mastery. Slightly longer than you thought?

The bottom line is, cutting on rest and/or sleep simply won’t do—even if you put in the 10,000 hours (in fact, it might even be helpful to extend resting time, since some of the most important components of creative work and knowledge consolidation happen then).

So work hard, but don’t forget to rest hard too. If you need more information on how to rest well, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote an excellent book about it. And if you want to learn about deliberate practice, here’s an article by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

37. Balance Dashboard

Source: Bill Burnett and David Evans

To get back to balance, increase the level of what is missing, without reducing what’s working well.

[caption id=”attachment_619” align=”alignnone” width=”1000”]balance dashboard journaling exercise The image is based on a chart by Bill Burnett and David Evans in this worksheet.[/caption]

The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is a false dichotomy: having “more” of one of them doesn’t necessarily require having “less” of the other.

In contrast, the Balance Dashboard exercise (created by Bill Burnett and David Evans as a part of their ‘Designing Your Life’ program) defines balance as an equation consisting of four different areas: work, play, love and health.

Each of them is represented by one gauge. When feeling out of balance, it’s usually because one (or more) of your gauges is falling behind the others.

How can you use the Balance Dashboard?

  1. Identify the area in your life that’s currently below ideal;
  2. Define small steps necessary to increase its level.

You can either copy the dashboard directly into your journal, or access Bill and David’s worksheet here.

38. Attention ≠ Awareness

Source: Zen Buddhism / Culadasa

To strengthen your mind, practice both attention and awareness.

attention and awareness journaling exercise

We can either perceive reality by focusing on a specific object (attention) or by being peripherally aware of several things around us (awareness).

For example, you are now focused on reading these words, but you are also aware of some sounds around you, bodily sensations, and a few thoughts in your head.

When aiming for productivity, we tend to give too much importance to focus and attention, while disregarding awareness. This is highly ineffective, as we miss out on exploring different possibilities, developing mental resilience, and seeing the “bigger picture”.

When you practice both awareness and attention, you are increasing the totality of your mental power.

You can achieve this through meditation (for example, focus on the sensation of your breath while remaining aware of any external stimuli such as sounds, or your body as a whole).

Here’s how to use this journaling exercise:

  1. Copy the spread to your journal or a piece of paper;

  2. Whenever you look at it during the week, do the following:

John Yates, Ph.D. (also known as Culadasa), neuroscientist and meditation master and author of the world-famous book The Mind Illuminated’ explores this concept in depth in this article.

39. Body Impacts Mind

Source: Tony Robbins

You can use body movement to change your mood and bring yourself to a peak state.

body impacts mind journaling exercise

The relationship between your physical posture and your state of mind is reciprocal.

What does this mean?

We all know that often our posture is a result of how we feel. For example, if you lack confidence, you might turn your shoulders down, speak slowly and quietly, and breathe in a shallow way.

However, the opposite is also true: you can use your posture to change your mood. If you open up your chest, breathe in deeply, and speak clearly and enthusiastically, this can radically change the way you feel.

This principle is often applied and taught by Tony Robbins, who jumps on a tiny trampoline before he goes on stage to change his mood, and jumps into a cold water tank every morning to raise his energy. He offers some techniques to change your mood in his article ‘How to Reset Your Mind and Mood’.

Think about ways in which you can move your body in order to change the way you feel. Write them down in your journal, and then start applying them to your daily life. Keeping track of how often you do this will help you build it into your routine and get more comfortable with the practice.

40. Intermittent Fasting

Source: Martin Berkhan / Dr. Jason Fung

Your body burns fat while in a fasting state.

intermittent fasting journaling exercise

There are two types of fuel powering human bodies: food, and stored energy (body fat). They can’t be accessed at the same time, and our insulin levels control which one is being used.

While eating, your insulin levels go up and your body can only use energy from the food you’re consuming.

Fasting reduces your insulin levels and your body switches to using stored energy (body fat).

In other words, you either burn fat or store it. This is why no one starves for not eating during sleep—the body has plenty of stored energy to use.

Are you feeling happy with the current state of your digestion? Do you feel uncomfortably full when you go to bed? After meals? How are your energy levels? Do you eat at the same times every day?

Dr. Jason Fung wrote an illuminating article explaining why extended periods of fasting lead to successful long-term weight loss. Have a read, and then why not observe your current eating patterns and experiment a bit?

41. The True Cost of Stuff

Source: Leo Babauta

Every object costs much more than the money you spend on it.

true cost of things journaling exercise

When you buy something, you’re spending much more than the money you pay for it.

According to Leo Babauta, who wrote an article called ‘The True Cost of Stuff’, some of these costs include:

Next time you want to buy something, think of its true cost: how much will it cost you now and in the future? Is this something you really want? Is it worth its true cost?

Now it’s up to you.

You have the tools, the rest is up to you.

As Steve Jobs said: “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”

Here’s a question for you to begin the process:

What is the one tool which I could start using today, that would have the highest positive impact on my life?

Have a wonderful journey.


I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to the authors of mental models, principles, concepts, tools and studies on which these 41 journaling exercises are based.

Your paradigm-shifting work has helped me to face (and solve) various problems on my path, and it has enriched my life in more ways that I can possibly list here. Thank you!

It is my hope that this article will inspire people to incorporate your ideas into their journaling practices, and consequently experience profound changes in all areas of their lives.

Note: A pdf version of this article (along with many other goodies) is available via our Patreon.

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