Why should you keep a journal?
Will it make you more successful?
Will it make you happier?
Will it help you create the life of your dreams—and maintain it?
I don’t have the answer to all those questions, but here’s what I can tell you: the most inspiring and successful people I know all keep a journal. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And that’s why I decided to reach out to some of them and ask them the following question:
“In what ways do you use your journal to stay on top of your game?”
This article compiles fourteen fascinating answers from fourteen fascinating people—the list includes bestselling authors, coaches, CEOs, and overall amazing human beings who have all reached success in different fields of life and business, and whose journaling habit has played a big part in it.
You might know a few of them (if not all), but if you don’t, it is my pleasure and honor to introduce you to some of the people whose work and ideas have changed my life in a way or another, and I hope they will inspire you as much as they have inspired me.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. We strongly support and believe in all the people and products we promote, and this allows us to share their work while also supporting Journal Smarter to remain a sustainable, high-quality content blog.
1. Nir Eyal
Do you ever wonder what are the best ways to build new habits or quit old ones?
If so, you might want to check out Nir’s work. He blogs about behavioral design—an intersection of psychology, technology, and business—and he is the bestselling author of the books Hooked and Indistractable.
As an entrepreneur and investor with a lot of experience in the fields of video gaming and advertising, Nir has learned the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users, and his mission as a writer is to help “companies create behaviors that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives”.
How does he manage to get so much done while staying focused on making the world a better place? Apart from the tips on productivity, time management, and creativity that you’ll find on his blog, there is one specific practice that Nir uses every day to stay on top of his game: journaling.
“Writing is how I think through big questions. Whether it’s a challenge in my personal life, a societal issue, or a problem I’m facing with work, writing down what’s going on in my head helps me organize my thoughts. It also helps me clear my mind and come to conclusions I’d never understand without taking the time to ponder them on paper (actually, a screen). In my case, I use the MacJournal app to jot down my thoughts, but any word processor would do. I write at the same time, first thing in my workday, for two hours. I often write in a coffee shop here in New York or with other writer friends to make sure I stick to the hard work of thinking through difficult problems. I find the more I write, the better I understand the world.”—Nir Eyal
What can we learn from Nir’s journaling practice?
Journaling is not bound to one specific medium: you can journal on paper, on your laptop, on your phone, or wherever you want. Intentionally creating time to think and ponder (in Nir’s case, two hours in the morning) can lead you to conclusions you’d never otherwise get to in the middle of your busy lifestyle.
Bonus: Nir’s book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life is now available for pre-order. Three reasons why you might consider pre-ordering it: one, you’ll learn how to eliminate distractions from your life; two, you’ll receive some amazing bonuses before the book is launched; three, you’ll be helping an amazing author create content that matters.
2. Jerry Colonna
In 1996, Jerry co-founded Flatiron Partners, which became one of the most successful early-stage investment programs in the US. Later on, he was a partner with J.P. Morgan Partners, and became well-known as a prominent player in the early development of Silicon Valley.
However, despite his huge success as an investor, Jerry’s career didn’t make him happy. It turns out that he needed something more than money and prestige, so he decided to quit and follow his passion: helping others.
Nowadays, Jerry works as a coach at his own company Reboot.IO, where he finds happiness in helping others design a more conscious life and more satisfying careers. He is a master of asking life-changing questions, and his compassionate approach to leadership, personal-development, and life in general is incredibly inspiring.
After listening to his interview with Tim Ferriss where he talks about his enlightening journaling practice, I decided to ask him how he uses his journal to stay on top of his game.
Here’s what he replied:
“If you allow me to define “top of my game” as feeling clear, grounded, and focused…I’d say that the simple act of having a daily journaling practice has kept me on top of my game for much of my life. I began journaling at age 13 and, with a few exceptions, have journaled nearly every day since. The experience helps me sort through my thoughts, feelings, reactions, and fears—often enabling me to unhook myself from the most challenging of my feelings. It also helps me to discern more clearly the ways forward but helping me to look more clearly at the ways my own past and my beliefs get in the way of my happiness. Journaling helps me say what I need to say while also helping me see how I might be complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want. In short, journaling has helped me grow up and be the adult I was born to be.”—Jerry Colonna
What can we learn from Jerry’s journaling practice?
Journaling can help you get to the root of your most challenging thoughts and feelings, and unhook you from them. It can help you learn from the past and discern the best ways forward. It can help you grow up.
Bonus: In his book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, Jerry provides some powerful journaling questions which will help you unlock insights you’ve never even dreamed of before (it almost feels like having your own personal coach next to you). Curious? Here are a few examples of questions you’ll find inside:
“In what ways have I depleted myself, run myself into the ground? Where am I running from and where to? Why have I allowed myself to be so exhausted?”
“What’s my purpose? Why does it feel like I’m lost while I struggle to move forward? How do I grow, transform, and find meaning?”
3. Adam Grant
Here are only a few things out of everything that makes Adam Grant one of my role models:
He’s four times New York Times bestselling author, his TED talks have been viewed more than 17 million times, and he has been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers.
He is probably one of the funniest, most original writers out there on the topics of work and psychology. And here’s something you might like to hear: he believes (and has actually tested it himself) that procrastination (the right kind) can actually be beneficial for creativity. Good news, fellow procrastinators!
But of course, procrastination alone didn’t make him sell over two million copies of his books, write for the New York Times, and become Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years (yes, he’s that cool!)
Grant has systems in place that allow him to stay on top of his game and remain productive and balanced. One of them is his journaling practice. Here is his brief and concise answer to my question:
“I use my journal to keep track of new ideas, things to do, and people to follow up with. I also occasionally use it to doodle when I’m bored in a meeting.”—Adam Grant
What can we learn from Adam’s journaling practice?
Capturing ideas and writing down lists may sound simple, but it’s powerful: it clarifies your thoughts and releases precious memory power for more important things.
Bonus: here’s a scan from Adam Grant’s personal journal:
Bonus: Check out Adam Grant’s article about the effects of journaling about positive and negative experiences, and the surprising results of each of them.
4. Kalina Silverman
One day, Kalina decided to go out on the streets and talk to strangers. But instead of making small talk, she decided to make “big talk”, by asking them questions such as “What do you want to do before you die?”, and “What would you do if you knew you’re going to die tomorrow?”
You can see the results in her viral video Before I die I want to…. (Heads-up: you might shed a tear or two).
This was the beginning of her project Big Talk and her career as an entrepreneur, which today allows her to travel the world to speak about her passion: “big talk” and deep human connection.
What role does journaling play in the life of such a brave, kind, and creative person? When I asked her how she uses her journal to stay on top of her game, here’s what Kalina replied:
“To answer this question, I opened up my journal to find clues and here’s what I found: lists of gifts I want to buy for my friends; lists of projects I want to complete in my lifetime (paint a mural, write a song, design a ranch, etc.); answers to Big Talk questions (like “What would I do if money were no concern?”); illustrations of places I’ve been to (a cafe in Cuba, a bus stop in Sri Lanka, a beach in Italy); visual storyboards of documentary films I’m creating; top 10 lists of my favorite places to take people to in Singapore and LA (two of my past homes); habit trackers; piano class notes; New Year’s reflections and goals; and a whole lot more. So, to answer your question, my journal is my game! It’s my play thing, my lifeline, my mind, my confidante, my diary, my sketchbook, planner, and heart.”—Kalina Silverman
What can we learn from Kalina’s journaling practice?
There are infinite ways to journal, and infinite things to journal about. You can use your journal as your life companion and memoir book, using it to compile memories, ideas, insights, habits and notes that you can always come back to for inspiration.
P.S.: Did I mention that Kalina is also a super talented artist? These were not drawn in her journal, but they’ll surely catch your imagination and trigger your creativity!
Oh, and don’t forget to watch Kalina’s Tedx Talk—more than 5 million people did already.
5. Scott H. Young
Scott H. Young is a master of learning.
He learned the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science in under 12 months.
In 2014, he spent one whole year without speaking English while traveling abroad and learning the local languages in Spain, Brazil, China, and South Korea.
His blog, which he started before he was 18, has some of the best articles I have ever read on learning, thinking, productivity, and career.
So how does he use journaling to keep such a high-functioning brain at the top of its game? Here’s Scott’s answer to my question:
“Writing expands your thinking. When you try to think, only in your head, your working memory makes it harder to keep track of everything. The invention of writing, therefore, was a bit like an expansion of our minds. I use journaling to think through tough problems in my own life. What should I do next with my business? How can I handle a tricky situation with a friend? What new habits should I make? Regardless of what I write down, I’m always surprised how clear ideas seem after you write them that were muddled inside your head. Journaling really is a powerful tool!”—Scott H. Young
What can we learn from Scott’s journaling practice?
You can use journaling as an extension of your thinking capacity. Writing things down saves memory, and allows for more complex thoughts and enhanced clarity.
Scott’s book Ultralearning is now available for pre-order. If you’re interested in learning a new language (or ten!), starting a business, or earning the equivalent of a college degree in a fraction of the time, this is the book for you. If you pre-order, Scott will send you a ton of juicy bonuses!
6. Greg McKeown
Ever heard about Essentialism?
According to Greg McKeown, the author of the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the most fitting definition of the term is ‘less but better’. In his book, he explains how “Only once you give yourself the permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
The mission of Greg’s company, McKeown, Inc., is to teach Essentialism to millions of people around the world so that they can live happier, richer, more meaningful lives.
Greg is a master of prioritizing, simplifying, decluttering, and making things clear. The way he uses his journal to stay on top of his game is a great example of that, and there’s a lot to learn from his practice. Here’s how he described it to me:
“My journal is my most personalized tool for applying Essentialism. I use it for quarterly and annual planning, for weekly design and daily planning and hourly check-ins. It is a place where I can declutter my thoughts, explore what’s essential, express gratitude and expand my memory and self-awareness.”—Greg McKeown
What can we learn from Greg’s journaling practice?
Weekly, daily, and hourly planning are great ways to help you focus on what’s essential. So are expressing gratitude, decluttering your thoughts, and expanding your self-awareness.
7. Brittany Taylor
Brittany is an acrobat, an entrepreneur, an advocate of minimalism, a life and relationship coach, a polyamorous mama, and one of the most unique human beings I have ever met.
On the Youtube channel she shares with Conor McMillen, they talk about unconventional authentic relationships, sex positivity, and the importance of living a love-focused life, free from emotional clutter and unnecessary labels.
Brittany is probably also one of the happiest people on Earth, and she claims that there is one journaling exercise that plays a big part in that:
“People often ask me how I am so happy. This question sparked the creation of this journaling exercise. I think this is essentially what I do to take care of myself and any “parts” of me that are active at any given time.”—Brittany Taylor
Here’s the exercise:
- What am I feeling / What am I thinking / What is the active “part” in me?
- What is that part’s need or desire?
- How can I meet that need or desire?
- Do I want to / am I choosing to? If yes, when? If no, why not?
(Check out Brittany’s Instagram to see examples of how she fills in the table).
What can we learn from Brittany’s journaling practice?
When you feel out of alignment, try to identify which “parts” of you need attention, and which needs of yours are unmet. Categorizing your problems and feelings can help you see things from a fresh perspective and access unexpected solutions.
Brittany has a great video about her favorite journaling practices.
Bonus: You can access some seriously awesome journaling exercises that will help you live a more minimalist, simpler, happier life when you get Brittany’s program Simplify.
8. Niklas Goeke
Niklas is a writer, a coach, and the founder of Four Minute Books.
He is also a productivity machine: in 2016 alone he wrote 365 book reviews; his answers on Quora are viewed by over a million people every month; oh, and did I mention he does all of this while being a college student and keeping a few other projects on the side?
When I stumbled upon one of his articles about journaling, I immediately felt curious about his own journaling practice and how it helps him lead such a rich and productive life. So when I asked him about how he uses his journal to stay on top of his game, here’s what he replied:
“I don’t journal to stay on top of my game. I journal to make sure I keep playing the right one. I use The Daily Stoic Journal in combination with The Daily Stoic. Having a quote, a small note, and a prompt helps me streamline my journaling process. It takes me about 5 minutes a day. The themes in this one also help me stress different aspects at different times and learn new things from previous prompts. All in all, this allows me to constantly think about my high-level trajectory, if today’s actions are aligned with where I want to be in five years’ time, and adapt big picture strategies as needed. Even a short, daily journaling habit can have a huge impact. I highly recommend it to anyone.”—Niklas Goeke
Here’s what Niklas’s journal look like:
What can we learn from Niklas’s journaling practice?
Quotes, notes, and prompts are great tools to streamline your thoughts, which, when maintained as a habit, allow you to see the big picture and align your actions with your goals.
9. Derek Sivers
Originally a professional musician and circus clown, Derek created CD Baby in 1998, which became the largest seller of independent music online, with $100 million in sales for 150,000 musicians. In 2008, he sold CD Baby for $22 million and gave the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education.
Derek is one of the most inspiring people I have ever come across. He has hardly earned any money since 2008—he says he has all the money he needs. However, he works as hard as ever, but he does it solely for his “own learning, creating, and giving” (since 2011, he has published a total of 34 books—how incredible is that?)
You’re wondering how he does it?
Derek’s trick is to say ‘no’ to most things, so he has the time to do what he loves, which is to pursue his bigger goals and create cool things. And—you guessed right—he spends some of that time journaling.
So how does Derek use his journal to stay on top of his game? Here his answer:
“I ask myself questions, then question my answers. If I’m planning on doing something, I ask myself what I hope to get out of it, why, and whether there are other ways to get what I want. When I’m feeling conflicted, especially, I’ll ask myself a bunch of questions to work through my feelings, looking for the source of the conflict, then ask myself more questions around the clash in values, and work through other alternate ways I’d like things to be. I answer with my initial thought first, but then question it afterwards with skepticism, and consider different perspectives. I think this has been the single most important thing to my intellectual and emotional development. Almost all the thoughts I have on any subject are the result of writing in my diary and journals, then questioning myself and working through alternate ways of thinking about it, and finally returning to the subject days or months later with a clear head and updated thoughts, seeing how they’ve changed or not over time.”—Derek Sivers
What can we learn from Derek’s journaling practice?
Good questions will help you get to the bottom of each of your problems, emotions, and ambitions. If you want to pursue something, write about it, then question what you wrote and come back to it later with a fresh perspective.
If you haven’t done it yet, check out Derek’s 3-minute TED talk on keeping your goals to yourself (the talk is great, but seeing his happy face and hearing his kind voice is worth it in and off itself—I guarantee it will make your day brighter!)
10. Dr. Tumi Johnson, M.D.
Dr. Johnson is an Integrative Holistic medical doctor. Having worked as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at NYU, run a weight management clinic in New York, and served in West Africa with Doctors without Borders (among other things), her disappointment with “our currently unhealthy medical system” encouraged her to create an alternative solution to traditional western medicine.
Her holistic medical practice is far from ordinary: instead of only giving her patients medications to ease their symptoms, Dr. Johnson—also a yoga teacher and a dancer—aims to first uncover the roots of imbalance in the mind, body, and spirit, and then crafting unique holistic healing strategies. These include individualized lifestyle, yoga, and nutrition plans, asking and answering important questions, and performing her poemdances aimed at healing people all over the world.
Having met her personally and feeling inspired by her vibrancy, wisdom, and holistic approach to health and life, I asked Dr. Johnson how her she uses her journal to take care of herself—in other words, to stay on top of her game.
Here is what she replied:
“I’ve kept a journal since I was 12. Back then I called it a diary and it was filled with the sketchings and daydreams of a tween girl. The journal transformed as I got older to a “notebook” after reading Joan Didion’s words about the subject, and the pages became more an interesting blend of creative ideas, quotes I loved, accounts of places I’d been, a little fact or number to remember, and outbursts of the heart. Still later through self work and healing, I started incorporating the practice of Morning Pages from Julia Cameron into my journal.
What one calls it, is simply semantics to me— diary/notebook/journal. It is the practice for me of writing daily, into bound sheets of paper, and most importantly to me, authentically and without initial edits, that I have found incredibly powerful. Powerful for reaching “the top of my game” and then finding a new “top.””
She went even further and explained how this works in practice:
“My journaling stokes and nurtures self awareness, self acceptance and love. When I give myself permission daily to take the time and write out what’s on my heart, I first practice listening to what I feel, secondly deepening self love by prioritizing time for me to express what I feel, again without edits and thus, with less judgment.
I also use journaling as a way of staying accountable to my intentions. My notebook/journal/diary daily holds amidst pages of poetry and dance rehearsal notes and budget figures, a daily writing of how I’m doing with the things I’ve said are important to me. And that is a potent support to wombifesting what I’d like to create on a daily basis.
And letting go. I burn or tear then recycle the pages of my journal every couple months. I accumulated journals for years before I did a huge “puja” releasing those journals. What I do now is every season, I go through completed journals, cull what I want from them, transcribing them into poems, articles, and then I release the journal. It is a wonderful practice for me that not just fits into my minimalist lifestyle but helps remind me of our every changing natures, the beauty of a clean slate, and the importance of letting go.”—Dr. Tumi Johnson, M.D.
What can we learn from Dr. Tumi Johnson’s journaling practice?
Journaling can be a great way to cultivate self-acceptance and reflection, but at the same time manifesting the reality you want to live by keeping yourself accountable. Also, you don’t have to keep all your journals: burning them or letting go can be an incredibly healing and liberating practice.
Check out Dr. Tumi Johnson’s book Delicious Healing, where she combines science-based advice with art, so as to “motivate and transform in a way that just the facts never can”.
11. Sean Ogle
A few years ago, Sean was working as a financial analyst. That meant great pay, great prestige, and great views from his office… sounds great, right?
But Sean realized that this was not the lifestyle he wanted. What he wanted was to travel the world and work on his own business. So he quit, and started a project that later became Location Rebel—an online community for people who want to become location-independent freelancers or entrepreneurs.
Location Rebel has been a huge source of inspiration and information for me and my partner since we first started blogging and traveling as a lifestyle. As I have always admired Sean’s work, lifestyle, and ideas, I decided to ask him about his journaling practice. Here’s his reply:
“So I’ve never been much of one for a physical journal, as much as I wish that I were! However I do keep a bit of journal in Evernote. I keep a list of things I do throughout the day and who I do them with. For instance, gym sessions, movies seen or books read, quality time with different people, and so on.
I also rate my days 1-10 for social, fitness, diet, productivity, and general well being. And at the end of each month I take averages for each section and try to improve each month.
It’d be a great thing to do with a journal, but I’ve found that between my phone and laptop it’s easier for me to stay on top of doing it.”—Sean Ogle
What can we learn from Sean’s journaling practice?
Journaling is a great tool for gathering and measuring data from your everyday life, which you can then use to solve problems, plan, and re-evaluate your future choices.
Journaling will inevitably lead you to connect with your heart’s deepest desires. If that happens to be living in your own terms and working from anywhere, but you don’t know where to start, Location Rebel Academy might be the place for you.
12. Martina Rando
Martina, a certified Hatha and Vinyasa yoga teacher, has one of the most honest, authentic, and sensible Instagram accounts I’ve ever stumbled upon.
Apart from sharing yoga tips and teachings with her 300k+ Instagram followers, she also spreads important messages about self-acceptance, body positivity, healthy relationships and living a balanced life in general.
Feeling inspired by her vulnerability and openness, and curious about how she manages such a busy life (her life is divided between London, Milan, and her frequent travels to teach yoga all around the world), I decided to ask her about her journaling practice.
How does Martina use her journal to stay on top of her game? Here’s her answer:
“As a child and young girl I always had the habit of keeping a journal. I’ve never been big on sharing my emotions and feelings, so having a journal where I could open my heart and “let go” was a great way to unwind and get bad feelings out of my system.
Somehow growing up I lost that habit. Recently, since I’ve started reading more self-help books and reintroducing meditation into my habits, I’ve found how much integrating journaling into my daily routine can be helpful. Above all, I can totally see the difference between the periods I take time for it and the ones I don’t.
Journaling for me is a way to have a more clear view of what is in my head and heart, it helps me to understand myself better, to “discover” more about myself, it keeps me motivated, inspired and grounded at the same time.
I like to write my journal in a very simple way, with inputs. Sometimes, if I’m feeling discouraged, I make a list of the things I’m grateful for or some other times I ask myself a question like “what is forgiveness to you?” and try to honestly reply and meditate about that topic; some other times I write down a quote, or even just a word, that I find inspirational or that makes me think, and I start from there.”—Martina Rando
What can we learn from Martina’s journaling practice?
Journaling is a powerful self-care tool to help you unwind, open up, and stay grounded. You can also use it for motivation, and to discover yourself by asking and answering questions about big topics in your life.
13. Ryder Carroll
Diagnosed with learning disabilities early in life, Ryder Carroll worked hard to figure out an alternate to be focused and productive. Luckily for many people, his efforts were successful, as he ended up creating the Bullet Journal method.
Bullet Journaling goes far beyond simple organization: according to Ryder, it’s all about “the art of intentional living”. And the truth is, there are thousands of people using Bullet Journaling for anxiety management, planning, goal setting, and much more.
So what does the father of BuJo journal about? How does his journal help him stay on top of his game? Here is his answer to my question:
“I used to use my notebook purely for productivity. Because it forced me to go offline, it would allow me some undistracted time to focus and think about all the things I was tasking myself with. This would allow me to re-engage in a much more focused way when I did go online. Though productivity still remains a major function of my journal, the focus has shifted. I use my journal primarily to stay clear on why I’m doing what I’m doing. My journal is a paper mirror. It reflects not what I have to do, rather it shows me what I’m allowing into my life. Empty responsibilities tend to creep into our lives when we’re not paying attention. This results in investing a lot of time and energy into things don’t add value to our life. When what you’re doing feels meaningless, it’s hard to stay motivated. When you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it gives you a sense of purpose. My journal helps me stay at the top of my game by cultivating my sense of purpose, and helping keep my actions aligned with my beliefs.”—Ryder Carroll
What can we learn from Ryder’s journaling practice?
Your journal is a reflection of your life and inner world. You can use it to observe what you are currently allowing in your life, so that you can invest your time and energy into actions that are fully aligned with your beliefs.
Do you want to learn more about bullet journaling? Check out Ryder’s book, The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future.
14. Kerry Wekelo
Kerry Wekelo is the Chief Operating Officer at Actualize Consulting, the founder of Zendoway, and the author of Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organizational Culture.
In her leadership, Kerry blends her experiences as an executive coach, consultant, award-winning author, mindfulness expert, and entrepreneur. She has also authored multiple children’s books, and she has been featured on publications such as The New York Times, Thrive Global, and Corporate Wellness Magazine.
What’s her secret to doing all of this—while also being a mom, a speaker, and, as Lori Lite from StressFreeKids describes her, an “incredibly positive person”?
Apparently, her journal plays a big part in her success. When I asked her how she uses her journal to stay on top of her game, here’s what she replied:
“The daily consistency of writing in my journal has helped me to focus my energy on what I know serves myself and others best. After 3 years of writing in my journal consistently and seeing the year’s previous entry, I am seeing the power of even just one line a day. I see patterns, celebrate progress, and notice the impact of my affirmations. It is a reminder when I see how over the years, the clearer I am with my intentions, the more they come true. For instance, I entered a contest with Hay House, I wrote almost daily for over a month that I was going to win, and I did!”—Kerry Wekelo
What can we learn from Kerry’s journaling practice?
Even journaling as little as one line a day can help you identify important patterns in your life. If you use it correctly, your journal can be a powerful tool to make your intentions come true (affirmations are especially effective for that).
Now that you got inspired… It’s time to journal!
Ready to take your journaling practice to the next level?
Here are a few questions to help you make the best out of this article and start/improve your own journaling practice:
- Which ideas in this article did I resonate with the most and why?
- In what ways can they contribute to my own journaling practice?
- How will I put these ideas into practice?
If you want to learn more about how to build an effective, effortless, and intuitive journaling practice adapted to your own goals and needs, check out our article Journal Writing for Intelligent People: The Ultimate Guide.
If you have any questions, or if you want to share about your own journaling tips and tricks with us, please let us know in the comments!