Productivity experts, business gurus, mindset teachers…it seems like everyone says journaling can change your life. You want to learn how to journal for success, but aren’t sure where to start.
You’ve tried to journal, but usually the blank page stares you into submission. After one or two entries, you quit. Or, it’s like you’ve been transported back to your teenage years and you can’t shake the silly “Dear Diary” feeling.
Don’t worry! This guide will teach you how to journal in a way that works for you.
This guide is packed with journaling methods and resources to help you get started—and stick with it. It’s specifically for small business owners who want to harness the power of journaling to grow personally and professionally.
General Benefits of Journaling
Life can get hectic, and it can be easy to get consumed by all we have going on. Journaling is a way to slow down and take time for reflection.
Journaling is more than a feel-good, sound-good activity. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support that it actually delivers real and important results.
What’s more, writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. This frees the right hemisphere to create, intuit and feel. That means writing harnesses all of your brainpower to find better solutions to problems.
Benefits of Journaling for Business Owners
Journaling is clearly useful for self-growth, which is useful for business owners. Additionally, there are other business-specific reasons that journaling can help create success.
Whether you are hoping to launch a new business or wanting to grow an existing one, journaling can help.
1. Journaling sets ideas free.
The brain only has room for so many thoughts and feelings at once. Keep too many ideas locked up in your mind, and you’ll lose some as your brain makes room for others. Getting your brilliant business ideas out of your mind and onto paper captures them forever.
2. It increases productivity.
By releasing your brain from the responsibility of holding onto #AllTheIdeas, you free up space for others to take root and expand. That’s effectively doubling the number of ideas you can generate at any given time.
3. Journaling fills in the blanks.
Seeing all your seemingly disparate ideas on paper can help you (quite literally) draw connections among them. Finding those creative relationships can be difficult or darn near impossible when they’re trapped in your mind.
4. It weeds out bad ideas.
Journaling allows you to look at your business musings in black and white. This judgement-free space can help you more accurately evaluate which truly have legs—and those that sounded better in theory. Letting go of bad ideas quickly will keep you from wasting time and money on them. Even better, it can help you learn from them and perhaps reshape them into good ideas.
5. Journaling creates a record.
Tracking your ideas from fruition beyond implementation creates a record that can later be quite useful. When an idea comes to life and is successful, you can accurately reflect on how it all happened. This can help you re-create what led to your best ideas, and help lightning strike again.
Small business owners can use journaling to capture and track ideas for new businesses or offers. It can also help with brainstorming content ideas, planning social media, or mapping out sales funnels.
To get even more ideas for how journaling can help you and your business, check out How 14 Business Owners Use Journaling to Grow Their Businesses.
How to Journal for Success
There are as many ways to journal as there are people. Your journal is your own, and you can create it and use it however best suits you.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas to help.
Journaling for success
As a business owner, a journal can be incredibly helpful in going from probable hunch to profitable reality (see above). You can use a journal to do biz-y things like hone your elevator pitch, brainstorm solutions to your customer’s problems, keep track of competitors and how you can separate from the herd, reflect on your values or your “why,” brainstorm ideas for scaling, dream about the future, and more.
No subject is off limits
Using a journal for business is great, but you don’t have to stop there. You can capture ideas of all sorts. Record your nightly dreams, write out a bucket list, jot down favorite mantras, or just jot down any random thing that pops into your head. If you do this all in one journal, you can later look for connections between seemingly random ideas. Or, you can use separate journals for different concepts.
Put pen to paper
Many studies have shown the benefits of handwriting vs. typing. Not only does it help you better retain information, it activates more areas of the brain to better unlock memories and trigger creativity. If you’re physically able, put pen to paper when you journal instead of typing or dictating.
Let it flow
Freewriting is a powerful journaling method. You write without stopping for a set length of time or until you fill a certain number of pages. Even if you only write, “I don’t know what to write,” you just keep going until time is up or the pages are full. The purpose is to free your brain from editing (or censoring) in real time. This allows our deepest feelings and ideas to flow.
Too much can be too much
For journaling to have the greatest affect on your life and business, it helps to do it consistently over months and years. That said, too much of a good thing can actually be too much. Research suggests that doing it every day can be overwhelming, and that three to four days a week for 15 to 30 minutes at a time is ideal.
Shake things up
It can be easy to get stuck in a rut with anything, including journaling. If you’ve been doing it for a while and are feeling creatively stunted, do something unexpected. Write with your nondominant hand, try audio entries rather than handwritten, head outdoors or somewhere new to journal, use crayons, etc. Experiment from time to time to keep the creative juices flowing.
Let go of perfection
Nothing is a bigger killer of journaling (or any creative outlet) than perfectionism. Remind yourself that your journal is a private space only for you. Write quickly to help free your brain from worries about spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The more you can learn to accept and embrace bad writing, the freer you’ll be and the more rewarding journaling will become.
Try using prompts
There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. When you encounter writer’s block (and even the best writers do from time to time), journaling prompts can be a useful tool to help the words flow. More on that next.
The only rule with journaling is there are no rules! Treat your journal like an accepting, loving confidant, or like a free therapist. The more you open up to it, the more it will reveal to you.
Journaling can be messy, and that’s okay. In fact, in journaling and in life, in the mess is often where we find the magic.
Best Journals to Buy
If possible, use old-fashioned pen and paper to journal. Research has shown that people learn better and retain more information when they write things down instead of type. Even so, journaling in any form can be incredibly beneficial, so don’t let this be the thing that keeps you from starting!
Most stationery designers offer blank journals that are beautiful and may help inspire you to start writing! If you’re like some people and don’t want to “ruin” a pretty journal by actually writing in it, then consider using a basic notebook.
You can also maximize productivity (and ensure you don’t forget to do your journaling) by having your planner double as a journal. Most daily, weekly, and even monthly planners have space for taking notes.
Prefer digital journaling? You can use the notes section in your phone or computer, or choose among the many online options for capturing your thoughts. Penzu is a private, totally customizable online journal (also available as an app) and Evernote has a very robust notekeeping desktop and mobile app that can be used for journaling (along with any business/personal notekeeping). Both programs have free versions.
Still unsure how to get started? The easiest journaling practice is to simply take a few minutes and reflect on your day or dream about the future.
Each day, take out a sheet of paper (or your journal or planner) and answer one or several of these questions:
- What made yesterday great?
- What could have made yesterday better?
- For what are you grateful?
- What do you want to accomplish in the coming years?
- How could you push closer to those dreams today?
Some other journaling exercises include things like writing out a simple pro/con list for a challenge you’re facing, doing a brain dump to get all of the thoughts in your head onto paper, a to-do list or a list of big-picture goals, or just writing uninterrupted for 10-15 minutes about a thematic word of the day (family, community, mindset, change, hope, etc.).
If facing a blank page feels overwhelming, but you want more variety than what I’ve already suggested above, then you may love using journaling prompts. These are questions or other starters to unlock your brain.
A few examples of prompts include:
- Words to live by…
- What I wish others knew about me…
- I’m most content when…
- What I’ve learned from mistakes/failure
If you love journaling prompts, check out these posts: Morning Journaling Prompts, Creative Journaling Prompts, and Journaling Prompts for Self-Discovery.
Even without knowing you, I can almost guarantee that you have a to-do list. And if you’re anything like me, you have a half-dozen or more! We make these lists all the time with the goal of remembering important tasks, and in hopes they will prompt us to start check items off.
Knowing what you need and want to do is important, of course, but have you ever given much thought to the things you don’t want to do? Probably not.
The truth is, a to-don’t list is probably even more important than a to-do list.
Having clarity about what you don’t need or want to do can go a long way toward helping you live a better-quality life.
There are many ways you can go about creating such a list. You can have make one each morning to help you reduce distractions and focus on pressing priorities. You can create a big-picture one to help you stay on your intended life path. You can also make them for various aspects of your life—professional, finances, relationships, parenting, etc.
No matter how you use them, the goal of to-don’t lists is to reduce distractions, temptations, and obligations so you can stay on your intended path.
Doing the right things is far more important than doing #AllTheThings. Getting rid of tasks and activities that you shouldn’t be doing will free up time and energy for you to do what matters most. And that will make you more effective, efficient, and happy.
“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Peter Drucker, Managing for Business Effectiveness
How to Write a To-Don’t List
You need a guide for knowing what to embrace (to-do) and when to intentionally say no (to-don’t).
To do create your to-don’t list, identify what you want to let go of. What actions in your life suck up time, make you feel trapped, or are completely unrewarding? They may be things you want to completely eliminate or just hand off to someone else. Some will be big, others will be small.
Here are some guiding questions to help you think about what should go on your to-don’t list:
- What are you priorities?
- What do you want to get out of your (business, relationship, parenting, finances etc.)?
- What are you currently doing that won’t help you achieve those goals or that aren’t contributing to success?
- When are you least productive?
- What do you find yourself distracted by over and over?
- When do you most often get sidetracked?
- What activities are you hardest to complete?
- What do I always regret saying yes to?
- What do I do out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or “should”?
- What always leaves me feeling “icky” later?
Here are some examples of items that could end up on your to-don’t list:
- I won’t answer the phone on the first ring.
- I won’t immediately say yes or no to requests.
- I won’t answer email before 10 am.
- I won’t drink coffee after 2 pm.
- I won’t accept meetings or calls from someone I wouldn’t have invited myself.
- I won’t go to sleep after 11 pm.
- I won’t try to win the regard of NAME.
- I won’t use “just” or “sorry” without thoughtful consideration.
- I won’t be lured by gossip.
- I won’t feel guilty for saying no.
- I won’t live in the past.
Write your to-don’t list on paper and post it above your desk. Keep a copy in your planner, in Trello, or in an app like ToDon’t so you can always access it when you are faced with a decision. The goal is to start relying on the to-don’t list as much as we get focused on our to-do lists.
Want to learn more? Read How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith.
When you own a business, there’s never a shortage of things to do (especially when you aren’t yet able to afford employees or a ton of contract help). The longer your to-do list, the more you can feel overwhelmed the more difficult it can be to find focus.
If you’re anything like me, it’s not always enough to “just do it.” Sometimes you need to force yourself to find focus. These are a few tools that may help.
(Some of the links below are affiliate links meaning, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.)
Trying to remember everything you need to do is enough to make anyone mad. You need to get the tasks out of your brain and stored somewhere you can access at any time.
I prefer a paper planner because, well, I’m old. Or maybe it’s because I’m tactile. Or both. If you also like to put pen to paper and hold your to-do list and calendar, then find a paper planner that suits your personality (I use a weekly now after having used a daily for years).
If you prefer digital tools to old-school ones, then you may like something like Trello or Asana. These are project management tools that act as an editable record of all of your tasks.
2. Pomodoro Timer
I love the Pomodoro Technique (I wrote about it here). It’s a super simple way to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand. When I use this method, I get so much more accomplished.
Using the Pomodoro Technique can be as simple as setting the timer on your phone. If you like fancy tools (or want to really ensure distraction-free work by putting the phone away), then you may want to invest in a timer.
- The Saent button is a high-tech smart device that helps you launch pomodoros (working sessions), block digital distractions, and take timed breaks. It’s fancy, but pretty cool. $59
- The Miracle TimeCube starts a countdown as soon as you turn it over. It doesn’t get much easier than this. $20
- Keep it simple and classic with a tomato-shaped kitchen timer … this is tool the technique was based on; if it was good enough for the founder, it’s good enough for anyone! $6.99
3. News Feed Eradicator / Rescue Time
Stop the scroll! For many of us, the biggest source of distraction during the work day is social media. Whenever we feel stuck, overwhelmed, or disinterested in work, we fall into the rabbit hole that is Facebook or Instagram.
The *free* News Feed Eradicator extension for Chrome is simple to install and automatically quashes the Facebook temptation. With it installed, you no longer see a busy newsfeed filled with cat videos calling your name. Instead, you just get an inspirational quote (I use the Feminist News Feed Eradicator to get empowering quotes!). If you tend to use your laptop or desktop computer for work, install this extension today! (And don’t worry, you can still see your notifications so you won’t miss anything that’s actually directed at you and may require your attention.)
Don’t think you are wasting time on social media? Put it to the test. Install RescueTime (there is a free basic version) to see exactly how much time you are spending on specific sites and applications each week. Seeing the report in black and white may be enough to shock you into changing your habits.
Writer’s block is a tricky beast that can be difficult to tame. One way to push past it is to make yourself write nonstop—even if it’s awful—until you get into the flow and unleash the good stuff that’s hiding within.
That’s easier said than done for most of us. We put pen to paper and then nothing. We internally edit and don’t allow ourselves to let loose.
Enter FlowState. This app (only available for Apple users, OS X or iOS) allows you to set timed writing sessions in which anything you write will disappear if you stop writing for more than seven seconds. Terrifying, but also a great push.
You’ve probably heard that meditation can help you remain calm and focused, even in the face of incredible stress and overwhelm. But how do you actually do it?
If it’s new to you, it may feel silly. It may even seem impossible. That’s why I love the Headspace app (and even switched from the free to the paid version after a few months). The short, guided meditations tell you exactly what to do and make it really easy. Plus, the guy’s British accent is quite soothing.
I don’t use the Calm app, but I’ve heard from many people that it’s also a fantastic tool for beginning to experienced meditation.
What works for one person may not work for someone else. There are a ton of great books all about how to reduce distractions, get more focused, and increase productivity. Keep reading until you find systems that work for you.
Here are a few suggestions to help you find focus:
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
- Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
- The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too)” by Gretchen Rubin
- How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything so They Can Achieve Anything by Erin Falconer
- Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals by Michael Hyatt
- Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs” by John Doerr
Staying focused isn’t simple. Even when you have pressing deadlines and a to-do list in your planner, it’s easy to get sucked into social media or into a funny text exchange with your biz bestie. Heck, sometimes doing laundry seems more appealing than sitting down and actually working on your business. That’s why I love the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a simple way to force yourself to focus.
Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique uses a timer to break work into intervals, separated by short breaks. Each interval is called a “pomodoro” (Italian for tomatoes) after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used when he developed the method during college.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a task you want to accomplish.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Eliminate all distractions (that means turn off the phone and log off Facebook!).
- Work on the task nonstop until the timer goes off.
- Take a 5-minute break.
- After 4 intervals, take a 30-minute break.
Does it sound insanely simple? That’s because it is. Yet, it can really work.
Remember: Nothing is set in stone. You can adapt the Pomodoro Technique to better suit your style. The intervals can be longer or shorter than 25 minutes. The breaks can be longer or shorter than 5 minutes. You can do more or less than 4 intervals before taking a long break. Your long break can be as long as you like. You can do as many intervals as you want in a day. You can use the technique every day or just for certain tasks. You can do it for many days in a row and then not use it again for months.
Make it your own!
I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique all the time. When I do, though, I end up with far more checks on my to-do list. I tend to use it most when I have a big project that I’m dreading or just can’t seem to get motivated to start.
Also, I don’t like setting a timer—it feels too intrusive when it rings. Instead, I often use my vinyl record collection as a timer. One side of an album is usually about 22-minutes long. So, I drop the needle on an album that motivates me and then sit down to work without any other distraction. When the music stops, I get up to flip the album (and maybe use the restroom) as my break time.
Of course, no productivity hack works for 100% of people (here are some other ideas from 30 business owners if this one isn’t for you). You won’t know if the Pomodoro Technique suits your personality, however, until you give it a shot. If you do try it, or find variations that work particularly well, tell me about in the comments below!
Before I give you the rundown of the business tools I use and how much I spend, let me offer a little food for thought. If you’re still bootstrapping #AllTheThings in your business, consider this:
Not spending money may be costing you more than you realize. Let’s say your hourly rate is $50. If it takes you 5 hours to manually post to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, that’s $250. If a social scheduling tool costs you $20 a month, and a VA would take 2 hours to load it up for $60 a month, that’s $80. So … $250 vs. $80 … the decision now seems like a no-brainer, right?
It’s hard to part with money, especially for something you could do yourself. But if you actually think through the time you spend vs. the low costs for automation tools, it quickly becomes clear these programs are worth their weight in gold.
Here are the 7 tools that I’m willing to hand over money for every month (that’s saying a lot because I love my money!).
Also, I’m totally transparent. There are affiliate links for each of these business tools. You’ll pay what you would anyway, but if you sign up using my link, I get a small reward (typically in the form of a free month or discount on my fees).
The 7 Business Tools I Use & Recommend
I launched my first course in 2017 and thought about bootstrapping it using YouTube and a password-protected page on my website, but then thought better of it after chatting with other more experienced course creators. I started on Thinkific, but in 2018 I upgraded to Podia. You can read here why I made the switch, but in short I’ve become a die-hard Podia fan. It allows me to host my courses, sell digital downloads, and manage my membership community. It does more than the competition and costs less. You can’t beat that.
It took me years to finally admit I needed a customer resource management (CRM) tool. The truth is, though, I was so sick of manually sending my coaching clients applications, welcome emails, invoices, contracts, homework assignments, and more. Honeybook now automates all of it. I have a custom workflow that handles everything from the point of a client inquiry to their end-of-engagement survey. I can’t even tell you how much time this saves me each month, so it’s absolutely ridiculous that I waited so long to spend a measly $40 to do it (and it’s less if you pre-pay for the entire year. If you need a CRM, use my link to get 50% off for your first year. No more excuses!
Investment: $40/month (or just $20 with my promo code)
I finally stopped my Excel spreadsheet madness this year and started using QuickBooks like a grown-up business owner. It integrates with my business bank account/debit card so I don’t have to remember to manually track expenditures anymore. I can categorize income/expenses and it adds repeat items automatically. I also use it for invoicing, which is leaps and bounds better than my old-school method of making them in Word and tracking them in Excel.
I really resisted paying for a scheduling system. Why pay when I can just add events into my iCal? The truth is I have a ton of appointments—virtual coffee dates (integral to growing your network), interviews for my podcast and for the masterclasses for my membership community, and discovery calls for my coaching work. Managing all of that was cumbersome back when I had to go back and forth via email to nail down times with people. Now I can just send a link and they can book themselves into my calendar. The system sets different available times based on the type of appointment, and it integrates with my iCal and my Gmail, so I can easily block off time without having to go to the Acuity site.
When I started my email list in 2016, I used Mailchimp because it was free and easy. As my list grew, I wanted to do things like automatically send my opt-ins, create automated welcome and sales sequences, and segment my list based on purchases. That’s when I switched to ConvertKit. I paid someone about $200 to help me set everything up, but now it’s pretty straightforward to add new opt-ins and sequences, write regular newsletters, and manage my subscriber list. Also, paying for a list based on its size has made me more inclined to prune cold subscribers on a regular basis (something I never did before because I was so caught up on vanity metrics). Now my list is more engaged than ever, with an average open rate of 40%.
Investment: $49/month (I was paying $29/month, but recently moved up to the 1,000-3,000 subscriber plan)
For the longest time, I used Skype (free) for video calls. The problem, though, was figuring out how to record those sessions if needed. Also, they didn’t allow for group calls. I like to provide recordings of my coaching sessions so my clients can review them as needed. Also, I host virtual co-working and masterminds for my membership community, so I need to be able to host dozens of people. Enter Zoom. This very cool, and super affordable, tool solves all my problems. I’m also using it to record my podcast interviews.
I don’t know if I have the words to describe my love for SmarterQueue. I’ve been using Hootsuite for free for years, and I hated the idea of paying to schedule social media posts. I only switched to this program recently, and it’s already my favorite tool. It replaces everything I managed on Hootsuite (Facebook page, Twitter, and LinkedIn), plus can manage Instagram and Pinterest. What’s so great about it? You can create content categories—tips, blog posts, quotes, as examples—and fill them up with evergreen content. Then you can let those posts recycle as many times as you want. There’s also a cool drag-and-drop calendar where you can plot out which categories will be used at which times on which accounts. Like, seriously, this thing is so incredibly robust for the price. I can’t get over it.
In all, I spend $227.98/month on tools for my business. At a billable rate of $100/hour, I’d have to handle all of those tasks in less than three hours a month to make it worth the DIY route. Impossible.
If you’re reading this thinking, “Oh boy, that sounds familiar. I am totally DIYing things I shouldn’t,” then take my advice and start investing in your business. It’s really true that you have to spend money to make money. Just be sure to spend it wisely!
Oh, and if you’re a paper planner kind of person like me, check out this list of my favorite planners.