in productivity

Five minute journal: how could today have been even better?

Reviewing fifty days of using the five minute journal for better wellbeing and productivity. Does it work? Is it nonsense? Such mystery, wow.

Peer reviewed scientific research suggests “expressive writing” can improve mood disorders and boost memory as well as “lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness”.

This sounds one of three things:

  • Cool
  • Wrong
  • Self help bs

I’m normally pretty skeptical about such claims, but whilst a body of academic research could be wrong, it’s highly likely there research is making at least a decent point.

So if the research is right, how does one harness the benefits in an actually useful way?

Introducing the five minute journal

I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelancer for the last six weeks or so. In that time I’ve been practicing the five minute journal.

I came across it from Tim Ferriss. Whilst Tim recommends a lot of things (and probably the vast majority can be safely ignored), he cites the journal as the one thing that makes the biggest impact on his day and life outlook:

“The five-minute journal is a therapeutic intervention… that allows me to not only get more done during the day but to also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person.”

The idea comes from author Julia Cameron, who developed the practice of morning pages “as a mind dump to get rid of the clutter in your brain”. Julia’s practice involves writing 750 words – or three A4 pages – every morning on whatever you like.

The five minute journal is a more structured, shorter and more accessible version of the morning pages. The concept is very simple: you spend five minutes at the start of your day setting out what you’re going to do that day (and what you’re grateful for) and five minutes at the end of the day reviewing.

The journal gets its structure from three set questions in the morning and two at the end of the work day:

The five minute journal template, showing the questions asked in the journal.

You can get the journal as an expensive purpose made thing or just use any journal (I like hard cover large ruled Moleskines cause they look nice) and write out the questions yourself. I have a document saved in Notion with the questions I load up every morning.

For your convenience here are the set questions for the morning:

I am grateful for:

1.

2.

3.

What would make today great?

1.

2.

3.

Daily affirmations. I am:

1.

And then in the evening:

Amazing things that happened today.

1.

2.

3.

How could today have been even better?

1.

Try it out, does it work?

I’ve been doing the five minute journal for the last 50 days or so in a row and feel reasonably well qualified to comment on its usefulness. The verdict is very useful.

I start work reasonably early and may not be totally awake when I sit down at my desk, but writing what I’m going to achieve and then “I am ready to get going now” really helps set intentions and kickstart progress.

Reviewing progress at the end of the day is also helpful so I can see clearly what I’ve achieved and properly switch off from work after I’m done.

The most interesting question the journal asks is “how could today have been even better?”. I usually answer this quickly, close my journal and am finished with work for the day.

I don’t tend to look back on previous days’ entries – they’re relatively self contained – but the last question is one that is reviewable. Not for checking up how any given day could be a bit better, but for picking up on problems I’m consistently having – and working out how to address them.

How could today have been even better?

I reviewed and categorised all my answers to my self assessment of “how could today have been even better?” and came up with the following simplified list of common problems:

Five minute journal review results.

Clearly, I have a problem focussing on deep work. I kinda knew this, but the extent to which I have a problem focussing for sustained periods of time on single, difficult tasks, hadn’t really struck me until I reviewed my journal entries. I now know what I need to work on.

It’s also fun to analyse how the most common categories change over time. Review this in another fifty days: have I made any progress?

Exercise is a good example here: I work from home where my commute is approximately six seconds and have no obligation to go outside, so it’s perhaps surprising I’ve only felt once like I needed more exercise. Since noting it down, I’ve consciously scheduled in a proper running routine and don’t find it a problem any more. Progress.

Taking ten minutes out for a better day

If you’re doing any kind of modern creative work the morning pages approach is well worth considering. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what is responsible, but in general I would say my happiness is higher since starting the practice.

The practice also helps me better switch off from work at the end of the day (Deep Work is again good on this), which is more important and harder when working from home.

The five minute journal takes five minutes to set you up for a better day. You don’t need any fancy tools: any notebook and piece of paper will do fine. The accessibility means there’s really little excuse to try it, at least for a couple of weeks. I’d highly recommend giving it a go.