Journaling to Improve Productivity

“Take five minutes, find something you can write fast with, and dump everything that pops into your head. Don’t analyze or organize. Later on, you can figure out what, if anything, it means. For now, just dump. Give yourself the freedom to do one thing at a time. Be creative, be a visionary, express yourself, capture it all, without feeling a responsibility to actually do anything about it!”
–David Allen, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Getting Things Done

The process Allen describes is exactly like the process I was taught in writing classes to get one’s creative juices flowing. It is called “automatic writing.” In writing class, the rule was always that you must keep your pen or pencil moving for the specified period of time, writing anything that came into your head, even if it was only “I can’t think of anything to write.”

Believe it or not, though, Allen’s version of it, described above in his book Ready for Anything, is actually a precursor to writing a to do list. His theory is that once you’ve dumped everything out of your head, you can organize it and decide what to do with it. Some items simply need to be collected and filed, while others must be read and reviewed, and still others require you to make a phone call, type an email, or take some sort of action.

That’s all very well and I’m not trying to make fun of the GTD system of organizing one’s work for greater efficiency. However, I believe that dumping out the contents of your brain can serve a higher purpose than simply helping you to remember all the items that need to go on your to do list for the day. I don’t think brain fog comes from the work items that you need to do. At least, not usually. Rather, brain fog is caused by more emotional issues: stuff that has happened that you need to process, little things that may be troubling you even though you’re not quite sure why, and, in addition, your ideas and dreams — all those things that you’re dying to try doing once you finally finish the items on your to do list or finally make enough money or finally get enough rest. All of THAT.

Those things don’t belong on your to do list. But they are in your head, distracting you. Keeping you from getting to the work that you need to do to meet your obligations. If your ideas and dreams don’t match the work that you need to do to meet your obligations, then you have some thinking to do and some choices to make.


In the meantime.

Let’s get it all out of your head so you can concentrate. And I don’t mean writing a to do list, for goodness’ sake. I mean JOURNALING. If you prefer to type, set up a journaling file (with, if you like, a supersecret password so no one can read what’s been on your mind so compellingly when you should be working). If you prefer the sensory stimulus of letting ink flow onto paper, use a bound journal or notebook and a good pen — a pen that is a pleasure to write with (I’m partial to fountain pens, myself).

If you have something on  your mind, and you just can’t concentrate, you will be surprised at how much your focus improves after  you write it down in a journal entry. The journaling process does exactly what David Allen promises his dumping process will (and it is essentially the same thing) — it gets stuff out of your head and down on paper. At least for a while. Until you think of something else to worry about (or dream about).

Think of it as a purification process. Every so often, you just have to dump stuff out of your head so you can concentrate. At first it will seem like just one more time waster to pull out your journal and write stuff down. But after a time, you’ll feel a sense of relief after finishing each journal entry. And you’ll discover that journaling is one of the best (and least expensive, by the way) productivity tools that you have.

Journaling. It’s not just for writers anymore.

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