The 1 Habit That Can Make You Healthier and Happier: Retrospective Journaling

Productivity Habits that Make a Difference

I used to start my day with this feeling of drowning. Overwhelmed by everything I had to do and a to-do list that was overwhelming, sometimes I felt like I had no hope. I couldn’t do it all, so why do anything. One little habit has changed everything.

Retrospective journaling

If you want to change your life, change your habits. But reprogramming our minds to be more confident and excited is difficult. Some people journal, and indeed the benefits of journaling are well documented. But how can you journal in a way that helps you both look back and reflect AND get you excited about your future.

I call this method retrospective journaling (taken from what some software engineers do), but it is more than that. When I journal in this way, I feel like I’m holding hands with the past and the future. As I retrospectifuly journal, my life levels up and I have more fulfilling days.

I challenge you to examine this method and adopt what works for you.

  1. Retrospective Journaling Tools

I use two tools: Day One and Text Expander, but you don’t need either. Here’s how I use them.

Day One

Day one is a journaling tool. While I use Evernote for everything else, when I get into Evernote, I start working. I just want to focus on the questions and nothing else.

Text Expander

Text expander just memorizes the questions I want to ask myself every day. When I type a keyword, it expands into the questions I ask myself. You can see what my screen looks like every morning when I begin my journaling time with the screenshot below.

Retrospective journaling model

I journal using the Day One app. Here are the blank questions I answer each day. While I insert these items automatically using text expander, you can type your questions in Evernote or a Microsoft Word document and cut and paste them. You can even write these questions on the front of your paper journal and answer them by hand each day.

2. Get In the Habit of Asking Yourself the Right Questions

If you consistently ask yourself the right questions — hard ones — you’ll change your life with those answers. Don’t whine and think your life can’t change. It can! But if anyone is going to change your life — you have to change it. Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens by you. Asking the right questions is the key to great retrospective journaling. Here are mine. 

First Line: Title the day

Each day, I give the day a title. I tend to write the title for the previous day and what happened then because much of the enry is about yesterday. When I scan back over my days, I can see titles to quickly access the information.

YESTERDAY
What did I do yesterday?

Summarize the day in a few sentences.

What lessons did I learn?

Capture the things that you learned. Remember the lessons and level up your life. Reflecting on lessons also adds meaning to the problems and struggles of life. I intentionally learn to treat struggles as learning experiences and not as terrible wastes of time.

NOW
What am I thankful for right now?

As I shared in 9 Fine Reasons to Keep a Journal (and how to help kids do it too), writing down things that you’re thankful for right now can make you happier than if you won the lottery. (I know it is hard to believe, but I do find I’m happier when I keep this question on the list!)

What am I feeling right now?

This question is a big one because this helps put me in touch with my feelings. I uncover so much with the answer to this question.

For example, if I realize I’m exhausted, that triggers a response that I need to plan for some rest. If I’m feeling nervous, I might need to spend some more time planning something. Every single day, when I ask myself this question, it adjusts my day somehow. I also find less stress as I deal with things before they become big programs. (Funny how tired one day turns into exhausted the next and then turns into “I feel sick” if I just keep pushing myself. Seeing this happen CHANGES MY BEHAVIOR!)

EXPECTATION
What is one thing I’m looking forward to right now?

Part of the joy of life is expecting things! At first, I started expecting big events, but now I’m learning to expect even small things. For example, today (the day I’m writing this) I was excited about a presentation on motivation and goal setting I had created for my 9th graders. I kicked it up a notch too. I knew I was looking forward to it, so when it happened, I went all out, and my energy rocked the room. It was exciting to see the kids engaged and excited.

I am now listing quite a few things and looking at my calendar and finding things to anticipate. I also find that I’m planning more exciting things! It helps to live life looking through the windshield and not in the rear view mirror! What a difference this question makes.

What is one thing I’m curious about right now?

Engaged learners make better lead learners. Curiosity is cool. As I list things that make me curious, my learning plans change. Curiosity also makes me feel young. I don’t know why, it just does.

TODAY
What are today’s promises in prayer?

This question is my personal habit taken from a book called The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. I take promises from the Bible and pray them. I use the 365 Day Bible and pull passages and verses from today’s reading.

Connect your life to your faith and you live a life more in line with your values.

What have I read recently that impacted my thinking?

This question has me examining reading and my thinking and how it lines up with my life. If you want to see where the “rubber meets the road” – this is it. To examine one’s thinking is meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking.” When I realize my thinking is impacted and has changed, you can see growth happen.

This day would be incredibly successful if…

If I have only one question to answer — this is it. Before the day arrives, deciding what would make it a success. Instead of a list of 100 things, only a few things make it here. This one question helps me become laser-focused on what a successful day is. I’m less likely to wander off task during the day until after I’ve done my “incredibly successful” tasks.

What are my plans for today?

I look over the calendar. I examine anything that needs to be done and think over the day in my mind.

What is one thing I must accomplish today?

The principle of the “Most Important Thing” or “MIT” is an old one. This one thing my focus for the day and the item with my focus as soon as I can start working on tasks.

3. How Can You Use Retrospective Journaling?

Choose your habits before your habits choose you. Be very intentional about the questions you ask yourself. Become intentionally metacognitive. Don’t bind yourself into a fixed number of words or some rigid routine. This is your journal and your time. But use it well.

Life is so short. With this form of journaling, I’m not doing a simple “today I went…” approach. It isn’t about history but about making history. This form of journaling — for me — has boosted my mood, my days, and my satisfaction with everything. I’m not just more productive, I’m happier!

Coupled with my Apple Watch, this is one of those incredible routines that levels up my life every day. Life is short, so live it better each day.

CHALLENGE: Make a list of questions. Answer them each morning for a week. At the end of the week, ask yourself which questions helped you live a better day.

What questions do you ask yourself each day? How do you stand in the gap between the past and the future and make today more epic? Please share because you care. 

Helpful Links on Journaling:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “The 1 Habit That Can Make You Healthier and Happier: Retrospective Journaling

  1. I love your choice of tools, Vicki! I use DayOne and TextExpander too!

    I have fallen out of journaling in the last couple months, so your post has encouraged me to get back to it, starting tomorrow morning!

    One question for you: how long does this list of questions take you to complete?

    • It depends on the day Allison. Same days I may only have time for one question and other days I hit them all. Fifteen minutes max not counting my bible reading time which comes out of another time bucket. I just set timers on my Apple Watch so I don’t get stuck in one thing!