List-Journaling May Be the Ultimate Keystone Habit

Charles Duhigg defines “keystone habits” as habits that set off “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.”

Repeat this process until your tiny seed habit has sprouted into a magnificent oak.

Daily journaling might be the most powerful keystone habit of all. It is the habit that can beget all other habits, because it is you reflecting on and reasoning about your own life.

Like almost any habit, establishing a routine of daily journaling can benefit from the approach that researcher BJ Fogg calls “tiny habits.”

Trying to establish ambitious habits right off the bat might be a recipe for failure, frustration, and despair. Instead, start small by establishing a tiny version of the habit: tiny enough that it’s very easy to follow through on every single day. Then, once you’ve had the experience of succeeding at that, along with its attendant boost of self-confidence, ramp up your tiny habit to be just a bit more ambitious. Repeat this process until your tiny seed habit has sprouted into a magnificent oak.

Tiny Habits Applied to Journaling

For me, writing journal entries in the morning consisting of complete sentences, complex reflections, and concrete resolutions had proven to be too much to maintain on a daily basis. So instead I made lists.

It has given me a powerful “situational awareness” about my own mind and life.

Most of the lists are prompted by what psychologist Nathaniel Branden calls “sentence stems,” and I used the same stems every day. I would complete each sentence stem with 3 or more simple concepts. Writing out lists of concepts in response to a pre-written prompt is a lot easier than filling a blank page with complete sentences about my life early in the morning: easy enough that I’ve been able to maintain this daily habit for several weeks.

I’ve ramped up the tiny habit by adding more lists to my routine, regularly making longer lists, and listing things faster. I might at some point graduate to doing regular journaling, but I’ve found using sentence stems to be so valuable that I may just stick with them.

“List-journaling” really helps me get in touch with, and thus get a grip on, the otherwise inchoate hopes, dreams, anxieties, problems, and assessments bouncing around in my head. It has given me a powerful “situational awareness” about my own mind and life.

Here are the sentence stems I currently use. (I create them in Evernote by typing out a single command using the great app Text Expander.)

Yesterday

This one is the only list that isn’t prompted by a sentence stem. Here I make a bullet point list of the main beats of my previous day. This reminds me of my most recent life experiences which gives me material to reflect upon in order to make the rest of my lists.

I feel vulnerable about…

This list was inspired by advice often given by James Altucher. He says that he will:

“Write down every day things that I feel vulnerable about.

I was doing this forever but then Susan David, author of Emotional Agility told me something fascinating:

If you write down JUST ONCE, all the things you are vulnerable about, then six months later, when compared with a control group, the people who were vulnerable had higher levels of happiness.

I don’t know if I am a happy person. But I write down every day what I am feeling vulnerable about (stresses about jobs, love, children, friends, partners, etc) and I know my sense of well-being and what I can handle in life has risen considerably. It’s like a super power.”

I’ve had the same experience. What’s amazing is that you don’t even need to write down “solutions” or “fixes” for what you’re feeling vulnerable about. I suspect doing so would actually make the exercise less powerful.

I think the way it works is that by simply writing them down, the intellectual part of the mind clearly identifies the problem, which is sort of like painting a target on it. Then, instead of overthinking the problem, it delegates it to the more intuitive part of the mind, which figures out how to resolve it with on-the-spot decisions and actions throughout subsequent days.

Few things are more gratifying than noticing previous mainstays on my “vulnerability” list simply disappear without my ever having formulated an overwrought “master plan” for addressing them.

I feel grateful about…

Altucher is great on this too:

“Try this: keep a gratitude journal. Write down throughout the day the things you are grateful for. The more you do things like this, the more the super-power inside of you will get unleashed. You won’t be able to stop it. You will completely transform whether you want to or not. Do it in a small pad so it’s easy to pull out and list things.”

In the above-linked post, Altucher lists several benefits of being more grateful on a daily basis.

I feel pride regarding…

Pride is distinct from vanity. It’s not about seeking external recognition and praise. It’s an internal pleasure over past excellence and an important motivator of future excellence. At its finest, pride is a form of gratitude. It is being grateful to your past self for making your present life better. Take a moment to every day to list what you’re proud of.

I aspire to someday…

Here I let my hopes run wild and allow myself to dream big. As with the vulnerabilities list, there’s no need to formulate a master plan for reaching these aspirations in your morning list-journaling. Again, it’s a matter of painting and continually repainting a target on your goals to make it easier for your future intuitive on-the-go self to see and make progress toward them.

Achieving my goals today will be easier if I…

Instead of specific tasks, I list general approaches and attitudes here. Leaving this for the end creates a bridge between my early morning reflections and my throughout-the-day pursuits.

So try list-journaling! Start as tiny as you need to: even a single one-bullet-point list if you need to. And then ramp it up every day until you reach a point of diminishing returns. All other life-enhancing habits can flow out of conscious living. And conscious living can be kickstarted every morning through reflective list-journaling.