A Single Journal Prompt with Outsized Power
How to make a journal habit punch above its weight.
“Journaling is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.”
“The spiritual journey is not about acquiring something outside yourself. Rather, you are penetrating the layers and veils to return to the deepest truth of your own being.”
― Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart
A few months ago, Marika and I did a 30-day journaling challenge together. I've been a near-daily journaler for about 10 years, so it may seem a rather unchallenging challenge, but I found benefits from those 30 days that go far beyond what is normal. These new benefits come from one seemingly underwhelming shift: I repeated the same prompt every day. The magic was in the repetition. The same simple prompt. Everyday. For 30 days.
This challenge was designed by Alex Banayan, the author of The Third Door, in order to help people discover purpose and passion. It's very simple. You answer the same three questions every day for 30 days. The only rules are that you must write by hand and spend at least 15 minutes writing to discourage you from simply jotting down a few quick thoughts and moving on with your day. You are allowed and encouraged to write much longer if you’re inspired to.
The three questions are:
What most filled me with enthusiasm today?
What most drained me of energy today?
What did I learn about myself today?
You are not allowed to read any of your previous entries until the end. On day 30, you read each day from the beginning, looking for the patterns that inevitably emerge, and write a final entry that summarizes your responses to each question in a single sentence, like a catchy headline. It is also worth noting that the first question intentionally says “enthusiasm,” whose etymology means “to be inspired or possessed by a god.” Write about the times when you light up with purpose and effort rather than times when you felt contented, comfortable, or “happy.”
Journaling of any sort is a great way to check in with your internal state—a way of taking your mental/emotional temperature. But nearly all aspects of ourselves that can be measured and observed are in constant flux. Our actual internal temperature varies throughout the day and across the various seasons of the year. So do our body weight, levels of various hormones, and even our height and the size of our feet. Nothing is constant so no single measurement can give a complete picture.
One cholesterol reading or a single blood sugar test does not give enough data to inform a proper course of action if one is required at all. But, observe those markers over a course of weeks or months and you have a much more comprehensive understanding of a person's internal workings. Similarly, we tend to be oblivious to our internal state and to the patterns that are arising in our lives. Even the most self-aware can miss things about themselves that would seem obvious to another person. That is the beauty of this journal challenge. Checking in with the same simple questions each day reveals a more accurate representation of who you are currently and helps you uncover the direction that your subconscious might already be leaning. When you see patterns about yourself emerge in writing—that you tend to complain about the same relationship or that a few seemingly minor actions bring the bunk of your passion—it becomes much easier to see them and honor them. Sometimes we need to be hit over the head with this stuff.
But journaling this way is not only about uncovering an accurate version of yourself. As your deeper patterns come to the surface, you also cannot help but change things along the way. This challenge subjects you to the observer's bias (or the observer-expectancy effect)—a cognitive bias whereby the observer or experimenter unconsciously affects the outcome of an experiment. In this case, you are far from an objective observer. When you pay keen attention to how you are feeling, the things you want to create in your life, and what you've learned about yourself each day, you cannot help but make subconscious (or conscious) positive shifts.
I subtly began to focus more on the pursuits that meant the most to me. I dropped a few commitments that were a net drain. And, I shifted my perceptions of many "negative" events—when I see my most sour interpretations so naked and plain on the page, their power dies, they shrivel and fossilize as the ink dries. They need a host to survive.
And here's the catch: I didn't even finish the challenge. I only did about 25 days out of 30 and I never did the final reading and examination. Perhaps I would have found even more benefit from following the rules more strictly. The magic of this challenge, though, is not in the number 30 or in the prompt itself—the questions intentionally direct you to themes that often emerge from any loose journal practice. The magic is in how the repetition tunes your mind to maintain a long-term focus on these themes. By paying attention to the right things over time, you prime your mind for positive change, intentionality, and self-understanding.
I cannot recommend this challenge enough. It is also a great companion challenge for those of you who are joining us for the 30-day digital declutter this month. You can do this simple 15-minute journal when you might have otherwise scrolled your phone or watched Netflix. I'm confident that it will be equally valuable for you!
Here are a few additional resources on these same ideas:
One final thing
Phil White, a friend and mentor to us both and a huge contributor to Shane’s book publishing process, just launched a podcast with Phil Afremow called Champion Conversations. The first episode is with, author and breathing expert Patrick McKeown and offers incredible insight into using your breath to control and maintain many aspects of your mental and physical health. We recommend that you check it out (if it fits in your rules for your digital declutter) and rate and review it to help their launch.
Thank you for reading this week and special thanks to Alex Banayan for inspiring this challenge and essay.
Life is too short to be normal!