a pile of five notebooks

Journaling to Set and Achieve Writing Goals

Whatever the domain, journaling can help

My eyes closed, I heard the metallic clang and of metal swords clashing. The rhythmic bah-dah-dump of an advance-lunge. I smelled sweat, and fencing whites too long unwashed. There was a slight stir in the air, because in the large conference hall, the air conditioning blew powerfully. All around was a background hum of people talking, athletes shouting, coaches and referees adding their two cents.

I opened my eyes again. My eyes focused first on the tip of my shoe. Sitting cross-legged, waiting, breathing, I tapped the foil-end of my unplugged bodycord against my knee. Then, as my two opponents on strip began their bout, I picked up the pen and notebook beside me. Time to scrawl a few more notes.

Journaling to improve performance

The other day, cleaning out a bin of old papers and mementos in our home office, I found my old fencing journals. I had five of them: lined notebooks filled cover to cover with scrawling notes on how I had fenced any given day, scores from bouts at tournaments, comments on my opponents (in case I fenced them again later), highlights and challenges, strength and endurance training numbers, techniques I was working on, goals I had set. The journals spanned eight years, from the day my first coach, George, recommended that all the kids in junior team keep a journal, until the day I set down my foils after college.

The journals.

In my fencing journal, for each entry, George told us to write the date, location (e.g., at Swordplay for junior team or the Tuesday night advanced class), and time (an hour, five hours). Then, list what you did (e.g., open fencing, footwork, drills, stretching, strength training). Detail the work done, and solutions to problems or challenges you faced. For instance, I wrote about my opponents, such as favored attacks or parries, and whether they were left-handed, since that mattered in fencing. I considered tactics I might try and which attacks or defenses might work well based on what I saw. After my own bouts, I noted the score (if we were keeping score), and examined what seemed to have worked and what hadn't. I wrote about how I felt, both physical sensations, such as whether I was feeling lethargic or energetic, and how I was mentally: in the game, or not? Then, close with goals. My goals included techniques to master, fitness goals, and tournaments or bouts to win.

I doubt any of the other kids kept a journal so meticulously. George had explained that it was a good idea, and I suppose I saw the wisdom of tracking my progress, reflecting on what I had learned and what I was working on, and consciously setting goals. I journaled on and off already, about other things, and that seemed helpful in those other domains. I stuck with it. I imagine many of the other kids on junior team dismissed the utility of journaling and left off after a month or a season.

(Read: My Experience Writing Morning Pages as a Parent with Young Children)

I like to think that this journaling improved my performance. I don't know if it actually did. Psychology research generally supports the idea that writing down thoughts and goals can improve memory and goal achievement rates, but there are also contradictory studies that indicate no particular difference one way or another. Maybe it depends on the context. Maybe your motivation for the goal, regardless of whether you've written it down, matters more.

(If you want to set and achieve goals, read my review: Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation by Ayelet Fishbach.)

Journaling… about writing?

As I paged through my old fencing journals, reading over the goals I had set—some achieved, some not—I thought about other goals. How was I tracking progress in other domains? Had I written down any goals, specifically, and was I working towards them? Those questions stayed in the back of my mind until a few days ago, when I came home from the park with my kids to find a book-shaped package on my doorstep. The return address said Columbia University Press. I tore open the cardboard as soon as we got inside: My book! An actual, physical thing!

hardcover book Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research by Jacqueline M. Kory-Westlund, resting face up on a table. The cover shows a piles of papers behind the title, with a small potted plant on top of one stack, and the bottom half of the page covered in blue as if underwater
It's real! I wrote a book!

Given how lengthy the publication process has been, it's a little hard to believe. Yet here we are. (The official publication date is still coming up, so if you preordered the book, you'll have to wait just a little longer.)

(Read the book announcement, about the writing process, finishing the manuscript, the revision process, production and copyediting, and the cover reveal, pub date, and page proofs).

Holding that book—mybook—in my hands, I wondered: My fencing journals were a record of progress toward goals, toward greater mastery and competence. Why had I kept that record for athletic goals, but not other goals? Sure, I had created detailed timelines and tracked progress for big projects (such as my dissertation and my book). When building a writing habit of 200+ words a day, I had tracked whether or not I'd written my daily words. I had tried the artist's Morning Pages exercise three years ago, but that was general writing and journaling—not with a specific purpose.

Why don't I have a writing journal?

Reflection is important for learning. Learning and practicing are important for leveling up. Leveling up is important for achieving excellence.

(Read about how motivation works, and why building competence, autonomy, and relatedness are key.)

As a fencer, I always had goals. There was always the next tournament to focus on, the next step in fitness, the next technique to master. After that, as a grad student, I always had projects in every stage of the research process—planning studies, running experiments, writing for publication. I had things to achieve; there was never downtime.

What are my big writing goals—beyond, perhaps, "finish writing the next thing"? I have multiple projects in progress, after all—as mentioned when I switched to blogging biweekly. What skills do I need to work on? How am I practicing, and how is that practice going? Why aren't I taking time to regularly, consciously reflect on these questions?

Perhaps taking that time is the next step in leveling up. And so, today, I've written the first entry in my new writing journal. I'll let you know how it goes.

the cover of the book Quiet by Susan Cain

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Extroversion is the gold standard of personality in the Western world—but why? How can introverts get ahead and use their own strengths? This book explores the impact our temperaments can have on careers, learning, creativity, and more.
The book Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research by Jacqueline M. Kory-Westlund, standing up on a bookshelf with a stack of more copies behind. The cover shows a piles of papers behind the title, with a small potted plant on top of one stack, and the bottom half of the page covered in blue as if underwater

PUBLICATION DAY: Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research

Publishing a book can be a long road—but here we are at the destination! Read about my book: How to thrive in graduate school while keeping a healthy personal life!

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

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