Brandon Toner + Tracy Winchell discuss Atomic Journaling
4:56PM Sep 1, 2020
Brandon, thanks for joining me on your day off to talk about this concept you have been talking about on Twitter. It's called atomic journaling. So what is the atomic journaling?
Yeah, so, I guess, to back up a little bit and to kind of focus on kind of how I got to that idea is with starting with Roam. I'm kind of getting used to the software and getting used to how I can use that The power of Roam in different ways. And we've talked in the past about your interest in journaling. And that kind of sent me on my own little thought journey on Well, this actually could be a really cool tool for kind of assessing your emotional state or prompting yourself with questions regularly. And as I went through figuring out the best way to just kind of design my journaling practice within Roam. I went to kind of the different unique features of Roam like the block referencing, and the the embeds and the new template and features that that were released, related to block referencing. And I think there's a really cool way to design journaling and Roam that you can't really do in other software. So So that's kind of where I kind of came up with this concept of atomic journaling, which you've probably seen like collections of journaling prompts, like it'll be somebodies Five Minute Journal and will be like, three or four questions that you Go through on a daily basis as a routine for reflection. And I really like those. But sometimes what happens when I engage with those types of things is that some of the questions start to feel rote, or they start to feel repetitive, and I don't, I don't engage with them the same way any longer. And I want to find ways to keep the journaling process dynamic and fresh and engaged and resonant. Like I want it so that the questions feel like what I want to answer rather than just a habit of, you know, what am I grateful for? And it's like, oh, I answered this question, you know, the last 15 days, and it's like, I don't know my family and my opportunities and you know, it. While you can still find ways to refresh those those common questions, sometimes it's nice to shift it a little bit. The other element of it that I'm trying to figure out is how do I I have it set, I can look back on a certain question and follow that thread into the past and see how I answer it over time and how that answer changes over time. Because say, if I ask something like what am i grateful for be nice to see a collection of all the things I'm grateful for. And then I can start to kind of meta stack those and like, have a curated list of the things that I that most commonly appear in my gratitude practice. Or, say for emotional stuff, like I could say, How am I feeling? And then I can look back over the month of August and I can say, this seemed to be a pattern of feeling. And then I can kind of look at that and say, Well, what, what was different, what might have contributed to that and maybe I can find ways to organize my habits and structures and daily routines so that I can start to see hey, I wasn't sleeping as well and it made me feel more frustrated because I was tired and cranky. And then you can get into really productive ways of adjusting that. So that's all the the kind of background on how I got there. But the idea is that instead of collections of journals are instead collections of prompts, each prompt is its own atomic unit. So what am i grateful for? How am I feeling affirmation statements, or just freeform exploration are all individual prompts that are blocks within the other places that was referenced, and you can get a sense of that history. And you can kind of mix and match those blocks in order to create custom presentations of
You're you're looking at this in a similar way that I've looked at journaling for the past six or seven years. But my journaling prompts have been in groups like a cluster of questions that I can plug and play because I noticed that I too, was begin to answer all the questions the same In other words, they stopped working. And then when I had something, I could pull off the rack and plug into my, my practice, and put this one on the shelf for a while. It doesn't take long before it's time to shift and plug and play. And that's one of the things that I'm really interested in learning about as well as teaching. Because it's so easy to get into journaling, creep so that all we're doing is journaling. But the reason we journal is to have a better life and to live a better legacy with relationships and work and whatever creative pursuits we enjoy. So, journaling creep then comes in, if we try to do all the things all at once And then it's replacing the why behind our journal right? Mm hmm. So that's why I've long been an advocate of kind of having these little pieces, and then being able to teach other people when to try a certain thing. And the beauty is that a journaling practice is never permanent. It's, I love your term here, a dynamic journaling process. So have you been a journal or in the past or has Roam? kind of been the beginning of your journaling process? Or is it just supercharging? it?
Yeah, great question. I would say that I haven't been a dedicated journal. But I have had journaling practices in the past where I would either use notion I was using that for a little while I was using newspaper Bay notebooks I usually carry a little like moleskin journal in my back pocket a lot of times are all, sometimes I do like dream journals where I try to get a sense of like patterns within dreams and things like that. But I've never really had a discipline that I've stuck with for a long period of time. But part of that has been like I felt this potential of journaling, that I haven't really been able to unlock that I felt like I just need to find the right tool. And I know that's the thing. It's like, you don't need a tool like honestly journaling, like I still feel a war within myself of like, Is it better on paper, and absolutely low tech versus using something that I can actually organize those those things that crop up through the experience. So I haven't really been a regular journal er, but the systems that I'm building in Rome, are steering me closer towards reflection. And I'm seeing immense value with that and I'm starting to feel a sense sense of hope that I can really design a simple, but powerful structure that will keep me engaged with it. And that I can bring my thoughts base into that reflective mindset more regularly and routinely.
Okay, I want to hear more about that, because I have trouble with looking back. It's easier with Rome because it seems to be more just in time. Right. expound a little bit about that bringing your thoughts space into the reflection.
Yeah, yeah. And I that's one of the things that excites me most about Roam is I see as a tool that I can orchestrate my thoughts space. So how I design my daily notes template affects how I think so the different sections of that bring myself through a bit of an algorithm of thought like I'm you know, I'm going through and um, you know, if my first if I have journaling right on my daily notes, Then when I engage with Roam, I'm thinking about journaling. And then if I can reduce the resistance for actually getting in and answering questions, then I'm going to be journaling more frequently. And then if I can select my journaling prompts, for things that I want to focus on and reflect upon, then I can plan before I even get to that day. How I want to spend my
thinking. It's a meta intentionality, isn't
it? Like I could even get to the point of intentionality where I say, like, on the day before this big meeting I have coming up, here's the set of questions I want to reflect on. And I could say my meeting September 10. On September 9, I could go ahead in time, pre plan my my daily template so that the questions are there waiting for me and then when I get to September 9, I'm going to open up my Roam. I'm going to see those questions and they're going to take me through this pattern of thought. For me to mentally prepare for that meeting,
that's brilliant. So it would you say that it curbs anxiety plus sets the stage for your behavior and your mindset.
Yeah. And, again, this is all theoretical. Like I'm building this right now, like we're This is kind of on the cusp of like, I haven't tried this yet, but I have it. I'm pretty confident in it because I can kind of see how it's going to work out. And then once I have the structure in place, the essential elements of maintaining this atomic journaling habit is one having a collection or a library of journaling prompts that I like, questions that I like to answer that take me into this productive thoughts base or reflective thought space or anything I want. And then the other is curating collections of those prompts. So I could have like my morning journal version one,
and I will fix
I could pick five things from that. Atomic prompts. library and have that as a curated collection of, you know, morning journal version one. And then I can have that. That's what I then bring into my daily notes. And we can jump into a screen share, if you want to actually see
Oh, absolutely. If it's not too personal, that would be outstanding, because that's, that's the next place that I'm headed with this are what are the types of questions that you ask yourself?
Yeah. And that's the work in progress. So right now I've got the system and the structure are pretty well built. But the next step, and that's honestly, where I'm going to lean on your expertise is like, how do I how do I populate this library of prompts? What questions could I be asking myself? Like, what would a good morning practice look like? And then how often should I shake up the prompts, and maybe I'll do it on a weekly basis. Maybe I could do it on a monthly basis. Really, it's it's however you want to do it. So I'm gonna
jump into the screen share. Okay.
That's really interesting, because I've always shaken up my practice when it got stale. And your idea prevents things from getting stale.
Yeah. Yeah, talk me through this. So this is just my daily notes for today. So this is September 1. And I just redid this today. So I'm kind of working through a new daily notes template. And I am liking this better. So you'll see right here I have a reflection and journaling section. And this was just a bit of a test I did for like atomic journal 01. So this is a collection of questions that I might ask myself. And these are all blocked references. So I can go in and view them but the best way would be to go into atomic journaling, probably. Yeah. And then prompts.
Yeah, this is good.
So I can go.
So these are the two sections that I would have would be my journaling sets and my prompts library. So the sets are my curated lists, whether it be dream journals, morning journals, even journals, planning out my day. This atomic journal 01, which is kind of like a morning journal template that I built, and then a prompts library of a bunch of different questions that I can use for reflection. So my plan with this is that the prompts library is where the original set so these are not block references. These are the actual original blocks. And you can see the collection of where these are referenced over on the side using the reference counters.
So the I would do this as I can, from my daily notes, I can reference any of these prompts directly. So say if I know the question in my head that I want to journal on, I can do that. Or I can select from a list of one of these curated sets that I built. So the one that I'm using right now is this atomic journal. 01. So, let's go to
let's build a new page.
So we'll go September 3. Yep.
So then on to Rome. 42. You're using there?
Yeah, that's right. It's amazing. It's Yeah, it's way easier to jump pages with that Roam 42. So thank you Roam hacker,
this, so say, imagine this is within your day.
And you're within the place where you do your journaling. So then all I would do to call it up would be to call up the block reference of atomic journal 01. And then I can expand this To apply it as text. And then why even though I applied to this text, it shows up as block references because it was a reference. That was the the text below it. That's a little bit confusing. I had had a bit of an aha moment today. Because when I build my prompts library, and I'm building these collections, I was referencing them here. But then if I was to reference this block, it would be a reference of a reference. Yeah. So I didn't want to have this reference of a reference, I wanted the actual reference to go to the prompts library. And then I figured out well, if I do it, where I'm applying the children as text rather than applying the children as references, then I saw that reference have a reference problem and it goes to the source which would be within the prompts library.
Um, okay. So that that's kind of confusing, but I found out how to,
to get around that problem anyway.
What what might happen If you bracketed each of the questions, and then they become pages that you reference, you could do that,
like done that.
You could do that if you wanted to have them as pages. I like them as blocks, because there's so many of them. If you wanted, you could do page references. I'd have to think about the ramifications of that. But I think it could be interesting, because maybe you could then add some content to the page. And why that question. Oh, yeah, is like kind of have a little bit of a meta commentary on the question itself, on the page as content that might be valuable, but you might be able to do that within the library anyway, like within my my journaling prompts library. So then if I'm to do this on September 3, I go through and I've expanded the children's text and then it gives me my questions that were part of that collection. And then what's on my mind is something what I could do Just kind of random. I'm just open open reflection. And that's just to kind of
get the wheels turning. Absolutely. That is a brilliant way that if if anybody's watching this and you're not journaling, something like that, what's on my mind today is a perfect way to just do it for a couple of weeks and get your mind going. Perfect. I love that.
Yeah, and you could almost get rid of the rest of the noise and only do that for a while. But then if if you want to bring yourself into intentional thought spaces, you could add more pointed questions. So sometimes I like to do kind of like affirmation work where all actually just kind of reaffirm things that I am, you know, like, maybe I'm creative, I'm thoughtful. I'm, you know, I'm kind I'm organized. I'm disciplined. I'm bias to action. Like I can say all these things that I kind of want to reaffirm as elements of my character that I want. Want to make sure that I'm carrying with me into the future and then you can click on that and same sort of thing you can go back in time to see all of your past affirmations. And you can use that as kind of a a mind for defining your character and defining how you're reflecting right and then you can kind of build that into some life planning stuff and some some other work that you could do that way. So part of my whole journaling experience the whole process is to get data to feed myself awareness and to help me to create a future that I'm that I want.
You know what I love about this set of prompts Brandon, is that your your questions are framed in such a positive way. There There comes a point where we need to tell ourselves the truth like where did I blow it today is solid afternoon question. Who did I hurt today? And how am I going to make it right? But if those are the only questions that were asking, in fact, those are, those are usually the easiest questions for me to answer. The most difficult questions to ask are, what did I do well today, who did I help today? Those kinds of things. So I think it's super important that when we create a cluster of questions, we have about a two to one ratio of positive to potentially negative. And the way you framed these questions, they're non judgmental. So there's not a negative question on here, that your responses May May lean into some negativity, but the way you frame them, yeah, it's gonna be easier to set your mindset right. Yeah, yeah, without judgment, that's a huge deal when it comes to journaling. This is awesome.
Yeah. And part of what you said there was kind of like, that would be a question for the afternoon. And I would agree with that, you know, like, if I'm ever going to include a question that has more of a negative slant to it, then it's not going to be the morning like I want my morning with correct with something more that sets the tone for the day. You know, every day is a bit of a reset, in a sense, like you wake up and you have a chance to, to nail it once again, and you can focus on the things that go well, or the things that you want to go well, yes. And even if I was doing something that might elicit more of a,
what could I have done better?
It's always going to be framed in the past is the past and how do I move forward? Yep. Right. So there's absolutely the framing and the intentionality of language when you're doing journaling is really important because you want to you want to spend time thinking how you want to think you don't want to ruminate on negative thought patterns, because that's just going to create more of those negative thought patterns.
Yes. We, in the evenings in the afternoons in the evenings, we need to keep ourselves humble. Hmm. In terms of, we're not perfect, you know, but at the same time, you need to provide a solution for that problem that that you created, either for yourself or someone else. Yeah. And yeah, and what's interesting is, for me those afternoon questions or paperwork questions, because I know I'm going to have to answer at the end of the day, how did I blow it today? And how am I going to make an amend to Brandon? So while I'm talking to Brandon, during the day, if I mess up, I'm going to really quickly say Brandon, I'm sorry. The way I approached you today was wrong and I hope you can forgive me that can keeps me from having to do the paperwork on that question.
Yeah, yeah, it's true. You kind of get it in real time, because you know, you're going to be journaling
later. But but it means more than that, because it keeps the relationship in as good a condition as it can be. When it's up to me.
yeah, yeah. Okay.
This is Yeah, so there's so much
you can do with it right, and you can, like, I'd like to be able to inject as much randomness into my journaling and reflection process as I can, like, I'd like to have it be able to eventually generate a random contact within my close friends list or something like that. And then to do some journaling on that maybe the last time that I was in touch with them, like status of a relationship, ways that I can, you know, deepen connections with that person. Something thoughtful, I could do like that, that would be really productive. That would be super cool. There's so many ways you can do this. And one of the things I like about Roam is that it's only limited by your creativity, like The building blocks are there. And you just need to figure out what would be valuable to you, and put it to work. And we've got a whole community of people that are, you know, innovating workflows for how to engage with this software. So it's not even something you have to do yourself. Like, once I have this figured out, then, you know, I'll chuck it on my demo database for how I use Roam, and then that's just going to be available for whoever wants to use a similar system.
Hmm, that's fascinating. So how often so far are you able to review I know, that's part of your, your challenge right now is to just continue the experiment. And we touched on that a little bit, but for me review is not much fun, especially analog, you know, to I was talking yesterday about how a journal like this that's, you know, a book that's been, you know, beaten up a little bit and is full It's a deeply satisfying experience to hold this and to thumb through it. But for me, there's also a reticence because not only am I reading the words and the ideas and the thoughts on the page, I'm also by my handwriting getting a sense of my emotional state at the time. And I don't particularly like that all the time. Hmm. And so Rome provides this objectivity it in and I don't know that it's entirely a good thing or a bad thing. Yeah, I agree that I've talked about the difference between analog and notebook and I, I've decided in the last 24 hours, that's a big difference, you know,
massive difference. I honestly I still prefer analog like I like the handwriting thing. I like the way that it feels expressing it through handwriting. I like looking back and seeing the the handwriting and it brings me back into that space more effectively. I think So this this work with journaling and Roam is still experimental for me. And I'm going to try and find ways to kind of clear that gap. And eventually, maybe if we get better handwriting to tech software, you can kind of have your cake and eat it too. And like have the have the experience done via handwriting, but converted to text that can be manipulated. Another important ways, like things that I could do with this that I couldn't do with with handwriting would be say, if I click on gratitude, and I jumped a block, I can then see the history of it, right.
That's why you don't need to make it a page then. Okay.
All right. Yeah.
Yeah, sure. And then I can filter out journaling prompts, because that's just my, my regular thing on it, but then I can, I'd like to be able to find a way to be able to expand all these blocks automatically. So these are all collapsed by default. And that's that's kind of hard to process like I have to go through an individually click on them now. Not great. But but like I can go and I can expand it right? Yep.
And yeah, like that's
okay. I just got a light bulb moment there. Okay. Yeah.
Yeah. So that's one of my goal is to like to be able to look through the past and see it like that. And then the other thing I could do is I can use other tags on top of this. So say if I had a really good answer to this question today, I can say like, I like oh, and then I can filter in highlight. And then I only see ones that are highlighted. So I'm getting the you know, the highlight reel the best of the best.
Which is the Roam equivalent of using little sticky tabs.
Oh, yeah. So then anything Throughout your journaling practice, you have an answer that resonates really strongly with you that you want to be able to revisit in the future. Chuck a highlight tag and filter by that and then that allows you to kind of separate the wheat from the chaff.
Wow, how is this changing you so far? Brandon?
Again, we're early. So that question will ultimately be best answered in a couple of months time like after I've had a chance to put this to the test. But as the potential of it feels very strong, like I I'm really enjoying it for like the practice that I did today with it. But I built this today, like I had the idea within the last two weeks, but this particular expression of a journaling habit is hot off the press.
I appreciate you showing this to us. And I have a couple of quick things. The first is a suggestion for a couple of prompt morning prompts that have been incredibly powerful for me. Yeah. First is, what are you looking forward to today? The next is what are you dreading today? And why? There are some mornings when I wake up and I know the answer to the second question. And by sitting down and beginning my journaling process, and answering the question, What am I looking forward to get to today? I can trick my brain by saying, Okay, let's say I'm dreading doing thing x. I know the answer that question when I get up. Well, if I answer the question, What am I looking forward to today? And that answer is something to the effect of being finished with x today. Now, all of a sudden, I'm not dreading thing x anymore, because um, yeah, yeah, let's go. Yeah. So That. The the last question I have for you is how does someone get in touch with you to keep track of how you're progressing on your atomic journaling? journey?
Yeah, Best place right now is Twitter for sure. I've been pretty active on there. And I'm always happy to contribute to discussion. So if somebody sends me a message, or you know, just tagged me in a tweet, then I'm happy to kind of engage with discussion about journaling that way. I'll also be putting this stuff on my Roam demo database, which is simply the place where I'm starting to collect the templates that I use, the workflows that I use, and different systems and some of my thoughts around how to best use the software. So I'll upload that into my Roam demo database, and I'll send you the link to that so you can include it wherever, wherever you feel might be helpful. Those are the two best places to get in touch with me for sure.
You also have a newsletter. Yeah,
yeah. So I have a newsletter on substack as well, you can find that in my Twitter bio, but I'll send you the link to that. Actually, it might not be in my Twitter bio. Maybe it's kind of hidden, but it's great. I'm really excited about the newsletter. And as I usually have a bit of a Roam corner associated with my newsletter, where I discuss how I'm how I'm using the system and kind of different aha moments and insights that I have over time that are changing my my practice and effectively changing how I interact with the world in my life.
Well, thank you for taking us inside your journaling database and your practice in your experiments. I look forward to seeing what happens with atomic journaling.
Yeah, me too. Thank you so much, Tracy.