3 Types of Journal to Clarify Your Perfect Career

August 18, 2020

Towards the end of my time as a doctor, there came a point when the same thought loops would play out in my mind, over and over:

I’m clearly not happy in medicine – when am I going to leave?

Wait, wait, that’s crazy! Do I really want to leave yet?

If I did leave, what on earth would I do next? Stare into the abyss?

And so on.

In the end, two crucial steps helped me gain buckets of clarity.

The first was hiring a coach, who helped me identify my strengths, unpack the recurring themes in my life and straighten out my priorities.

The second was equally significant – journaling.

As the insights started flowing, it was crucial to record and work through my thoughts in a disciplined way.

The Power of Externalisation

One oddity about the mind, is how much better it can handle information outside itself compared to the thoughts chattering away inside.

Externalising your thoughts is a way to make full use of this ability.

Whether writing them down, or speaking them into a recorder, converting thoughts into an external form has two important benefits:

  1. You can feed them back into your brain later
  2. By doing so, you can use hindsight to harvest fresh insights

The more you Externalise, the clearer your thoughts become.

I personally use Evernote to store all my notes, insights, reflections and check-ins in one place.

The exact tool isn’t what you should get hung up on – create a public Vlog, if that’s what works for you.

What you should get hung up on is turning journaling into a habit, because as you’ll see, it’s far more versatile than most people give it credit for.

The 3 Types of Journal

On my own path out of a career rut, the following 3 types of journal proved to be indispensable.

And they continue to serve me today. I still use them to keep my work aligned with my core vision, to reflect on what makes me thrive, and to cultivate clarity regarding my current purpose.

Each type of journal is subdivided into different themes.

I’ll describe how I use each theme, but keep in mind what works for me might not work for you.

1. The Self-Awareness Journal

Self-awareness types of journal

Every action can help you understand who you are, at your core. And every event can make you a little less wrong about what your purpose is.

But only if you’re willing to do the inner work.

Journaling for self-awareness helps you in leaps and bounds when it comes to uncovering the work you might really love to do. I regularly reflect on the 3 themes below, 2-3 times per week.

If like me you notice resistance to even 15-20 minutes of journaling, take it as a good sign. When it comes to self-reflection, growth comes from facing the challenge of ambiguity head-on.

Theme #1: Core Values

Simply put, a value is something you deem to be important.

Core values take that a step further – they are the non-negotiable priorities in your life.

When it comes to conflict between your values, core values determine what you do (knowingly or not).

A core value is a signpost, not a final destination. Self-awareness is a good example. There’s never a point at which you finally ‘know yourself’. It’s a work in progress.

In the same way, things like family, wealth, honesty and passion are values. They don’t have a fixed endpoint, but they do determine how you spend your time and interact with world.

The process of clarifying core values is often the most difficult part of finding a clear path forward. But ignore this step at your own peril. Without being conscious of your core values, your decisions lack context.

Something to understand is this: you get to choose your core values. Or more accurately, you get to shape them.

This involves a two-fold process:

  • Dissecting memories to identify core values you may have internalised, which don’t actually deserve core value status
  • Reflecting on your life to figure out which values you should promote to core value status

There are many, many ways you could go about approaching this process. Get creative.

Here are 4 lenses through which I analyse my core values:

  1. Good Times/Bad Times: At what points in life were you most happy? When were things going well? What were you prioritising in those periods? Equally, when were things going badly? Who were you with? What values might you have been neglecting in those bad times?
  2. Likes/Dislikes: What about your circumstances, environment, or the people around you do you like/dislike? Why? What activities do you love to do? What hobbies can you get lost in and why?
  3. Inspiration/Jealousy: who, or what, truly inspires you? Equally, who makes you feel jealous? What about their life makes you jealous?
  4. Social Injustice: What do you wish was different about society? What do you stand for? What cause angers or riles you up when discussing it? If you had to donate £1 billion to charity, what would you do and why?

When exploring your values, an open mind is the only prerequisite.

The alternative is to passively absorb values from your surrounding culture/family, like a sponge. The latter might take you where you want to go – but more often than not, it won’t.

Theme #2: Core Strengths

When it comes to finding work you love, knowing your strengths isn’t an optional step.

But there’s an important distinction to make:

  • Skillset: The sum total of the skills you’ve picked up so far. These are the activities most people can learn with training, e.g. writing, accounting, being fluent in French.
  • Strengths: Positive character traits which you can’t simply stop using. They represent your deepest gifts; they are immutable facets of your identity. For instance, humility, optimism, courage.

Why is this important?

Research has shown that being able to leverage your character strengths at work is a predictor of job satisfaction.

This makes sense when you think about it.

Being forced to be one person at work and another at home doesn’t sound like much fun.

There’s often a lot of overlap between your values and your strengths. We tend to value highly that which we recognise to be good about ourselves.

So you may discover that you value ‘authenticity’ or ‘self-expression’ because they represent your truest gifts.

Understanding my strengths was a factor in me leaving medicine.

I felt being a doctor was never going to truly gel with my core values or strengths, such as forming deep, intimate connections, or helping people to transform their lives.

And once I knew these strengths, my ‘weaknesses’ became clearer. This is because they are two sides of the same coin.

Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

In the context of medicine, my preference for long, intimate discussions with patients became an obstacle to efficiency on the job. So I had to find somewhere this trait would become the strength I knew it to be, rather than a hindrance.

Here are 5 useful questions to keep asking yourself:

  1. What comes easily to you, that most people find hard?
  2. What activities make you forget about time? What about them do you love?
  3. When in life are you really thriving? Why?
  4. When you leave a room, what’s missing?
  5. In which scenarios do your strengths become weaknesses?

Theme #3: Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is inevitable when undergoing any transition.

Whether you’re considering a career change, starting a business or suffering imposter syndrome in a new role, fears and insecurities are simply part of the journey. I’ve been there.

On one hand, it’s important to normalise this and practice self-acceptance. In fact, these thoughts are often a good sign. They mean you’re living outside your comfort zone, just beyond your edge.

On the other hand, you can still take action (especially if, like me, your self-talk becomes a barrier to taking action without intervention).

The challenge here is to minimise overwhelm.

You could take the cathartic route, recording your self-talk in stream-of-consciousness style. This might have its place in helping you vent fears, doubts and insecurities. Just take care this doesn’t become an exercise in further amplifying negative emotions.

What I prefer to do is the following:

  1. In my end-of-week review (discussed shortly), I identify ONE thought/belief most hindering my progress.
  2. In the following week, I set aside time dedicated to analysing that belief fully. I work to expose flaws in logic and generate new perspectives. I imagine how I might behave if I didn’t buy into the belief, then act accordingly.
  3. Reap the rewards: often, a renewed sense of self-acceptance and faster progress.

2. The Second Brain Journal

mental clarity types of journal

Part of attaining career clarity is simply giving yourself the gift of space. Space to wonder, space to contemplate and space to strategise.

The second brain journal gives you that.

It allows you to outsource energy-intensive tasks done by your own brain, decluttering your mind in the process.

This is about capturing vital information in the form of knowledge, ideas and new perspectives. There are 3 sections you’ll want to carve out in this journal:

Theme #1: Knowledge

Due to the ‘forgetting curve’, we forget most of what we take in. It’s shocking how little I can actually recall from all the books I read last year (not to mention the thousands of articles).

What can we do about this?

For starters, I’m incredibly mindful about what I do choose to learn. It’s an obvious point, but when something isn’t going to enrich my life, I won’t give it time.

The other side is actively reflecting on what I do absorb.

The Internet has given us a firehose of information, while cheapening its value. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Whether it’s this article, a book, or a helpful YouTube video, when something resonates with you just start taking notes. Store them in one place, organised by category.

By capturing knowledge regularly, you nourish your subconscious. You’ll find yourself connecting up dots, generating insights and having coherent ideas aligned with your direction in life. Which brings us to…

Theme #2: Ideas

Having a dedicated space for ideas has been useful to me in two ways.

The first is capturing spontaneous ideas in real-time. This not only prevents me forgetting an idea, it also makes way for new ones.

The second is for brainstorming sessions.

I brainstorm on anything and everything – identifying my core values, blog posts, business opportunities, etc.

I used to believe I wasn’t creative enough to have good ideas. What changed that was understanding this: even bad ideas have value when executed well.

I’ve also dropped the shame in having bad ideas, because they’re often a stepping-stone to the good ones.

Entrepreneur James Altucher popularised the concept of ‘idea sex’. He says that truly great ideas are born at the intersection of multiple ideas. The magic ingredient being volume – Altucher suggests if you can’t think up 10 ideas, you should try thinking up 20.

Theme #3: Problem-Solving

When it comes to making decisions that will affect your life in a big way, keeping all the variables in your head is a recipe for madness (unless you’re superhuman).

This section of my Second Brain journal is a space to work through those variables.

Specifically, it helps to sort out the pros and cons of each option, along with my ‘why’ behind them (see self-awareness journaling above).

Seeing all this on paper shifts the computational burden from my conscious mind to my subconscious mind.

After the data has percolated for a while, my subconscious feeds me an answer, usually in the form of what we call ‘intuition’ or ‘gut feeling’.

It’s critical you allow time to receive your innate wisdom.

But rather than straining too hard, go on long walks, or meditate. Regularly take your conscious mind off the problem for periods of time.

If you hear nothing, you may have more information-gathering to do. Go back to the variables and figure out where you haven’t gotten to the bottom of things.

3. The Huddle Journal

huddle types of journal

I used to be a productivity junkie.

I would hunt down the latest time management ‘hacks’, and continually obsess over the latest productivity systems.

But when I began to transition away from medicine, it was important to cut out my productivity addiction. This was a significant step on the path to living with more purpose and intention.

The way through was to embrace minimalism. Now, if my system starts to feel like a chore, I know something needs to change.

My ‘Huddle’ journal is nimble yet versatile, ensuring I get the most out of my time and energy. This is how I use them:

Theme #1: The Weekly Huddle

The current iteration of my weekly check-in has been shaped by years of trial and error. I now have it down to 6 vital elements, which I work through every Sunday evening. It takes me 30-45 minutes, max.

Together, these 6 elements help me learn from the previous week, keep me aligned with my deepest goals and set me up for a fulfilling week ahead:

  • Dashboard: It’s here that I track key metrics. I’m careful to track only the metrics linked to my most important goals. They must also be metrics I have some influence over, such as how many articles I’ve written.
  • Contact Book: At the end of the week, I quickly note down who I’ve met and details from key conversations I’ve had.
  • Energy: I treat energy, not time, as my most precious resource. Each week, I figure out how to safeguard and maximise it. How? By reflecting on the people, environments and activities which unduly drained my energy. I also reflect on factors which made me feel positive, motivated and invigorated. This part of the Weekly Huddle is imperative. Without it, I’ll keep falling into the same traps. And I’ll miss easy ways to create fulfilment.
  • Celebration: It’s important to take stock and record even the smallest wins. Perhaps I wrote a much-awaited article, or stopped to help a stranger. Pausing to recognise your value is an act of self-care.
  • Growth: On the other hand, I regularly ask myself how I can do better. I reflect on feedback/signals showing me how I can grow as a person. I also identify the one belief which most held me back that week, or that I anticipate will obstruct my progress in week ahead. This is so I can dissect that belief in my self-talk journal (see above).
  • Time-Blocking: Lastly, I block out generous portions of time for the most important tasks and activities. For instance, reading, writing, connecting, journaling, brainstorming and relaxing.

Theme #2: The Daily Huddle

If my Weekly Huddle was well-executed, the Daily Huddle shouldn’t take much more than 5 minutes. I like to make it part of an energising daily routine.

Here are the 2 elements of my Daily Huddle:

  • Gratitude: Gratitude is a daily decision. It’s a decision to focus on what I have, what’s going well, and what I’m glad about. This cultivates a sense of abundance as opposed to a fixation on what I lack. Simply writing or speaking aloud 3-5 things I’m grateful for frees me up to do my most sophisticated, effortless thinking later on. Maybe you’ll find the same.
  • Agenda: I briefly check the calendar in case my priorities need to change. Then I get working on my most important tasks for the day.

Next Steps

There we have it. 3 types of journal you can start using to clarify your dream career.

While I’ve shown you what works for me, feel free to modify as you see fit.

Remember that journaling is a skill like any other.

The process of self-inquiry isn’t always easy, but it’s well worth it. Be patient, keep at it and expect to be rewarded with greater clarity of thought over time.

But at the same time, be prepared for unexpected insights – especially if you’re journaling while being coached.

You’re going to learn things you can’t unlearn, and have insights you can’t unsee. You feel compelled to move in a direction that neither you, nor those around you, expect. You’ve been warned! 🙂

Happy journaling and thanks for reading,

Oli