How Journaling Helps Writers Find Better Ideas With Michal Korzonek

Michal Korzonek

Michal Korzonek is the co-founder of Journal Smarter. Living in the UK with his partner and co-founder Silvia Barros, he teaches clients and students how to use journaling for cultivating habits and  focusing on their goals.

In this interview, he explains:

  • How writers and creatives can use journaling to find more ideas
  • How to cultivate a journaling habit if you don’t have one
  • The tools he uses…and why analogue is sometimes best
  • How journaling encourages creative and clear thinking

Further reading

And lots more

I started by asking Michal what he wants to achieve with Journal Smarter.

Listen Now

Transcript Below

Michal Korzonek:             Sure. So Journal Smarter is a blog about journaling where we dive deep into different practices, methodologies and principles of how you can make journaling very effective and a very powerful tool for personal development for any goal that you really want to achieve.

Bryan Collins:                     And what type of people do you find can benefit from journaling?

Michal Korzonek:             Well, in my personal opinion, it can be literally for every single person because simply speaking, journaling is just bringing attention and expanding your awareness so anyone can benefit from a big dose of clarity that you can get from journaling, I think, practices like setting goals, reflecting on your life. Are you an a writer who wants to, I don’t know, expand your writing practice or an entrepreneur who wants to 10X their business or whatever else you’re trying to do in your life, journaling can help with that.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. Well, I mean, let’s talk about those people then. So firstly, writers, you touched there on writing practice. So how could a writer use journaling as a form of writing practice?

Michal Korzonek:             Well, so being a writer myself, I use it in numerous different ways. For example, idea generation, so simple practices like just dumping your ideas and brainstorming on paper or arranging structures of your articles. I do lots of different kinds of mind maps that then I’m trying to transform into an actual outline of the story, which needs to be chronological, and it’s not just a random amalgamation of pieces put together, so it helps me to make sense of the flow. It helps me to find the story. I use it for both nonfiction and fiction writing. Yeah, it can be as simple as reflecting on what happens in your life and recording observations and insights that you have so then you can come back to them and see that, “Wow, this idea was amazing,” or, “This particular conversation that I had two years ago actually now fits so well with the story I’m trying to write.” So it’s becoming a way of processing life and bringing attention to things that are important so you can remember them better and make use of them.

Bryan Collins:                     And an entrepreneur or a small business owner who’s not necessarily a writer, how might he or she journal?

Michal Korzonek:             So the process or the methodology’s pretty much the same. If you’re trying to figure out objectives for business, you can use a journal to brainstorm them and get some clarity on what works and what doesn’t. If you’re doing some very technical things like, I don’t know, designing your funnel or trying to create a sales page for your new product, you can also do that in your journal. You can play around. It’s very easy to move things around, to cross things over, design and just keep your brain focused on whatever is important. You can ask yourself questions, which is a practice that I’m using pretty much every day. So before falling asleep, you can just ask something that’s important and then your subconscious will do the work for you, so when you wake up in the morning or you need to do is answer. And just like that actually, there was quite a few business-related ideas that came to me just like that because I asked myself a question in the journal.

Bryan Collins:                     I like that. I like that. So do you write entries in the evening and the morning?

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah, at the moment my journaling practice is quite elaborate, so I journal every morning and I spend quite a bit of time in the morning because I just find it the most creative time where my brain is very awake and ready and also quite connected to my subconscious, so I’m still being able to connect to some insights that I’ve had at night, things that come to me in my dreams, for example. But then sometimes I journal throughout my day. I use my journal to keep myself on track with work, so I use it as a simple to do list and and structure of my day, so journal is with me pretty much throughout the whole day. And then in the evening, I reflect on my day. I write key insights, key thoughts, key observations, and I do some habit tracking. So whenever I try to build habits I just record how I’m doing with this process to bring my attention yet again that, “Oh, if I fail, I want to do this tomorrow because it’s important to me.”

Bryan Collins:                     So I use the app the Day One for journaling, and in the past I’ve used a password-protected file on my computer, and before that, I’ve used paper notebooks. Sometimes I still use paper notebooks. What do you use or what do you recommend?

Michal Korzonek:             I’m using a paper journal, simple, white blank pages with no grids, no bullets, no nothing, just because I love the freedom of it. And while I see the benefit of apps and especially being searchable and you can find the information much easier, for me personally, I am a much bigger fan of analog journals, just simple paper. And there is a few reasons for that. First is because I work a lot with computers, so this basically means it’s one hour less in front of the screen, which I see as a big benefit.

Michal Korzonek:             The second one is what I mentioned already, which is it’s just much more agile. I’m not confined to any particular format of an app that kind of forces me to do things in a certain way. And since I experiment with my journaling practice all the time, it changes constantly. Therefore, I just like to make easy changes to the layouts and to components as I go. And also, I find it very helpful that they cannot edit. I mean, of course I can cross things out and just a rip a page of my journal, but generally speaking, when it’s something it’s written, it’s there forever to stay, which is a very good thing I find because it just keeps me accountable to my own words.

Bryan Collins:                     So based on your website at Journal Smarter and what you’ve described, your practice sounds quite visual. In other words, it sounds like there’s more than just words in your journals, so could you talk a little bit about that?

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah. My practice is using lots of different components. I can’t really draw well, but I’m always very attracted to different kinds of flow charts, graphs and basically visual representation of data and I think my mind works a bit in that way. My journal is a combination of symbols that represents different things and cue different ideas. Whenever I brainstorm something, it’s usually just a dump of words in different places that I then connect with symbols. I doodle quite a lot and I find it helps me unlock whenever I get stuck and I don’t know what to write anymore. Sometimes I just draw something that’s not particularly anything, just a blob of ink on the page, but it somehow unlocks my brain.

Michal Korzonek:             For example, my partner writes much more … It’s basically much more written. It’s just very heavy on the text and it’s almost diary-like entries. While she’s the illustrator between the two of us and she can do amazing, amazing illustrations and sometimes she includes that in her journal, but her journaling practice is much more heavy on text rather than other components. I think this is just how I approach it, but I think both have married whatever works best.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. So what do you do with your old entries or journals? Do you ever go back and look at them or do you just put them aside?

Michal Korzonek:             I do. Because I travel quite a bit, I have a very minimalist backpack and I love having very little things with me, which is a bit of a tricky thing with journals because I go through quite a few of them every year. But basically every single journal that is finished, I scan it so then have a copy of it every time with me. And I find that I usually go back to old journals quite regularly.

Michal Korzonek:             I don’t really have a practice of going back every month for every year, but I would say that there’s very often something that comes up in my head that I know I have made the record in a specific journal and then I just go to that journal and I more or less can find where it is in the journal itself and then I just find the entry. Just the other day I was looking for some insights from a book and I know I read this book awhile ago. I knew I wrote about it in my journal as I was reflecting about it, so I just went back to my old journal. I have the scan, so it was very easy, and yeah, I found the the insight I was looking for.

Bryan Collins:                     So do you store the physical journals somewhere?

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah, I store them just in my parents’ house. That’s kind of the permanent place where I can keep my old kind of memories. So yeah, I like that. When I’m there, when I visit them sometimes, I like to just go through my old journals and kind of look at them more as looking at myself few years back and just remember who I was at specific points of time when I was writing things down. But I found interestingly that the most important insights while I write them down, I think the act of writing them down somehow triggers the brain that, “This is important. You should remember that,” so I don’t really need to go back to the journal itself because it stays in my memory.

Michal Korzonek:             And sometimes, of course, when it’s something very technical, like a name or something more detailed, I might forget and I need to go back to find this particular information. But most of the time when it comes to big insights that really had triggered some powerful decisions in my life or observations that really changed something, shift my paradigms, that stays with me after I have written it. So the act of writing actually brings it to the surface and suddenly something becomes clear that might have not been clear before.

Bryan Collins:                     I mean, you put together a minimalist journaling system for people who … correct me if I’m wrong … haven’t journaled much before. Could you describe how it works?

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah. So this is a very visual method of representing your journey of your life. And the kind of whole idea behind it is it takes 30 seconds every day or less, so it’s super simple just to remove all the barriers you know for you to actually get started. And it gives you a continuous readout of where you are in life. And the system itself can be used for different purposes. Kind of the most common one is to build habits. It can be used as a habit tracker, but it’s very simple. It’s playful, it’s fun and you can customize it as you go and you can track, just with a simple square, you can track very elaborate routines and it still takes few seconds to track everything, so you don’t need to actually go through a list of 14 boxes and tick them all but you can do that using one simple square.

Michal Korzonek:             But also, you can track more intangible things that happen in your life. For example, key events, how you feel, your productivity levels, your relationships, your sex life, maybe your insights that you have. So it can be also used for just less tangible way, but the main point of it is that every day I look at my squares and it gives me a very, very clear overview of how my life is going. I see a month or two months or how many I want to see at once, and within 10 seconds I decipher those little hieroglyphic symbols I’m using to represent certain things in my life that are important to me. And yeah, and I get exactly where am I at, what’s happening, and I can see patterns that cause certain things.

Michal Korzonek:             For example, recently, I’ve burned myself out a little bit and I could see exactly, I could see all the signs before the burnout happened leading to it. In a way, I was completely aware that it’s coming because I’ve seen this pattern many, many times before and then it happened, and I could see exactly how it’s going and I knew that in few days, if I’m going to start doing certain things that usually get me out of the kind of burnout mode, it’s probably going to go back. I’m going to go back to normal, and that’s exactly what happened. So spotting old patterns allowed me to, let’s say, fix something that was wrong or not working.

Bryan Collins:                     That sounds quite qualitative. So what kind of habits or routines would you recommend people start tracking, or I suppose, what kind of habits or routines do you find your clients or customers like to track?

Michal Korzonek:             So this is a very, very good question and it’s also the place where you can completely get lost because what I see, the regular tendencies, we want to do too many things at once. And this is where usually it becomes overwhelming and then we quit very quickly. So for somebody who would just be to start this, I just really highly recommend to start with just one habit to track because that ensures that your entire attention is on this one specific habit.

Michal Korzonek:             We usually start with asking a question, “What is the change you would like to see in the next 90 days in your life?” And then that becomes a goal, and then to try to break it down into a tiny habit that you can do every day, even on your most miserable day when you don’t feel like doing anything, but you still commit to do this one tiny thing that is contributing to this goal that you want to see happen in your life. So in this way, you’re building consistency and you just keep tracking it in your square every day, every day, every day. And then when you see [crosstalk 00:15:36] . Uh-huh (affirmative)?

Bryan Collins:                     I was going to ask, could you give an example of something that’s broken down like that?

Michal Korzonek:             For example, let’s say that you want to be fit. Let’s say that you want to have a more healthier body. You feel like, “Oh, maybe I’m not exercising enough. I know I should, but I just never really get myself, but in 90 days I really want to have a regular workout routine.” So, okay, how can we break it down into a habit? Well, you can first say, “Hmm, okay, maybe one hour exercise every three days.” That sounds good. But then can you actually commit to do that even if you’re having the most busy week when nothing is going according to your plans and there’s just crisis after crisis and you’re tired and there’s no time for anything? Well, most of the people probably would give up in those circumstances. And the point of it is that you continue no matter what.

Michal Korzonek:             So for example, my partner wanted to build her yoga practice and what she found that the biggest resistance for her to actually do yoga is to roll out a yoga mat, and this is it. It’s an activity that takes five seconds. You just put the mat and you roll it out. What she decided is that for those 90 days, she will track this action, just to roll the yoga mat. She doesn’t need to do yoga, she just needs to roll the mat and stand on it.

Michal Korzonek:             And what she found is that … I’m guessing the number, but almost all of the days she actually did yoga, it was most of the time between 20 to 45 minutes, but on some days she did just five, but she still did it. And that was the biggest insight behind it. If she would force herself to do one hour every day, it would be more likely for her to fail. So basically employing the methodology of tiny habits, that’s where you start. This is the first step and then you can scale it up, bring more habits, build routines, but that’s the next step when you have the basic consistency up and running.

Bryan Collins:                     So it’s kind of like the writer who’s says they’re going to write a thousand words a day, but then breaks it down to, “I’ll just write 50 this morning and that’s it.”

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah. And that doesn’t mean that 50 words is your goal. Go ahead and write a thousand. Go ahead and write 2000, but even if you write 50, it means that you tried, that you did the repetition, and those reps on the hardest days are probably more valuable than the easy ones. This is where actually we’re building our character and we’re saying, “No, I’m going to do this no matter what because my goal is important to me and I really want to achieve this thing that I want to achieve.”

Bryan Collins:                     So just to go back to something you brought up there a few minutes ago about burnout, how could somebody who’s really busy running their business or starting a business use journaling to recognize signs of burnout?

Michal Korzonek:             Well, minimalist journaling system is one of the ways, but basically it all comes down to having a moment of self-time and reflect on what’s happening, and even if you don’t keep a journal, you can simply go outside, leave everything, and just go for a 10 minutes walk just with yourself to think. And I find that usually lots of people don’t even have those few minutes for themselves. We have our phones, okay, so there’s always something happening. But just still having this moment of peace and clarity and mindfulness and reflection on what’s going on in your life, and if you keep having it every day, things start to come up. It might take a moment to get into the habit of that, and of course journaling is a great way to do that because you’re writing, so you’re making things even more tangible. Sometimes when we’re just thinking, we can get lost in thoughts and kind of start thinking about, not necessarily reflect on what’s happening in our life but just get lost in little distractions.

Michal Korzonek:             But yeah, just take time to observe what’s happening in your life, and then tracking habits is one way or tracking certain symptoms. Let’s say you might find things like, okay, maybe you’re addicted to coffee and the coffee is actually what’s bringing you anxiety, and then the anxiety triggers certain behaviors that then spiral down and at the end we have a burnout. I know for me, it’s one of my triggers. I don’t really drink coffee very often, but in the past few weeks leading to the burnout for a few reasons, I was drinking two or three cups a week, which is much more than I usually drink. And I could see that this brings more stress in my life, brings more anxiety and that contributes two other things, and then I started eating a little bit more sugar so I can see all those patterns.

Michal Korzonek:             But basically I noticed those patterns because I was paying attention to what am I doing with my life on this very basic self-maintenance basis? If I think of my body as a vehicle, what am I feeding this vehicle? How am I maintaining this vehicle? What am I putting in? Do I do some regular cleanings and checks and all of that? So that’s one way to use a journal. But you can just have a think about it or a conversation with someone, like a coach or just a friend can be very helpful to bring the awareness to that.

Bryan Collins:                     I’m also curious what journals you recommend people read. You’ve listed some resources on your site. Are there any popular journals that you’ve enjoyed reading?

Michal Korzonek:             Popular journals? What do you mean by journals?

Bryan Collins:                     Are there any popular journals by famous people from history that you’ve read?

Michal Korzonek:             I see what you mean. Well, Benjamin Franklin is amazing. I mean, he’s just such a structured person and achieved quite a lot, so it’s quite impressive to see a habit tracking that’s connected. But yeah, for him it’s not very habit. It’s virtuous. It’s quite impressive that he managed to build his life around very powerful principles that he wants to live his life by, then he tracked how he’s doing.

Michal Korzonek:             Frida Kahlo is another very exciting persona. I mean, her art, there’s nothing quite like it. So looking through it, it’s a powerful experience. But to be fair, I found that anytime, if I can get a hold of somebody’s journal, especially when it’s slightly more visual than text, it always resonates a lot with me. But that’s probably because my journal is also a combination of those flow charts, graphs and everything like that. But I would say that probably everyone’s journal would be interesting to read because even in a regular person’s life, I’m sure there is quite some amazing insights that can be used for just learning about life and learning how to become a better person.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. John Cleaver’s journals are some that I recommend. Finally, I’m feeling what you’re going to say, but do you have an early morning routine that is ideal for you?

Michal Korzonek:             Yeah. I guess this is kind of a very common topic, and this is something that evolves constantly. So what I might tell you that they might change in a month or even faster because I’m constantly kind of experimenting, but some components are the same. It’s pretty much the order them or the length changes. But basically I wake up, I go to the bathroom first, take care of the kinds of physiological needs and then I drink some water with lemon and I journal. I start by answering a question I asked myself yesterday and then I write down my dreams if I remember them, and then I journal a bit more and then I meditate. After that, it’s usually time for either exercise. Right now I changed that and now I’m having breakfast first. I’m reading after breakfast and then now I started going for walks after breakfast and exercise kind of comes later in the day. But yeah, and after the walk, I’m ready to hit the work. So that’s my morning routine.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, it’s similar to mine. Where can people find you or information about the minimalist journaling system?

Michal Korzonek:             So the best place to find information about minimalist journaling system is to go our website, journalsmarter.com. There is a starter kit there. So if anybody would like to give it a shot, there’s all the instructions, how to start and assume that we’re going to have a full on course going very deep into all the principles behind it and the whole methodology and how you can scale it up to track a ridiculous amount of data still using 30 seconds and not getting lost in all of that and using it to find patterns and just make huge progress in your life. So yeah, Journal Smarter is the best place to have a look.

Bryan Collins:                     Well, it was great to talk to you today.

Michal Korzonek:             I enjoyed it very much. Thanks a lot for inviting me to your podcast. I really appreciate it.

Bryan Collins:                     Thank you. So Michal, I’ll be in touch in a few weeks with a draft of the article and you can edit the quotes for clarity in November sometime.

Michal Korzonek:             That’ll be great. Thanks a lot for reaching out to me and inviting.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, great. Fascinating topic. Nice to talk to you. Talk to you later. Bye.

Michal Korzonek:             All right. Bye bye. Have a good day.

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