How to improve your executive function: 10 journal organization ideas

My preferred way of keeping a journal: For creativity

I love my journals for the creativity and freedom that they give me. The journal organization ideas I tend to use are to do with keeping creative ideas in one place. The journals that I have kept are mostly about my thoughts or creativity, or they are visual and contain sketches, or collages or inspirational ideas.

For me, they are a great way to express that part of me which is non-organisational. You may be the same and keep journals, like art journals and craft journals, that are very creative and visually inspiring.

Keeping a journal for organisational tasks

Journals are also used to record more process driven tasks and highly organisational ideas. You might use your journal to run your home organization, or your work schedule, or personal goals.

I don’t know what the percentage split is of people who use a journal for creativity versus purely organisational. You may use your journal for both types.

And, for both types, if you want to find anything, or retrace your steps in any way, or work out what your inspiration was or what you were thinking or how a project evolved, you will want your journal to be as organised as possible.

Using a journal to help manage your brain

Brains are different to journals. Brains have their own ideas, their own prompts, their own priorities. Brains can push ideas at you nineteen to the dozen, all day, every day.

Or brains can switch off entirely and leave you wondering what you were doing and why you were doing it and needing to retrace your steps to work out what was going on thirty seconds ago!

Collage image of a woman journaling, the journal and the tray with the books on. Accompanies the blog post on journal organization ideas

Training your brain and organising your life

There are various different blog posts on this site which will help you with organisation and planning and goal setting. For example you may also like to read:

How to organize a journal for the life you want
18 goal journal ideas to create a life plan you love
How to use journaling to track your self improvement goals

And I’m including a table of contents here to help you navigate this blog post better and to help you to get all the useful information out of it that you need to uplevel your executive function.

Fortunately, as far as our lives are concerned, you can train your brain to do what you want it to do, such as organise your life. Let’s look at your brain and the concept of executive function.

Executive Function

Executive function is your brain’s ability to plan, prioritise and execute tasks efficiently and accurately. Executive function depends on three kinds of brain : working memory, mental flexibility and self control.

Some of us find it easy to prioritise tasks, we have a high level of executive function.

For many years I had high energy levels and high levels of enthusiasm which compensated for a lack of organisational skills. I could also organise myself at work, but if I had to organise my home life, my social life and my work life, I was left exhausted and depleted.

There is a list below of 12 components of executive function. Now I look back at my early year in entrepreneurship I realise how low my abilities were in all these areas. It is not surprising that I found navigating life so exhausting.

The good news is that these are skills and skills can be taught. And you can order your life, using tools such as journal organization ideas, or daily routines, to create peace and harmony in your daily routine.

Image of a tiled tray with journals and a cup of coffee and a pen on the tray. Rugs and blankets in cream colours are piled around the tray. Accompanies the blog post on journal organization ideas

12 components of executive function

Your ability to organise anything at all and then to keep on top of things is going to depend on your ability to execute the following (with thanks to Connected Speech Pathology for this particular list):

  1. Planning and prioritising.
  2. Time management
  3. Organization
  4. Working memory
  5. Self-monitoring and metacognition
  6. Response inhibition and impulse control (not covered in this blog post)
  7. Emotional control
  8. Task Initiation
  9. Flexibility (not covered in this blog post)
  10. Goal-Directed persistence
  11. Sustained and disengaged action
  12. Regulation of processing speed

How journal organization ideas help you regain control of your life and your brain

1. Planning and prioritising

No matter where you are starting from, what happened yesterday or how you have managed your life up until now, opening your journal and facing that blank page is a great place to start afresh.

If you feel that you have a lot of residual thoughts about getting started with organizing your journal and having an organized life, then why not sit for a while and make a list of all that you feel might be holding you back.

Take a sheet of paper and do a brain dump on what is going on in your mind. Think of it as a fun way to declutter and leave behind all that does not serve you.

You can make this a regular part of your routine. First thing on a Monday pull out a sheet of paper and get all your thoughts out on paper. You don’t have to do this on a weekend. I prefer to do mine at the weekend.

For some reason on a Monday my mind goes blank, whereas on a Saturday or Sunday I find it easier to see the week ahead. It can also be a great idea to do it on a Friday before you leave the office and the mental files and filing cabinets get shut down!

The Life Coach School has a great model which is called Monday Hour One which I also recommend checking out. It will help you gather all your thoughts, prioritise them and set out your week for maximum focus and achievement.

Woman in glasses with dark hair. Accompanies the blog post on journal organization ideas

2. Time Management

Daily Routine

An essential part of time management is your daily routine.

A daily routine is one of the most important things for an organized life. I have started many habits in my life and what I have discovered is that I stop them in order to start another one that seems more interesting. This has its advantages because I love learning and doing new things.

However it’s not necessarily a great strategy because ‘habit stacking’, a term I learned from James Clear, is so powerful. Habit stacking is when you stack one habit on top of another in order to get them both done. “When I have finished my meditation practice I will do 20 minutes of yoga.” is an example of habit stacking.

In starting a new habit, and discarding the old one, as I was doing, you are losing out on the benefits that long term habit execution brings with it. So when you have established a habit try to bring other habits around it rather than dropping it in order to try something new.

In which aspects of your life do you want to create or maintain new habits and where do you want to habit stack? Try and learn new habits and then not give them up.

Daily to-do list

Most organised people I know have a to-do list. There are so many different ways to keep a daily list. The essential idea is that you keep a list of what needs doing that day. This helps you decide what is important, so you can prioritise your tasks. And it helps you monitor what you actually got done so anything which is outstanding can be moved to the next day.

How to organise your daily tasks.

In the bullet journaling method, you write down all your tasks, events and thoughts as you go, throughout the day. using daily logs. And then at the end of the day you reflect and move those tasks and events and thoughts around for the next day or put them to bed entirely. It’s a great idea, but you can also use your own method. Whichever way you do it, you need some way of tracking daily activities.

Prioritising Tasks

Use your journal to prioritise tasks. Your daily schedule should be the foundation for being able to prioritise. The Eisenhower Matrix is great for learning to prioritise well. You may know it from Stephen Covey’s Book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

In your journal make task prioritisation the most important thing about each day. How you do it is your choice. You could have three levels of importance using different colors, for example red, yellow, green. You can create a simple list and then put 1 next to high priority items, 2 next to less important and 3 next to not important etc. The important aspect is that you create a method for sticking to the list and completing tasks in order of importance.

Other factors that will help you manage your time better are listed below:

Tackle the most difficult task first; batch-process similar tasks; set reasonable time limits; learn when to say no; avoid multitasking; keep things organised; use time management tools to help you.

This article by Slack was useful for me and might be for you too.

3. Organisation

Staying organised helps maintain your focus and be time efficient by completing tasks on time.

Use your journal to organise and set goals. Your to-do list is a good starting place as this lists out your micro-goals for each day. If you stick to your to-do list you will maintain focus and organisation.

Track your progress

Use your journal to write about your day. Write when you feel most organised, when you get the most work done. Maybe keep this journal for a week or a month and see if you notice a pattern. When you do, create a weekly spread for yourself in your journal and block out time to get certain tasks completed.

Write down events and tasks that are coming up. In bullet journaling you would do this in your monthly spreads. For each new month you start a new spread.

On the left hand side you write down the events that are upcoming and on the right hand side you write down the tasks that you are anticipating. You can also do this in an excel spreadsheet and I have also used Asana to create a similar task calendar.

Woman's hand writing in a journal with a silver coloured pen. Accompanies the blog post on journal organization ideas

4. Working Memory

Some people have great working memory. Others do not.

External factors also affect your working memory such as:
organising multiple projects simultaneously
external stressful factors such as divorce
money worries
job insecurity
Not maintaining a healthy life style can also negatively affect your working memory: overworking, under-exercising, over-drinking can all be factors.

As working memory is an essential part of our daily lives and especially your working life it’s important to make sure it’s as effective as possible.

To help your working memory, use any of these journal organization ideas:

Decluttering your mind

Studies claim we have between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day and as we know for ourselves they are often not beautifully organised thoughts. They appear in a higgledy piddgledy fashion. So how do you order those thoughts?

Roy F Baumeister, in Willpower, writes, “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different to ordinary physical fatigue – you’re not consciously aware of being tired – but you’re low on mental energy.”

This state is known as decision fatigue. It means that the more decisions you have to make, the harder it becomes to make them well. So get your thoughts out on paper and use your journal to do this.

Use checklists for tasks with multiple steps

A simple way to improve your working memory is to break steps down into smaller pieces. You can create hierarchies in your journal. List out the larger project and then break it down underneath the heading.

Write everything down

Don’t worry if your working memory isn’t as good as you would like. Just find ways to support it. One way is to write everything down. Rapid logging is the Bullet Journal technique where you write everything down on your daily log. You then allocate it a symbol according to what the thought is: task, event or item.

Don’t expect your brain to hold all the information you need. Give it some love and write a list!

5. Self monitoring and metacognition

Metacognition is recognising and controlling what’s in your head. Being able to monitor your own behaviour is a brilliant task for your personal organisation.

Learn to track what you are doing and the outcomes you get. It also is a function whereby you can change your behaviour if you don’t like the results you are getting.

In short it’s the ability to look at what you are doing as if you are looking at yourself from outside, ten feet above yourself, and then course adjust your behaviour if you want to change the outcome of what you are getting.

Habit tracker

If you are using the bullet journal system then you are creating a habit tracker each day that you use the journal. Your daily log and monthly log, the way collections are organised, and the future log are all ways of creating habits.

Trackers of any kind are brilliant for this.

Mood Tracker

As part of your plans to organise your journal and organise your life, always pay attention to your mental health and try and prioritise it. Use a mood tracker and then you can kill two birds with one stone: being organized in your journal and prioritizing your health.

If you are going through a particularly stressful time in any way then I would really recommend you track your moods and emotions. When you know what you are thinking and feeling it makes it so much easier to manage your mental health.

Work tracker

An effective journal organization idea is to track your work. That is to say track the productivity of your work. Write down what you are doing and the results you are getting. For example, you could write: “Created 3 marketing campaigns. Presented campaigns. 2 accepted. 1 rewrite. The rewrite was to be more brand focused and use the language already used on the website.”

This gives you an insight into what your company wanted from your work. They wanted you to be more brand focused and use existing language. once you start tracking what people want from you, you can adjust your work process accordingly.

The best way to track anything is to do it regularly and if possible at the same time. If you are going to track your mood, for example, then set up a time for yourself daily.

6. Task initiation

Task initiation, or ‘getting started’ is the ability to not procrastinate and just get going. If you struggle with this then use your journal to create a method for yourself to get started. Or you could use procrastination journal prompts to get you unstuck. You can also declutter and get clear. Quite often what is stopping us is not procrastination but confusion.

How to start to declutter and get clear

Fortunately we have our journals to help us declutter. And this is where your journal practice comes in. Writing things down allows us to free up our minds. When you write things down you externalise your thoughts, they are now outside of you, and you can start to relax.

In the Bullet Journal Book, Ryder Carrol, the author, creates a great exercise called the test. It’s on page 40 (of 310) of the Kindle version. Give it a go yourself if you need to get clear on what’s important and what’s not important in your life.

7. Goal-directed persistence

I love this phrase. I haven’t always been very good at living it up to it though. I have struggled with completing projects and maintaining an interest in them beyond the initial euphoria of having thought of a great idea.

With some projects once I can see that they would work I feel like I’ve proved the concept and have no desire to continue with them. However I have learned to keep going. And not only to keep going, but to develop strategies to help myself when the goal feels hard to achieve.

Journals are perfect environments for maintaining your goal-directed persistence. From journaling about your thoughts, to trackers, to daily to-do lists to keep you on track, journaling presents you with a whole world designed to help you succeed.

Another method that is great for goal-directed persistence is The Twelve Week Year. You take twelve weeks and treat them like a year. In fact it is your year. And within that timeframe you maintain focus, monitor and track progress, see where you are succeeding and see where you are behind target. It is a super-focus tool which will help you achieve more in twelve weeks than you have done in the previous six months.

You can also write out your mantras or phrases each day. Anything that will help you maintain the mindset that you are going to complete your challenge and achieve your goal.

8. Sustained and disengaged action

Sustained action is attending to and focusing on a specific task. The ability to sustain attention helps to reduce distractions. Disengaging attention is the ability to withdraw attention from one stimulus to focus on another. You can use your journal to help sustain attention by creating a whole page just for one specific task.

Write out everything you need to do to achieve this task. Write them as bullet points and then work through them systematically until you have completed the task.

You might also like to reduce distraction by turning off mobile devices, plus limiting work colleagues ability to message you randomly eg by switching off Teams or whatever organisational messaging you use. Switch off onscreeen notifications tool.

9. Regulation of processing speed

Your processing speed is the rate at which you can take in a bit of new information, reach some judgment on it and then formulate a response. The regulation of it is your ability to decide how quickly you want to respond to performing a certain task based on whether you feel it is important or not.

I would definitely use my journal to help my processing speed. You can use mind maps, brain dumps or just straightforward lists to map out a new bit of information and what is required of you. Occasionally if I have difficult assimilating the words I write them out in a different way so that it makes sense to me.

The act of writing something down helps me to process it and if you are the same then a great organisational idea for you is to make sure that you always write down what people have asked you and then work out your own way of understanding it and formulating a response to it.

Overstimulation of your processing ability can lead to total brain meltdown as I have discovered to my cost. It is not a reflection of your ability to do your job, it is a reflection of your ability to process the information given to you in order to do your job and the two are very different scenarios.

Your journal can be your best friend that helps you navigate your sensoring processing of information and priorities. Regulation of processing speed is just one aspect of this. Another is logging and retrieving thoughts.

10. Logging and retrieving thoughts.

One of the greatest benefits of a bullet journal, I think, is the way that the index is set up so that you can retrieve any information you want to find later. This is probably the best part of the bullet journal method for me. I have so many thoughts and sometimes I need to retrieve them. And I find the retrieval of information really taxing. So an index is the perfect way for me to be able to log my thoughts and retrieve them later.

The way to do this with the Bullet Journal method is to create an index page at the start of your journal. Then, for each spread that you start you add page numbers to your bullet journal pages. In this way your index page also acts as a table of contents.

I have started to explore different creative ways to store and retrieve my thoughts. Another method that has worked really well for me is to put all my random thoughts during the day into a word document. This makes my unorganised thoughts searchable. I prefer to write by hand, and have had to compromise a little bit by going for a hybrid hand/typed solution.

If you liked this blog post you may also like:

New year journal prompts: Make this your best year ever
Work bullet journal spreads: How to achieve any goal
How to empower neurodiverse brains: ADHD bullet journal ideas

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