Topics du Jour: Give Your Life Direction in Less than 10 Minutes a Day

Topics du Jour

Topics du Jour is a powerful journaling technique you can use to review, plan and put your life in perspective within no more than 5 or 10 minutes of your day. Here’s how it works:

Number down a page from 1 to 30. Write in each line one aspect of your life that you would like to monitor. Then, each day of the month, look at the corresponding topic and write a paragraph or two about it.

You may end up writing about your plans, or maybe about a specific problem you’re facing in that area. Or perhaps you will end up just babbling — it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’ll be spending those few daily minutes specifically giving attention to what matters in your life. That’s why I like this technique: it’s quick, intuitive and, above all, it gets you into the daily habit of connecting with what’s important in your life.

Here are a few examples of topics you can write about:

  • Career
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Money
  • Spiritual Life
  • Learning
  • Leisure
  • Aging
  • Contribution

Bear in mind that the topics don’t need to be limited to the usual notion of ‘life areas’. You can, for example, pick themes such as ‘Successes’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Goals’, ‘Frustrations’, ‘Procrastination’; or anything else you believe would be interesting to revisit regularly.

A note about the number of topics: to be fair, you don’t need to define 30 topics to write about: the only requirement is that you keep a schedule to cycle between your topics, no matter how many of them there are. My schedule, for example, consists of 10 topics rotated biweekly, weekdays only.

Top 3 Benefits of Topics du Jour

1. Touch-Base All Life Areas

We usually don’t need complex tools to find out how to improve our lives. All we need is to get into the habit of connecting with our inner selves and listen. However, this is not as easy as it seems at first, as we tend to get stuck in just one or two dominant aspects of our lives and think only about those.

That’s exactly how Topics du Jour can help: it serves as a framework you can use to regularly connect with yourself and methodically focus on each and every important aspect of your life.

2. Get Instantly Motivated to Action

Facing the different aspects of your life on a daily basis is an act of courage. Bringing long-standing issues to the surface can be scary. Getting to regularly overcome the resistance to face these issues gives you an immediate sense of power and control.

Even more important is the fact that, by consciously bringing those issues to the surface, you can actually do something about them.

And here’s a suggestion, which is the only “rule” I have in my Topics du Jour sessions: once you’re done, look at what you’ve written and define at least one action you can do to move you forward in that area. Think of the smallest step possible you can take and, if at all possible, don’t even write it down: do it immediately! Maybe it’s a phone call; maybe it’s just tidying up your desk or deleting an old file on your computer. The motivating effect of immediate action, no matter how tiny, never ceases to amaze me.

3. Uncover Patterns

Contrary to regular journal entries, which are usually long and digressing, Topics du Jour entries tend to be short and to-the-point, making them perfect to be reviewed at a later time.

You can take, for example, several entries for just one particular topic and read them all in sequence. By doing that, you can get new insights about your advancement in that area, as well as uncover recurrent thinking patterns and struggles.

Another interesting way you can review your entries is by reading the entries in all topics for a certain period of your life. That way, you can find relationships between different aspects of your life (such as how one area impacts others).

How Topics du Jour Complements Getting Things Done (or How I Stopped Worrying About ‘High-Level’ Life Reviews)

Topics du Jour stands on its own as a self-knowledge journaling tool. The surprising discovery I made is that it really shines when used together with productivity systems such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). For me, Topics du Jour picks up exactly where GTD leaves off. Let me explain.

GTD is a great bottom-up approach to get your life in control. In order to put your life in perspective, you need a certain level of control in your life first. “If your ship is sinking, it doesn’t matter where it’s headed at”, Allen usually says. So, organizing low-level tasks and projects is a great place to start to get your life under control.

But once the organizing part is taken care of, you need to climb up and review your life from ‘higher altitudes’ — otherwise you’ll be trapped in mindless, never-ending micromanagement of tasks. Granted, GTD mentions that you should have those kinds of higher-altitude reviews, but it offers little guidance on how to do them.

In my case, even when trying to adopt other, more top-down oriented approaches — such as Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — I could never form the proper habits to make these reviews work. After many years of trying, I finally found out why.

Why High-Level Reviews Didn’t Work

The problems with my high-level reviews were twofold:

  • Too analytical. Linear, left-brain thinking may be great for managing to-do lists, but it failed me miserably when doing high-level reviews. For years I struggled trying to find the perfect structure for my high-level reviews: checklists of questions, improvement charts, SWOT matrices — I tried them all. And, no matter how my logical mind told me that these methods should work, I kept struggling. The very structures that I set up were preventing me from gaining access to the abstract thinking that’s required for high-level reviews.
  • Too frightening. The idea of sitting down to define goals and major directions for my life was always dreadful to me. I used to set my goals all at once (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). No wonder that the mere idea of such big ‘life reviews’ overwhelmed me.

As you already figured out by now, Topics du Jour resolved both problems.

No More High-Level Reviews

After journaling for a while, I noticed that I didn’t need those dreadful, big bang-like reviews. As it happens, I dropped the idea of ‘life reviews’ altogether in favor of Topics du Jour sessions. In a truly kaizen style, my higher-level thinking is now spread daily, and consists of nothing more than the Topics du Jour journaling sessions.

It came as an unexpectedly nice surprise to me how a journaling technique solved, quite by accident, an age-old problem I had. Here’s how:

  • Too analytical? Topics du Jour (as any form of journaling) can be a truly sensorial experience. Put an ambient light on, grab a comfortable pen or a nice and sexy text editor, and just write. Let go of your overly-dominant left-brain and let your intuition speak: no projects list, no estimating, no priorities. It’s refreshing being able to include a ‘soft’ tool like journaling to the highly-structured world of productivity systems.
  • Too frightening? Topics du Jour allows me to review my life one bit a day, splitting up a once huge and frightening task into several smaller, more manageable parts. In fact, I now look forward to my daily journaling sessions. There are no expectations whatsoever about these sessions — and, therefore, no unfulfilled expectations. The directions, the goals, the frustrations: they all just seem to emerge naturally instead of being forced upon me at a particular, pre-defined review date.

Try It

For a long time I’ve been reading about the benefits of keeping a daily journal. However, I always thought it wouldn’t be practical in my life, as it would take too much of my time. With the Topics du Jour technique, I don’t spend more than 10 minutes a day (well, I created a focused time box around it, just in case). And I can say that I actually gained time, as I spend much less time setting goals or worrying about those big, dreadful life reviews.

The Topics du Jour technique — like almost everything else I know about journaling — was learned from the excellent book Journal to the Self, by Kathleen Adams (click here for the book summary).

Give it a try. If you need further topic suggestions, I recommend you check the ones from the book (they can be found in the book’s mind map).