Never Always Look Back
Sep 22, 2015 is a date I’ll never forget.
Not because anything special happened that day.
Because something special started. It’s Day 1 of a practice that’s become surprisingly vital to my life:
Lifelogging (i.e., keeping a record of everything I do).
A movie director named Robert Rodriguez inspired me to try. In his podcast interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, he recounted how he started the peculiar habit of journaling everything he did in college and never looked back.
Actually, the opposite. He always looks back. And he attributes a lot of his personal and professional success to it.
That sounded good to me, so I started my experiment with it that same day.
Over seven years later, I haven’t stopped.
Everything Rodriguez said was true. Lifelogging has been a gift from my past self to my future selves that keeps on giving.
Kim’s doing it now, too. So’s my brother. And maybe after reading these eight reasons why we’re all hooked on lifelogging, you might want to consider trying it, too.
1. A Better Relationship With Future Me
“I would look [at my daily life log] and I’d go: wow, I didn’t have very much to write about myself at the end of that day. I’m going to have to give myself more things on the left so I have more to write stuff on the right. It really made you reflect on your day and realize I didn’t do much today.”Robert Rodriguez
After my first few days of lifelogging, one thing jumped off the page: how productive I wasn’t.
- I worked way fewer hours than I felt I did. In a week where I might have guessed I had put in a good 60 hours of work, the reality was closer to 30.
- Most of what I spent my time on wasn’t important—too much time spending, not enough time investing.
- Multi-tasking is as useless as they say. I rarely accomplished anything of substance when I tried doing two things at once.
So that’s when a new character entered my life:
I could feel Future Chris looking over my shoulder. I knew he’d read my lifelog and get pissed off at me for dicking around down YouTube wormholes or putting off important projects by staying busy with trivialities.
Not wanting to let him down, I became more conscious of what I did with my time. Our time!
My future self and I are getting along better now. Keeping track of everything I do helps us communicate. And we’re being productive—not efficient—because of it.
2. Drop Out of the Race
I want to be the guy looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror. But sometimes you can see better through the windshield if you look through the rearview mirror and look at some of the stuff that’s gone on.Robert Rodriguez
Until I started keeping track of everything I do, I lived like I was in a NASCAR race, speeding around without rearview mirrors. Looking back, I thought, would slow me down.
While it’s exciting to zoom pedal-to-the-metal through life, if I don’t keep track of where I’ve been and use that to guide me, I’ll get lost, go in the wrong direction, or, like a NASCAR driver, go in circles.
So I dropped out of the race and treated life like an exploration instead.
Keeping track of everything I do doesn’t slow me down too much anyway. Every time I move from one activity to the next, I log the time and briefly describe what I did. It takes maybe five to ten seconds each time and adds up to maybe five minutes a day total.
See this log of a regular day in my life as an example.
3. Keep the Past Alive
You ask your girlfriend or your wife, what did we do last year on your birthday? They won’t remember. A year goes by and you will not remember the details. You go back and you see the journals, it’s even better the second time. You live through it again and you realize the importance of it.Robert Rodriguez
The sixth biggest regret of my life so far (listed here) is not keeping any records of my early adulthood.
- Where all did I go during my misguided country-counting rampage I went on while working in Switzerland?
- What were the names of the characters I met during my South American pretirement tour?
- How exactly did that evening go when I first connected with Kim?
These key scenes in the story of my life have become hazy blurs. Others have vanished.
But that’s not the case for any date after Sep 22, 2015. I can easily pull up any moment from my lifelog to rekindle and relive them in vivid detail with the people I experienced them with.
I’m grateful for it. And, as I keep accumulating more memories and locking them into my lifelog, my future self will be grateful, too.
[Update: This has become even more valuable to me since I’ve become a father. I use unique hashtags to record Zac’s milestones and funny stories, which I’m already looking back on fondly.]
4. Learn From Experience (and Not Forget)
“It’s really a learning experience. I’m just going to go make it, and I’m going to give a look back on my journal and see where I messed up. So it was really going to be a document so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.”Robert Rodriguez
Experience may be the best teacher, but I still manage to forget its lessons. And it sure feels stupid to have to learn a second time.
Keeping track of everything has kept that from continuing.
By noting what I did, what worked, and what didn’t, I know what to do and how how to do it better the next time.
To give you a couple of examples:
- Relationship lessons. When Kim and my relationship started getting turbulent, I went to my lifelog to identify the seemingly innocuous ingredients and patterns that combined to cause the storm. We then came up with proactive defenses, like our daily gratitude practice, to keep things smooth(-er).
- Tech-related how-tos. For example, it took me way more time than it should to figure out how to get a PDF into an easy-to-read format on my Kindle. When I had to do it a second time years later, it was a breeze because I’d written down the steps I took and linked to the guides I followed.
5. A Modern Rolodex
“I would find that you meet the same people over and over again. I wrote down specifics of people I would meet casually in Hollywood, knowing we would run into each other again. They ended up being great collaborators ten years later, or showing up in things. And I’d be able to go back and read them stuff from the early days and that would blow them away.”Robert Rodriguez
As Dale Carnegie said in one of my “sledgehammer” books, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” And it’s equally bitter when another can’t remember it.
Since my social skills are too weak to mask such bitterness, I make sure to record the names of people I meet in my lifelog. Then, for an extra cherry and whipped cream on top, I note details like what they do, their interests, and trips or projects they have planned.
That way, if and when I see them again, I can refer to my modern Rolodex and make it a sweet reunion, not a bitter one.
6. An Idea Attic
So really capturing these ideas is the most important thing. And then as you go through it, you realize, okay, this one I’ll never do, this one I’ll never do, you know, with your to-do list and stuff.Robert Rodriguez
As I’m sure is the case with you too, my brain’s a wild and messy place. All sorts of crazy new ideas, thoughts, and plans zoom in, out, and around it all day.
Thankfully I have my lifelog to corral them.
If something special or urgent comes to mind, I’ll add it straight to the daily or weekly to-do lists atop my time tracking log.
But most random thoughts aren’t special or urgent… yet. Business and blog post ideas, topics to look up in more detail, theories to marinate on, and fun twists of phrase, for example.
I capture all of these thoughts and ideas and organize them into notes like bins in an attic. It doesn’t cost me anything to store them and it makes them easy to find them when they may come in handy.
7. A Second Brain
What did I learn that I can now use later? And it may take me ten years to figure it out, but it’ll be there when I need it, and then I’ll be able to look back and check a journal and go: oh yeah, this and that equaled together.Robert Rodriguez
About a year after I started keeping track of my ideas in my lifelog, I added a new dimension: keeping track of other people’s ideas there, too.
It seems stupidly obvious now. Other people’s ideas, quotes, theories, and facts that I discover deserve just as much space in my idea attic as mine do—more, actually, since they almost certainly know better than me.
But what has happened since I started collecting other people’s ideas is less obvious.
Not only did the note-taking improve my recall and understanding, but all the ideas began interconnecting into a matrix. So when I filter through my lifelog for ideas on a specific topic, I usually make unexpected connections between different sources.
My lifelog metamorphosed into a second brain.
8. A Growing Treasure
Now it’s become an addiction and it’s just so necessary.Robert Rodriguez
It’s been over seven years since Robert Rodriguez first inspired me to keep track of everything I do.
And what a fabulous seven years they’ve been!
So much has happened: a couple of unforgettable business (ad-)ventures, a new fiancée (now wife), new homes and new friends in new countries, a son, and this blog. And I can tell you every last detail about all of it.
I don’t think I could have done it all if not for the future-self focus and second brain-like creativity lifelogging has given me. What started as an experiment and a couple few pages of notes has become a library that is easily my most valuable possession.
And it gets more valuable to me every day.
✓ Evolve your system.
Most people fail at making lifelogging a habit because they start with an overcomplicated system. Don’t make that mistake. Disregard the fact that I use Roam Research and your favorite productivity influencer loves Notion.
Start as simple as possible. Use your phone’s basic notes app or a physical notepad. That’s how I started, too. And that’s why I’m still going.
Then once that simple process feels simple, evolve in complexity, one step at a time.
↳ More on this in How to Evolve a System for Organizing Your Life.
✓ Log after each task.
For instance, after I finish updating this post with these tips, I will flip over to my Roam app and log the time and what I just worked on, like this:
This way, I can see how long I spent on this task by subtracting the current time from my previous time stamp.
✓ Periodically audit your time spending.
Copy-paste a week of your lifelog into a spreadsheet, classify each time “expense” by category—e.g., Chores, Deep Work, Socializing, Dumb Sh*t, Eating, Exercise—then sum it up to get a picture of how you actually spend your time.
You’ll be shocked by what you see. And that will motivate you to spend your time more wisely the next week—or at least to stop complaining about how “hard you work” and how you “don’t have the time.”
✓ Chill in the evening.
In the evening, I rarely log anything except maybe the show we watched so as to remember which episode to watch next time.
And if I do something social, I keep my phone in my pocket and wait until the following morning to recap the names, details, and events I want to remember.
✓ Throw photos in.
I hear every photo’s worth a thousand words, so that saves you a lot of time writing.
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About the author
I'm Chris. Canadian, husband, dad, writer, investor, athlete, and obsessed explorer of the secrets to living a never-boring, always improving, unfollowable life story.
10 responses to “8 Reasons Lifelogging Is Worth Your Time (Plus Tips)”
Sounds like I should give it a try!
What kind of tool, app etc. do you use to track your time?
I am intrigued by this idea. I definitely see the potential power here! I’d love to see an example!
This is great advice about writing down people’s names and things about them that you’d like to remember for the next time you meet. I’m really bad with names and I’ve found it really hard to remember the names of all of my friends kids as I’m at the age where everyone is having babies.
It’s really embarrassing when one of your friends is so excited about their new baby and you get the baby’s name wrong when you’re talking. So I’ve started making a point of writing down the names of all of my friends’ and acquaintances’ kids and spouses in an effort to not repeat this mistake.
I’m going to take a from this article and start writing down more detail about the people I meet so I’m not just remembering names, but things about them as well.
Periodically auditing the way you spend your time is a great, really valuable. How do you manage your categories when you are doing something that fits in more than one category?
For example, it would help me to know how much time I spend doing things for myself, and how much I spend being a caregiver for my mother and my sister, since I moved in with them. It’s not as clear when I’m grocery shopping, cooking, prepping meals, kitchen clean up, and doing errands are not as clear as pouring my mom’s meds and supplements, paying her bills or bandaging a wound for her, or taking my sister for doctor appointments, chemo, etc..
It will help me figure out where I/we need help, additional resources.