Feb 27, 2022

Life in plain text

My current working system for managing and tracking life as it unfolds.

There are a ton of different systems for goal setting. Mine includes tracking goals and tasks but more importantly serves as a medium for self-reflection and as a record of personal history. Regular self-reflection is vital for learning from experience and catalyzing personal growth. Having a record to look back on is essential for making sense of the journey that led you to where you are today.

It’s incredible to look back at reflections from a year ago (or even just a few months) when your words have fallen out of memory. It’s almost like reading the writing of an entirely different person. This provides for a neutral frame of reference, free from bias, from which powerful insights can emerge.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”
— Bruce Lee


My system involves simple, plain text files, formatted in markdown, and saved to my computer, though it could easily be replicated in any number of digital tools, or even a physical notebook. Here’s the overall structure:

📂 goals
|-📄 backlog.md
|-📁 2021
|-📂 2022
  |-📄 goals.md
  |-📄 week 01 - preparing for teaching.md
  |-📄 week 02 - orientation.md
  |-📄 week 03 - snowpocalypse.md
  |-📄 week 04.md

Breaking that down: Everything is contained in a central folder called goals. A file called backlog.md lives in the root and contains my entire backlog of tasks. Each year is organized into its own folder and each week of the year gets its own markdown file. Each year also contains a file called goals.md where I write down my goals for the year.


Each week I start a new markdown file organized into distinct sections:


At the top of the file I list my essential routines. These are basically to-do items that recur daily or nearly daily:

- Meditate (7×5m×2)
                         .   .   .   .   .   .   .

- Reflect on your day and your goals (daily)
                         .   .   .   .   .   .   .

- Walk (4×30m)
                         .   .   .   .   .   .   .

By the end of the week, it will look something like this:

  - Meditate (7×5m×2)
                         X   X   X   X   X   X   .

  - Reflect on your day and your goals (daily)
                         X   X   X   X   .   .   .

  - Walk (4×30m)
                         X   X   X   .   X   X   .

Weekly tasks

In this section I list everything I want to accomplish in the week, broken down into three different categories:

  • Who - people I want to reach out to or follow-up with
  • Recurring - tasks that recur only once per week
  • This week - the individual tasks that I want to do this week

Daily reflections

This is the template I use for each day:

# Sun, Feb 27

## Plan:

## Intention:

## Recap:

I don’t always write under every heading but it gives me a starting point. At the beginning of the day I pull items from my to-do list into the Plan. If it strikes me, I’ll set an Intention for the day. I try to check in throughout the day, and cross off items from my plan as I go.

At the end of the day I’ll do a recap, listing everything that happened in simple bullet point form.

Sometimes I’ll include these headings too:

## Focus item: 
(i.e. what is the most important thing I should focus on today?)

## Gratitude:

## Vocab: 
(keep a list of new words in a file `vocab.md` and then practice using them here.)

## Did I make an honest effort to work on a task from my weekly checklist? What can I do tomorrow?

Then I might do an open-ended reflection, provided I have the time and there is something worth reflecting on. Sometimes I’ll use a prompt, like this one, based on Peter Bregman’s evening minutes:

### How did the day go? What success did I experience? What challenges did I endure?

### What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do—differently or the same— tomorrow?

### With whom did I interact? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question of? Share feedback with?

Another prompt I use often, inspired by Brian Sunter’s Five Minute Journal:

### How am I feeling?

### What's something good that happened today?

### What did I do well?

### What could I have done better?

Finally, I identify a theme or major event that happened that day, and include it in the heading:

# Sun, Feb 27 - Published an article about my goal system

Weekly review

Every Sunday I review what happened the previous week. Sometimes it’s an open-ended reflection, other times I’ll use one of the prompts I mentioned previously.

At the end of my review I try to identify a theme or major event from the week, summarize it in a few words, and add that to the end of the filename. Now I can look back at an entire year and at a glance see what was going on week by week. Then, looking at any particular week I can see a summary for each individual day, or zoom in even further and read the entire recap.

Finally, I’ll create a file for the new week and copy over any to-do items that I didn’t complete. I’ll also add a little counter to the end of those items so I can see how many times they’ve been deferred:

  - Do that really hard thing (3)

When that number gets too high, I know I need to either push it into the backlog, split it into smaller tasks, or remove it entirely.

In practice

I use a text editor that supports three-column split view. This way I can see today in the left column, this week in the middle, and my backlog on the right:

A screenshot of my text editor split into three columns

Note that the first two columns are looking at the same file. I use Emacs which is definitely overkill, and unless you want to get into some technical weeds, I’d recommend something like Sublime Text.

To avoid copying and pasting all the time, I use a text expander called Espanso. This way I can type :daily to automatically write out my daily template or :evemins to get one of the prompts I mentioned previously.


It ain’t perfect, but it works well for me. The biggest drawback is that I can only update it from my laptop. It’s also not the most efficient way to manage tasks but the fact that it’s very hands-on keeps me engaged and in tune with what’s on my plate. The benefits are that it’s easily searchable, it’s future-proof, and I own my data.

More important than following any system exactly is prioritizing adaptability. There really is no perfect system, just what works best for you at this moment of your life. Hopefully this gives you some inspiration for your own. If it does, please reach out. I’d love to hear from you!

A portrait of Jameal Ghaznawi

Jameal Ghaznawi

Hi, I’m Jameal and I'm on a mission to help people and organizations on their path toward mastery. As a teacher and certified coach I help people increase their awareness, tap into their innate wisdom, and find creative ways forward. Find yourself at a sticking point? Let's grow together.