Reflection: Productivity journaling and kishoutenketsu

One of the things that helped me a lot was working on my productivity. There's a big difference between thinking I've been productive and actually being productive. The productivity booster that surprised me the most was keeping a productivity journal. Research has shown that reflecting on experience improves results. Harvard Business School article on the subject and study here. It also helps in another way: it shows progress, boosting motivation. It also shows that big, far away goals are achieved through small steps. It also helps with remembering what you've learned. More on how that works in another post.

summary: Reflection aids learning through experience.

Ways to journal and what I do

A journal doesn't have to be a big project. It can take several forms, some only take a couple minutes a day. For me it's just a daily recap of what I did, what lessons I've learned, ideas, plans, solutions, notes to myself, "a-ha" moments, what worked, what didn't work and things like that. I also do a weekly recap looking at how I spent my week and compare them to what I set out to achieve at the beginning of the week. Did I do what I planned to do? How has this or that epiphany (A-ha moment) manifested itself in my work or life? What didn't pan out? Do I know more now to revise my workflow? What do I need to work on next? What is my current weakest area? What small or large victories did I have? This is good for tracking progress, which can otherwise go unnoticed, which in turn is demotivating. What obstacles did I overcome? What obstacles do I need to deal with and are they high priority or low priority and more for the long term?

My plan is to do quarterly and yearly ones as well and use it for goal setting and planning routes to achieve those goals.

Because of its nature I just keep my productivity journal  in a Google Docs document online for myself. For others the opposite may be true and sharing it with friends, study mates or complete strangers can help them stay on target. Some will prefer a physical journal, others may want to use a dedicated app.

summary: Try out different ways to journal and stick with what works for you personally.

The power of reflection: kishoutenketsu

or: How Super Mario's level design teaches you how to play Super Mario by letting you explore instead of telling you what to do.

Those who read manga and play Nintendo games may recognize the Asian narrative structure and development form known as kishoutenketsu.  It's based on 4 stages: introduction, development, twist and conclusion. It's how problem solving is seen.

Introduction: you're presented to the current state of things. You may get to hear a bit about what lead up to this moment, you're introduced to the character(s) and some of the basic mechanics (how does this world work), in a relatively safe area.

"If I press left, the little guy on my screen goes left, and if I press right he goes right. If I press up or down, nothing seems to happen, so he can't fly. Hmm, I have 2 more buttons. Ah, jump and run and I can combine them! Yay!"

Development: It's never that easy for long somehow. There's obstacles to overcome and you have to figure out how to do it. Daily life and studies are like that too. A good course will be set up to introduce basics and how to solve them first. They are easier to understand and once grasped will give a solid foundation. By reflecting on what it is you've learned you gain a deeper understanding of it. That way you can use the solution next time you're presented with the same problem.

"Oh, if I grab that mushroom I grow bigger, but if I get hit by that angry looking, walking mushroom I become smaller or die if I'm already small. But I can jump and run. I can jump over the angry looking mushroom but it's still there threatening me then. What if I jump on top of it? It's flattened and dies and I get points for it? Okay, good to know! Oh look, there's another one. Relax, I got this!"

Twist: You're presented with new obstacles that are like obstacles you previously overcame, but there's something different about them. You can't just do the same thing. You need to reflect on the problem, recognize what's similar and what's different.

"That turtle seems to be like the angry mushroom. If I get hit by it, I shrink or die again. But what if I jump on top of it again? Hmm, it doesn't die, but it hides in its shell. Oh, and then it gets out of its shell after it shakes like that and comes after me!"

Conclusion: The result, the solution, the ending. Knowing what's the same and what's different will help. You can apply the same solution to the part of the problem that is still the same. You can then focus on solving the part that is new and continue to grow like that.

"I can't flatten the turtle by jumping on top of it, but when I do, it hides in its' shell. What can I do then? Jump on top of it again? Okay, looks like it's still not flattened, but I kick it away and then I get points! What if I walk up to it? Same thing! Great, now I know how to deal with those!"

In well designed games you get cycles within cycles. You can have kishoutenketsu on a "mechanic" level, a "stage" level, a "level" level and a "game" level.
  • Example game mechanic level: You can jump - jump over gaps with a safety net - jump over a gap without one - jump over gaps at the right time to not get hit by the flame. 
  • Example on a stage level: you start left and can move right, dealing with obstacles along the way. You reach the end you move to the next stage. You do it again in the last stage, but now you have to deal with a big turtle. You defeat it / get past it in a different way than normal, but can move on as usual after that. 
  • Example on a game level: You progress through stages and go from level to level. You reach the final level  and face the final boss. You use all the lessons you've learned and defeat the boss. This time you reached the actual end and the princess isn't in another castle: she's right there! Princess saved, now she can save the kingdom, in which Mario plays no part. End of game.*

*There's a lot that can be discussed about this, but that's not what this post is about.

summary: kishoutenketsu is introduction - development - twist - conclusion. Noticed how this post is set up? ;)


When you are presented with new hurdles that have similarities to previously solved obstacles you can at times find a solution by using analysis and reflection as taught by kishoutenketsu. Why try and reinvent the wheel if the solution is a wheel with tires (and the problem was that you didn't know about tires yet).

Combined with time tracking, reviewing and reflecting give a lot of insight in what I do. A sobering reality versus expectations then. If you use journals in a specific way, I'd love to hear about it!