The general anxiety and overwhelm of life used to plague me. I’d focus on improving one aspect of my life, like fitness or relationships; then I’d backslide in my career, or I’d forget to do what made me happy. I felt completely out of control.

Maybe you can relate.

But along my self-improvement journey, I picked up one indispensable habit that helped me become organized in my self improvement, and which continues to improve the lives of my clients and readers who adopt it.

Starting out with note taking

At first my system wasn’t so much of a system—I’d dump all of my thoughts and feelings and progress into my Mac’s note files. It felt good to purge it all; and it helped me get my stuff together. But I wasn’t organized enough to home in on specific areas, like health, and then even more specific, like sleep.

I got into the habit of taking notes on pretty much everything. As soon as I had an interesting idea, or an inspiring epiphany, I filed it away so that I could use it later.  And as I spent more time noting my improvements in every area of life, my general anxiety of not having my shit together disappeared—I finally had a sense of stability in my life. I took that confidence to the next level by getting organized.

Getting Organized

Take this morning for instance. I’ve been feeling especially explosive, balanced, and good about my body. My new regimen is working. So I go to my health notes tab, then to my fitness subsection, and I write about everything that’s working. (I’m in love with my hill workouts and sprints). My morning shake routine is helping me feel energized and clear-headed till lunch. And oh, that reminds me—I’ve got to purchase another bag of grass-fed whey protein. So I go to my “purchase” tab, write down “whey protein*”, and delete all the other things I’ve already bought.

*I created a reminder in my phone to get the protein next Tuesday at 3:00pm, just to be sure.

Now I feel on top of my game. I’m organized. And I know that as long as I keep adding to my notes, and continue refining my tabs, my decisions will continue to improve in every area of life, and my lifestyle along with it. That’s what happens when you get mentally organized with a note system.

I have tabs for health, writing, happiness, breakthroughs, volleyball, important people, procrastinations, prayer, goals, books, coaching, words, and dozens more areas of life I want to keep track of. And the more time I spend in each category, the more I improve it.

So if you want to get serious about keeping up with life and growing your success, start your own note-taking practice. Today.

How to start your own note-taking practice

First, create main tabs in whatever notes application you use. (I have a Mac, and I find Apple notes to be very intuitive.) Start with:

  • Health
  • Career
  • Happiness
  • Goals
  • Self-improvement
  • Procrastination
  • Life (for general observations)
  • Gratitude
  • Important people
  • Ideas
  • What’s working
  • Next Action

These are all very general categories. So the next step is to create sub tabs where needed. For example, you’d need to add fitness and food tabs under health; and create subtabs for all the activities that make you happy—volleyball and guitar are part of mine. Whatever ideas, experiences and breakthroughs you have for each tab and sub tab, you write it down. Simple. Do it for each tab.

Another thing to do for each tab: add a “Next Action” subtab exclusively for action steps. (I got this idea from David Allen--who might as well be the Godfather of note taking.) You’ll schedule ten minutes a week to reflect on this tab when you’re planning out your week ahead. For example, if I’m inspired to write a certain article, say, about note-taking, I can jot it down. But the article won’t be completed unless I can look it up and act on it; so I shuffle that task into my “Next Action” list under my “writing” tab, which I review once a week during my planning routine.

As you build up your notes, you’ll have built a matching level of focus, organization, and competence in each category. But even though the practice is crazy simple, it’s a challenge to make it part of your lifestyle.

Here’s how to cement the habit of note-taking

1-Make the note tabs immediately.

I mean, really—don’t waste another second. This is your life here. If you delay this life-changing improvement, you might not ever start it. So get your structure ready by organizing your note tabs. Pronto. And if you’re not into the action steps…why are you still reading?

2-Schedule time just for tooling around in your notes.

Set alarms on your phone or computer to remind you of your note-taking commitment. Try to pencil in five or ten minutes a day adding for adding new thoughts and breakthroughs to your tabs, and to review your progress. Even just taking a look at the tabs will remind you of certain things you can do to improve that aspect of your life—like when I just remembered to do my oil pulling routine after looking at my health tab. 

3-Get into the habit of taking notes on all of your ideas and epiphanies.

As soon as you feel the ember of excitement or curiosity, go to your notes and let loose. This way none of your brilliant ideas are lost; you can use each one to improve your life. I wouldn’t have been able to build a writing career if I hadn’t gotten into the habit of taking notes on every little thought that interested me. Nor would I have improved my life to the point where I get paid to help others do the same. So, when in doubt…take notes.

4-Use your insights for daily action steps.

A couple years ago I kept describing in my “life” notes how inspired and productive my days were when I meditated for twenty minutes in the afternoon. So I used that insight to make a repeatable lifestyle improvement: twenty minutes of meditation every afternoon. And it helped me take charge of my life.

4.1-Take another ten minutes every Sunday to reflect on your “Next Action” tabs. 

This way you can schedule your most important actions into your weekly and daily planners. This will help you fully realize the benefits of note taking. So set a reminder in your phone right now: “This Sunday at whenever o’clock—when you’ve scheduled your weekly planning session—remind me to review my Next Action tab.”

5-Get someone to keep you accountable.

When people quit smoking or drinking, first thing they do is tell someone else who can keep them accountable—it’s the best way to engrain a lifestyle change. And it shouldn’t be reserved for quitting something. So seek the accountability of a friend.

Tell them about your new goals and commitments, and ask them to talk with you once a week about your progress, and to check in once or twice with you about your commitments. That might only be ten minutes a week. But it will be instrumental in your sticking with this new lifestyle.

If you’d like professional-level accountability for all the inspiring changes you want to make, read about my coaching services here. 


  • Daniel Dowling

    Performance Coach, Writer for Greatist,, Mindbodygreen, and FastCompany.

    Dan Dowling, here. I was the poster child for lost millennials - couldn’t keep a job…addicted to relationships…constantly checking social media and email. But when I got hungry enough for success as a writer, I gave up my distracted lifestyle and adopted one daily goal that changed my life forever: Do. Your. Best. Today, five years later, I’m a productivity coach who’s published on the world’s biggest sites (including Entrepreneur, Fast Company and Mindbodygreen), and I’m transforming lives through the best-effort, zero-distraction lifestyle that worked so well for me. Come and and learn how to always give your best at Millennial Success!