Captain’s Log: ultra-simple tech for self-reflection

For the last few months I’ve been using a remarkably powerful, remarkably simple technique for increasing my effectiveness. It’s called a Captain’s Log.

It’s kind of like a journal, except instead of writing in it reflectively from a historical or archival perspective, the specific purpose of it is to write in it in the heat of the moment, when encountering a feeling of uncertainty or internal conflict. (I realize that the name doesn’t really reflect that distinction, but I don’t care! Perhaps it’s from Invictus: I am the captain of my soul.)

How much better would your days be if every time you felt uncertain or conflicted, you were able to have a quick conversation with a compassionate friend? Would that effect be present even if the friend didn’t really say anything but just nodded as you thought out loud? Well, turns out you can basically do this!

And it turns out that it’s a really valuable tool for practicing undividedness as though saving my head from fire.

Thoughts that might prompt me to use it:

  • “I’m not sure what to do this afternoon…”
  • “I’m feeling kind of flinchy (ie drawn towards absorbing websites)”
  • “I want to go out, but I also want to finish the thing I’m working on”
  • “Maybe it’s time to go to bed? Maybe?”
  • “Where did the last 3 hours go?”
  • “I’m having a bit of trouble focusing but I really want to do some pomodoros!”
  • “Hmm I kind of want to go to this party, but I also want to go to that other thing. Ack!”
  • “I seem to be dissociating…”

    If my mind were one that tended to produce things like anxious, shameful, or depressive thought loops, I would probably use the Captain’s Log for interrupting and investigating those as well.

My steps for using my captain’s log:

  1. Notice some sort of thought like the ones above. I try to err on the side of logging, if I’m not sure.
  2. Open up my captain’s log. Mine’s currently in workflowy. You can use pretty much anything but make sure it’s something that is easy to open—ideally, have a hotkey or something. The slightest friction can make it substantially less effective.
  3. Enter the date and time. I use a script that lets me type dte to enter eg (12017-11-07 @ 10:35) or I can type jdt for just the date or jtm for just the time. This helps reduce the friction. With workflowy, I have times nested under days. If using a text file I would just enter the whole thing.
  4. Type until I feel clarity of trajectory.

An image of my captain's log, reflecting on the need for an image for this post

What does clarity of trajectory look like?

It can take many forms. It doesn’t always mean that I choose some important task and work on that. Sometimes it does: perhaps I pick something and start a pomodoro timer. That picking something might even involve making a list of things I could do or looking at my Complice intentions. But other times I already have a clear sense of what I’m intending to do, I just haven’t quite buckled down and launched myself at it.

At other times, I might recognize that there’s an underlying cause of my discomfort or internal conflict, that needs addressing. So I’ll note “I think I’m distracted in part because I’m hungry… I’m going to go get a snack”. This in turn might spark another sense of conflict in me, where part of me feels that if I go downstairs to the kitchen I might get distracted by conversations with roommates. So I might then spend a moment getting clear on what my boundaries are and my level of intention to come back upstairs immediately.

And sometimes, I log because I have a conflict related to an urge to do something somewhat dopaminergic, like watching a youtube video or playing a game, and I decide that I actually do want to do that at that point! Although I may set a timer or something to remind myself to check in after awhile. Sometimes something that’s worth doing for 10 or 20 minutes becomes less fun after an hour but just as engrossing.

Principles of the Captain’s Log:

Reorganization follows awareness. This is a general principle from Perceptual Control Theory, which says that if you’ve got some cognitive control systems that are set up in conflict with each other or in a way that doesn’t match the environment, then those systems will be unable to function effectively until neural reorganization occurs. And this reorganization occurs when the person becomes aware of the relevant systems. By merely writing down my thoughts and looking at them in a relaxed way, I can cause my systems to reorganize to become more functional.

Flinches aren’t for blindly following, they’re for logging. By “flinch” here I mean a sudden impulse that has an aversive quality to it. It might not feel like it has an aversive quality to it, but if I’m midwork and I suddenly get an urge to check facebook, it’s probably more that there’s something about my work that I want to avoid than that there’s something particularly exciting about facebook.

This principle is extremely central to a technique I developed a couple of years ago, which I called Urge Shortcircuiting. It’s like a Captain’s Log with two differences. One: instead of being a general log, it’s focused on a particular class of urges that you have, perhaps for a particular video game or distracting website, or for something like “taking a break mid-pomodoro”. The other difference is that you explicitly commit to logging every time you have such an urge. Even if you think wouldn’t have acted on it: still note it down. Then once you’ve written it down, and maybe written a sentence or two about what you’re hoping to get from engaging with the urge, you do whatever you want! If you still want to follow the urge, do it. If you actually want to do something else, do that.

Self-trust feels good. This is related to the previous point. I have at times had experiences where I considered going to my captain’s log, and then didn’t, and then felt a bit confused about that. A few weeks ago, I reflected on this and realized that sometimes what would happen is that I feared that if I logged, I would decide not to look up the thing I had just become curious about. That maybe I would become a zombie who only followed plans, and never followed my nose and learned interesting things or whatever.

In response to this, I added this new principle. The core point is that with logging, I am building trust in myself to make decisions sanely. And this requires extending that trust. So if it really makes sense to look at Steven Universe fusion dance videos on youtube, then I’ll do it! And if it doesn’t, then I won’t. Which is not to say that I’ll magically know all the time, but that I’m going to take this Captain’s Log system seriously, and genuinely try to really think about it. This means, if I’m averse to logging, I try to log anyway, and to take my decision-making even more seriously, since some part of me clearly doesn’t trust the logging process.

You’re already making decisions, so you might as well take responsibility. I was talking with a friend, who noted that he has recently been feeling really frustrated and inefficient because he starts the day with all of these things he’s intending to do, but then all these other priorities come up, so he does them instead, and reaches the end of the day still needing to do those original things. He noted though that he thought maybe it actually was worth it to do those things that come up midday, because they’re important too.

I speculated that the primary issue here is that he feels out of control, because at the end of the day he sees the difference between his plan (“do A, B, & C”) and his actions (“did X, Y, & Z”) and that feels problematic. However, at some point, he clearly changed his implicit plan to “do X, Y, & Z”, but because he didn’t take responsibility for that choice—perhaps because the choice happened without any conscious thought—he’s still somehow expecting himself to have done A, B, & C.

Sometimes, when you do this sort of thing, you’ll notice that there’s a particular class of decision which always seems to make sense at the time, but which doesn’t seem to be yielding the desired results in the long-term. At that point, you want to start doubting the sense of those decisions, and strategizing about how else you could think about those situations such that what makes sense in the moment ends up making sense in the long-term. More on this in some future post, perhaps!

Other tips & further resources

If logging would break my flow and I don’t really feel conflicted about the thing—like the conflict feels easy to just set aside—I sometimes just make a physical gesture of casting something aside while exhaling, and then I return my focus to where it was.

Apps for quickly entering the date & time:

On Android phones, ColorNote is a great app that gives you a sticky note widget you can use for this.

Sebastian Marshall’s concept of Reflective Control seems relevant. I would predict that use of a Captain’s Log would prompt someone to experience greater reflective control, both immediately and ongoingly.


As per usual, it’s all too easy to read about something like this, and think “this sounds like a great idea!” but then not do it. This is super easy to set up, so if you’re attracted to trying it, I encourage you to take a few minutes right now and pick some location where you’re going to start your Captain’s Log. Then make a first entry. If you’re not sure what to write about, start by asking, “Do I feel any sense of conflict about this Captain’s Log system?

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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