The Five Minute Journal Review

"Why do these kind of things always happen to me?"

I stared at the hole in the front grill of my new car. Someone backed into it with their trailer hitch, cracked the grill all the way down the middle and drove away. No note and no apologies.

There are a few things wrong with the "woe is me" attitude into which I eagerly slipped. To begin with, it was based in pure fantasy. "These things" never happened to me. In the course of my 12 years of driving experience, this was only the second time that my car had been damaged. Aside from the delusion, this negative attitude also made things worse. Instead of getting over the incident and moving on, I agonized over it, surveilled the neighborhood for suspects, and lost sleep worrying about a repeat offense. My interpretation of this tiny little incident cost a week or two of mental capital and anguish, anguish which turned out to be much worse than the event itself.

What would have happened if I approached the event with gratitude? It sounds anti-intuitive and a bit insane, but let's take a closer look. Although a hit-and-run is less than ideal, someone with a gracious mindset might focus on the fact that they have insurance, while the offender may not have been able to afford it or the bump in rates that come along with causing damage. If I had a gracious mindset , I would have been thankful that it only cost a tiny fraction of the actual damage amount to repair. I paid $250 to repair $1,000 worth of damage. Aside from repairing the damage, the body shop also detailed my dreadfully filthy car. The $250 was worth it just for the cleaning.

The human mind is much better at noticing the negative events over the positive ones. Remember all of those times that someone didn't cut you off on the road? What about all of those times when your flight left on time? We notice the missed deadlines, perceived slights, and unfair treatment, but we easily forget the 99% of the times when things go as planned. We forget how lucky we are to have flights to take and cars to drive. Reveling in the negatives is a hard habit to overcome, but overcoming this bad habit can dramatically increase happiness. Had I focused on the positives in my situation, I would have saved a week of agonizing over my first world problem, and I would have been happier as a result.

This is all great, but how can someone develop a mindset of gratitude? Journaling is one way. I've tried various forms of journaling and often turn to journals when the times get tough. Despite knowing the benefits of journaling, I've never been able to make it stick, meaning the relief is only temporary.

I found my solution to the journaling problem in The Five Minute Journal. The concept is simple and revolves around establishing a habit of gratitude. Each page of the journal represents one day, and there are approximately 200 days worth of pages. I start each day by listing three things that I'm grateful for, three things that would make today a great day, and a daily affirmation.

The Five Minute Journal Review Closeup Morning ritual Grateful.jpg

In the evenings, I wrap up the day by listing three awesome things that happened during the day and a way that I could have made the day better. The key is to complete the morning half as soon as possible upon waking up and the evening half as close as possible to bedtime. This leads to starting and ending the day with feelings of gratitude, and this regular practice is a powerful way to develop the habit.

Nope, this picture isn't underexposed. The night portions of the page are shaded grey.

Nope, this picture isn't underexposed. The night portions of the page are shaded grey.

I've often gone to bed worrying about a work problem or started the day grumpy about the weather. The Five Minute Journal journaling process flips the script. After a week or so of the process, I started to expect to feel gratitude first thing in the morning and prior to bed, which affected my emotions before I even filled out the day's page. Instead of fixating on the bad, my brain started to fixate on the good. It sounds silly, but it really works.

I started The Five Minute Journal process with a simple text file and blank notebook, and I found it beneficial enough of a process to buy the official product. The official version is certianly pricier than a text file, but spending a little cash up front reinforces the need to stick to the habit, for me at least. I hate wasting money on things that I don't use. The journal itself is very well made, with embossed lettering on the front and a woven hardback cover. It starts with a complete primer on how to use the daily pages and provides substantial background on its design process and intended use. The paper is thick and fountain pen friendly.

From start to finish, The Five Minute Journal's little design choices here and there make it a joy to use. Each daily page comes complete with an inspiration quote, and there's even a weekly challenge to amp up your gratitude game. These challenges range from simple thankyou writing to making small donations to favorite charities.

The Five Minute Journal is an excellent tool for developing a habit of gratitude, which leads to a happier life. The positive results of using the journal were immediate for me, but I really noticed a mental shift after my first month. For those who aren't quite ready to drop $20 for the official version, start with a plain notebook or text file. If that works for you, consider the fancier version. Regardless of what you use, incorporating a journaling practice into your daily life can have major positive benefits.


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Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen Review

When I think of U.S. campus bookstores, I imagine overly-priced flimsy spiral notebooks, cheaply made coffee mugs, and sports apparel. This isn't a place to go to find the best writing instruments or paper. Japanese campus stores are vastly different. I visited Kyoto Sangyo University, for a conference in 2015, and was amazed by the campus store. There were rows upon rows of notebooks, as well as a wide range of pens and pen cases. While this was drool-worthy in itself, it was the pen at the bottom of a glass display case that caught my attention. I had never seen a Pilot Vanishing Point in person before, but there it sat, shining in the florescent store lights. $200 seemed like an outrageous price at the time, but the experience cemented the Vanishing Point in the back of my mind.

Pilot Vanishing Point Desert Orange Review Tip.jpg

Fast forward a year and my pen hobby has teetered towards obsession. I worked my way up to the Vanishing Point over time and finally decided to pick up a Desert Orange Vanishing Point from Amazon. It's difficult to gage the orange color from pictures, but it's a subtle orange with shades of brown. Since this color is a part of the Metallic series, it has small flecks in the pen body which shimmer in the light. Overall, I wish that the orange was more vibrant, but it's still my favorite color out of the bunch.

The Pilot Vanishing Point's metal body gives it a nice heft. Although the smooth lacquered body would be slippery to grip on its own, the matte black tip provides a subtly-textured surface that grips well. The Vanishing Point is capless and uses a nock mechanism (the clicky thing) to reveal the tip, similar to a standard capless ballpoint. The pen clip is attached to the pen body at the grip area and has two small finger indentations, which allow for fingers to slide into place and grip the pen comfortably. The clip was my biggest concern, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the pen is to hold. I am right-handed, so lefties should definitely try the pen themselves or refer to a lefty review before purchasing.

There are only a few capless fountain pens in the wild for a reason; they're hard to design. Pens like the early versions of the Lamy Dialog have received negative reviews, due to dried out nibs, but the Vanishing Point seems to have gotten this right. Depressing the nock pushes the nib through a small metal door, which moves out of the way and exposes the nib. Clicking the nock again recesses the nib and closes the metal door, keeping air out of the pen chamber. Side note, the nock's click is extremely satisfying.

The nib for the Desert Orange Vanishing Point is a sleek black color, but the nib color varies by body color style. Although the pen comes with a gold nib, there's little flex, since the nib itself has to be slender enough to retract into the pen. Nib units can be easily swapped between Vanishing Points, much like a traditional ink refill in a capless ballpoint pen. I chose the medium nib, since Japanese nibs run finer than their European counterparts, and the medium nib is on par with a western fine nib. The writing experience is smooth, although the nib has more of a marker feel on paper, compared to my Lamy 2000, which feels like writing on glass.

Speaking of the Lamy 2000, I'm sure that some readers of this review will want to know whether they should choose a Lamy 2000 or a Vanishing Point, since both are similar price points and popular choices when leveling up your pen game. The short answer to this question is that you should choose the pen that has the best features for you. The Vanishing Point's capless design makes it easy to grab and use one-handed, and you can store it in a pocket or bag without fear of losing the cap. The Vanishing Point uses a cartridge or converter, so it holds much less ink than the Lamy 2000, and the clip grip may be a turnoff for some users. The grip itself is a touch wider than that of the Lamy 2000. The base model of the Lamy 2000 comes in one color, while the Vanishing Point come in a wide range of colors. All of these factors are worth considering, but there is no objective answer to which pen is better. Both the Pilot Vanishing Point and Lamy 2000 are excellent pens for the price.


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On Equal Footing

Winter Break is one of the best occupational perks that comes with a teaching career. It's never truly a "break," but it allows me to step back to reflect on the year and develop a plan for next year. You may have noticed the slump in my writing output on this blog, which came as a result of a dramatic turn inward, along with the grueling end of fall semester and a dash of laziness. During this winter hermitage, I stumbled upon Chris Guillebeau's annual review process and decided to give pieces of it a go. The part of the reflection that most resonated with me included listing the major things that went poorly over the last year. It turns out that I'm great at thinking of all of the things that go wrong in my life, so coming up with a list was pretty easy. There were quite a few, and some of them felt monumental.

Over the last year I:

  • Had to cancel a new course, due to lack of student interest.
  • Finalized a workload policy for my organization, two years in the making, which was swiftly dismissed and discarded.
  • Applied for my dream job and lost in the final interview round.
  • Watched a ton of mindless Netflix and wasted several hours a day flipping through my phone, while laying on the couch. This included reading a lot of "articles" with titles containing "You Won't Believe What Happens Next."

It's very easy for my mind to focus on the negative. In fact, that short list of the things that went poorly dominated my mind in 2016. I internalized the failed course as a sign that I didn't know what I was doing and had finally been discovered. The charade was over. I felt guilty for wasting so much time playing with my phone and consuming media mindlessly. This self-produced anxiety led me to do even more mindless browsing. I spent several months in the dumps over the lost dream job. Fortunately, the review didn't stop here, as it also required me to come up with a list of all of the things that went well in the last year.

Over the last year I:

  • Published my first refereed paper of my career and had to present it by myself, when the primary co-author was unable to attend the international conference due to a lost passport. It received almost unanimously positive evaluations.
  • Successfully surpassed the one year mark of writing for A Better Desk. This is the longest that I've ever stuck with a writing project.
  • Started writing a novel and finished the first 100 pages over the summer.
  • Read six books in December alone, which is more than I've read in the other months of the year combined, by an order of magnitude. One of these books had been in my "To Read" stack since 2005.
  • Received a $5000 grant to develop a new course in Ireland.
  • Developed an entire strategic plan for international program growth within my organization, with the help of an amazing group of people.

My "Things that Went Well" list turned out to be much longer than expected, and the items on it were much more meaningful to me than anything on the negative list. While I fixated on the negatives, my unconscious apparently moved on to bigger and better things. Sure, I wasted some time, and some things didn't work out, but I was truly surprised by how most of the successes eclipsed, or were even born from, the failures. I used the knowledge gained from the failed course to develop a successful grant proposal for a new course. The failed workload policy project allowed me to develop my leadership skills and taught me how to guide a group of very differently-minded people through a complex project. This experience helped me to lead the development of the international strategic plan. Even the excessive phone usage led me to spend December reading and digging to the roots of my self-soothing media consumption. These realizations left me energized.

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes:

It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it's worth it, for what's left is truth.

At the heart of Ryan's point is the idea that events aren't inherently good or bad. We assign value to them, and Ryan argues that this is a choice that we're not obligated to make.

In practical terms it's difficult, if not impossible, to decide to think differently; it takes practice and rewiring. It takes a habit, and I realized that I had already taken the first step to forming one with the annual review. All that I needed to do was to make this a daily practice. What didn't go well today? What went well today? What am I looking forward to tomorrow? These are a few of the simple questions that I try to ask myself daily, and most days the positives outweigh the negatives. Most importantly, this practice forces me to put my achievements and failures out in the open, where my brain has to look at them objectively and can't select what it wants to remember. It also reminds me that many of the negatives lead into the positives, exposing my brain's unrealistic judgements.

My daily practice is admittedly unstable at this point. Some days I write the answers to these questions in a journal, other days they go into a digital note, and sometimes I just think of the answers on my drive home. Other days I forget completely. Either way, I've already noticed the mental benefits of this practice. This is not to say that it has turned me into a bouncing optimist, rather it has stabilized both my view of my accomplishments as well as my overall mood.

PS : Since this is primarily a pen and paper blog, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there's actually a physical journal designed to establish this daily habit with a bit more style. It's pricey, but I've hovered over the Add to Cart button a few times now. I'll be sure to review it on the site, when my resolve inevitably wears thin.


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Leuchtterm1917 Notebook Review - A5 Hardcover

I begged my parents for a Mead Composition Book. "What about a spiral notebook? We have a dozen in the closet." My mom clearly didn't understand the severity of the issue. Harriet the Spy didn't write in one of those dime-store spiral notebooks, the ones that they stack up in huge pallets during the Back to School sales at Walmart. She wrote in a Mead Composition Book. Sure, they were a dollar or two, but you can't put a price on keeping the neighborhood safe, or surveilling strategic targets.

My relationship with composition books lasted for several years. I covered each book with a homemade label that said "Private" and filled several books with journal entries, observations, and other personal notes. This was more than a school notebook; it was my companion - an integral part of my daily adventures.

It's been nearly two decades since I felt this fondly for notebooks, which rapidly became cheap commodities in my life. I reached for the cheapest spiral notebooks that I could find during my college years and would often leave them half empty. This changed when I discovered fountain pens, which required higher quality paper. The Midori Traveler's Notebook became my goto, but its skinny pages, while perfect for travel, were just too small for daily use. I loved the appearance of Moleskines, but their elegance was only surface deep. Moleskines stink with fountain pens. The search for a similar form factor brought me to the Leuchtturm1917.

Leuchtturm1917 notebooks come in a range of sizes, colors and rulings. I chose the 249-page orange A5 size with dotted pages. The notebook's hard cover is reminiscent of a Moleskine's cover. Theres an elastic band that wraps around the notebook, to keep it closed. The band seems sturdy enough to stand up to regular wear and tear, and I've carried my notebook loose in a messenger bag for several months, with no damage to the elastic band.

The interior of the Leuchtturm1917 boasts some useful features. The notebook has two bookmark ribbons, with color accents that match the color of the notebook. I can keep a few business and index cards in the built in pocket of the notebook, which runs the length and width of the back cover. The pocket is made from sturdy card-stock and accordions out, to reveal its content. The pocket isn't going to hold dozens of papers, but it's useful for holding a few odds and ends. The notebook also includes archival stickers for the spine and covers, so that you can keep track of exactly what's inside your notebook.

My Leuchtturm1917 lives in my messenger bag and accompanies me to daily meetings and events. The notebook lays flat on a table, without creasing or weighing down the pages. This was a pleasant surprise, moving from the Midori Traveler's Notebook, which flips shut without weights and doesn't sit flat on the table. I prefer to use the Leuchtturm1917 on a table, but it also works well in my lap, due to the support of the hard cover.

The small touches and thoughtful design of the Leuchtturm1917 make it a delight to use, but these flourishes are pointless without high-quality paper. Fortunately, the notebook delivers, with an 80 g/sqm paper that really shines with fountain pen ink. The juicy-fine nib of my Lamy 2000 leaves a lot of ink on the page, but there's never visible bleed through on the other side of the page. The dot pattern is subtle, but provides much needed guidance for writing and sketching.

I feel the same way using the Leuchtturm1917 as I did when I used a Mead Composition Book during my childhood. Sure, these notebooks are about as different as two notebooks could be, but the feeling they give is the same. The Leuchtturm1917 feels like it was made for me. It makes none of the sacrifices that Moleskines make, and it performs perfectly with my favorite fountain pens. I can see myself with a shelf full of these things in a few years, just as I had a shelf full of spy notebooks a few decades ago.


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Just Enough to Work

The first few weeks of the school semester are always complete chaos. My calendar is filled to the brim with students, class prep, and meetings, and all of my favorite hobbies and normal healthy habits fall by the wayside. Despite the temporary insanity, this time always reminds me of which systems are tried and true, as well as which tools are vital to my survival. Instead of trying tons of notebooks and pens, it becomes a game of finding just how little I need to get the work done. Over the last year of experimenting, there are a few tools that I come back to over and over again. These are the tools that I turn to, when times get tough. Note, header links link to my reviews if available, and paragraph links may contain affiliate links.

Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

The Lamy 2000 remains my favorite pen in the arsenal. This is my goto notetaker, and the smooth nib makes writing anything a complete joy. I combine this bad boy with Pilot Iroshizuku Tsukushi ink. The ink's subtle shading properties and slight flex in the 2000's nib work together to produce beautiful shades of brown on the page. The 2000's piston filling system ensures that there's plenty of ink for long writing sessions, and the pen's sleek design makes it appropriate for formal and informal settings.

TWSBI 580AL Silver Fountain Pen

My job involves dozens of resume reviews every semester. Although I do provide some feedback digitally, I mostly rely on analog tools to mark up student documents in one-on-one sessions. The TWSBI 580AL is my favorite pen for this task, due to its huge ink reservoir and consistent performance. I use Diamine Pumpkin, as a more interesting variation of a traditional red. The TWSBI's slightly wider nib and clear body bring out the best aspects of the bright orange Pumpkin ink.

Nock Co. Sinclair Pen Case

I've tried several pen storage options, but the Sinclair beats them all. The top zipper makes it easy to quickly grab a pen, and the three pen slots provide a great balance between capacity and size. I keep my TWSBI, Lamy 2000, and Retro 51 Tornado Slim on deck, and keep a Nock Co. DotDash Notebook, with some Nock Co. DotDash Index Cards in the notebook sleeve. My Sinclair lives in my messenger bag, but I can take it solo when I just need a few pens and a notebook. The only thing that would make this case better would be if it came in a Steel/Mango color way.

Leuchtturm 1917 A5 Notebook

Some of you may be wondering what ever happened to my Midori Traveler's Notebook. I love the Midori, but I find that I enjoy it most when I'm on the go and need a notebook that can hold a pen, business cards, and other goodies. It's great for trips, conferences, and events, but it's just a bit too much for my simple day-to-day needs, when I just want to write. I discovered the Leuchtturm notebook this year, and I'm in love. The dot pattern and fountain-pen-friendly paper work well for my needs. I enjoy the wider A5 sheet, compared to the slimmer Midori paper size. It also helps that the Leuchtturm comes in a brilliant shade of orange, which seems to be a favorite color among pen addicts, myself included.

Retro 51 Tornado Slim Apple Edition

I picked this guy up during my visit to the Apple store on Apple's campus. It's only available at this location, but it's comparable to the standard slim models, which are widely available. I typically use fountain pens, but the Tornado is my favorite alternative, when a fountain pen just won't do. The refill is excellent and the pen's body is the same material as a standard MacBook.

It's fun to experiment with new pens, stationary, and ink, but times of chaos ground me in what's truly necessary to get the job done. These times also provide an opportunity to clear out everything from my pen case to my laptop until I have just enough, just the bare minimum needed to do the work. This culling of the unnecessary provides focus and reminds me that its not about the tools, but rather about the work. When I'm rushed or cranking away, all of the extra stuff just gets in the way.


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