Cognitive Journaling [Ragnarson]

Continuing our recent arc on feedback/self-reflection, this piece by Richard Ragnarson does a great job introducing in detail one highly-effective self-reflection practice: 

Cognitive Journaling  

Journaling is making a comeback these days alongside specific journaling techniques and (obviously) customized journaling products. While some journaling techniques aim to be more forward-looking (aka “planning”) others are more reflective. The good news is that the hype is leading to more innovation in the space and making effective techniques more accessible. While the obvious downside is the increased difficulties separating signal from noise: techniques that are truly effective from ones that are merely popular. 

Ragnarson’s technique sits on a very solid evidence-based basis in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT for short). His article is an extensive primer on the technique, walking the reader through the motivation behind the technique, the model of the mind on which it is based, key constructs, high-level principles, a step-by-step guide to the process, a practice program for developing habit and mastery, ways to measure progress and last but not least — an FAQ and troubleshooting guide. Incredible work just putting all of this together. 

In this post, I will only cover the high-level principles and the technique itself. If it resonates, reading the whole post by Ragnarson is highly encouraged. 


  • Falsifiability — describe internal and external facts. Facts can be falsifiable with a yes/no question on whether it happened or not. Falsifiable: “I only have two hours per day to work on my project”. Not-falsifiable: “I have no time to work on my project.”
  • Nonjudgment — describe events, thoughts and feelings, avoiding inferences/deductions regarding their possible causes. Nonjudgment: “I feel demotivated”. Judgment: “Feeling demotivated is bad.”
  • Detail — describe contexts, events, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with as much detail as possible, while being mindful of not violating the first two principles. 

Putting it all together — journaling while following the principles: 

I went to the supermarket. I met my boss Chris by chance. We spoke and he brought up my work. I thought, “Why can’t he leave me alone even when I am not at work?” I felt annoyed. I thought, “I don’t like feeling like this.” I felt angry. I thought, “I can’t stand getting annoyed anymore,” and then I thought, “I need to change jobs.”

Journaling while not following the principles: 

I was out and met Chris; he’s such a jerk. I can’t stand dealing with him. I need to quit this job.”

The ABC Process

ABC refers to a model of cognition based on the view that any life experience is constituted of a series of activating events, beliefs, and consequences (ABCs): Activating event → Beliefs → Consequences (emotions + behaviors).

The journaling process, however, follows a different sequence: 

  1. Start with the C (consequences): emotions and behaviors: writing down the emotion or behavior that you want to reflect upon, in the form of “I felt [insert emotion]” or “I did/behaved [insert behavior], applying the three principles (falsifiability, nonjudgment, and detail).
  2. Describe the A (activating event): Describe the situation you were in when you experienced the consequence from before, in the form of “This [insert event] happened” or “The situation was [insert situation or place], applying the three principles.
  3. Find out the Bs (beliefs): With the consequence and activating event at hand, try to remember the thought that you entertained in your reaction. Express it in the form of “I thought that [insert belief]”, applying the three principles. 
  4. Challenge the Bs (beliefs): You challenge a belief by evaluating its validity, doubting it, and finding a better alternative. Consider its flexibility, logic, congruence, and usefulness. 
  5. Write down good alternative Bs (beliefs): Ask yourself: Which alternative thought can I think? Which alternative thought is logical, reality-based, flexible, and useful in pursuing my goals and feeling good? The following table, also created by Ragnarson, illustrates this distinction well: 
Source: Ragnarson

In sum

Ragnarson did an incredible job putting together a comprehensive and detailed guide for cognitive journaling, addressing many of the nuanced points needed to start building this powerful self-reflection having and strengthening our self-reflection muscle. 

Well worth a read!

Cognitive Journaling [Ragnarson]

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