Few things are mentioned more in the land of personal development tools and tricks than the journal.
Like most things in life, some love the process, others hate it. Some swear that it helps with the confidence, self-esteem, clarity, goal setting, imagination and creativity. Some insist it’s too time-consuming, difficult to maintain and utterly useless. How you think about it makes it useful, or not.
I’ve been both. Loved and loathed. Today, I’m a lover.
If you’ve ever said it’s too hard to maintain, I’ve been there, it’s taken me over 16 years to discover what the benefits are for me and get into the swing of it. I think the breakthrough came when I realised there are no hard and fast rules. There is no ‘right way’ to journal. It is what it is, and that’s what you make it.
The way I see it is this: the act of journaling (my method is with good old pen to paper) is a place to simply plop down my experience and go exploring – thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, feelings, problems, hurdles, conflicts, ideas, ‘my reality’ and with no middle-person – everything that goes down is my own personal meaning of what I am interpreting from the outside world.
Which sounds awfully deep. Let me put another way.
The above really means it’s a place to step back and ask ‘what’s really going on’, or a place to dive in and ask ‘what’s really going on’?
It offers – for me – the luxury of noticing problems so I can have a stab at finding solutions. It’s easy to spot where life is currently on a different path to my deepest values. Through putting pen to paper I can see things a different way. Oh, and it’s really good at working through issues or problems without all the drama and reacting. And I love it for lists – thank you lists, gratitude lists, what did I learn lists etc – and planning my next moves.
Gosh, I should do it more often going by all that.
Like most journalers (is there a collective term for people who journal), I came to it via some personal development course. For years it was very much an on and off, off and on, on, off, really on, really off experience. At one stage I did try Julia Camerons The Artists Way. Cameron suggests an exercise called Morning Pages – three pages of A4 every morning – I renamed mine the Moaning Pages because of all the wingeing I was getting up to, and every day just doesn’t work for me. Which is another thing, if you do want to journal, choose your own timing (every day, three times a week), choose what works for you, simply make the commitment to it. Yeah, it does take discipline. No, I would say it takes a commitment to momentum.
Nip to Google and type in benefits of journaling there are plenty, so these are my insights, they may or may not resonate with you, as it should be. I can’t be all blanket coverage on this. Each to their own. I’m sure if we asked everyone who did journal they all would come up with different answers. If you want your own (insights), you’ll have to begin.
1. It’s your own little private dumping ground
My little private space also includes drawings, doodles and the collecting of all things that make sense and meaning to me (read: quotes, articles, pictures). It’s your space. You can make it whatever you like. You don’t even have to write if you don’t want to.
You mean there are alternatives to pen and paper?
Yes. Not everyone likes to write. How about video or voice recording? Would that work for you? You could use an app ( like Penzu or Day One), or use Future Me (not an app it allows you to send yourself future emails). You could take an image a day, sketch, create mini scrap boards and books, write yourself memos or letters. You could keep your thoughts on a private blog, keep a gratitude journal, doodle, draw it out. Or even try one sentence a day journal.
2. You get to pay attention to your experiences
When I begin most of what I write is just a stream of words on the page (read: utter dribble). Sometimes I even start by writing by asking, ‘Where shall I begin?’ and then I see what comes out. Sitting down to journal takes – me – a few minutes to get into. I call this the ‘getting past the fluff’ stage. Oh, but, if fluff is all I have on any day, then I chill out and accept that fluffy it is. I don’t pressure myself into filling space.
But, the attention thing, if there is a repeating theme over a few days or weeks it’s usually pretty accurate that something that needs some of my focus. I mean, am I writing about a problem, hurdle, ongoing experience that isn’t getting resolved? Noticing themes you can work through what’s really going. Work through? Okay, for me I simply write, ‘What’s really going on here?’ and answer my own question. Or, ‘How can I look at this differently?’ and again pop down the answer.
But what do you write about?
Ah. That’s where I got stumped in the past. I didn’t have any structure. Not that you need one, but I do understand that what you did that day and to-do lists don’t exactly inspire much. What helped me was journal prompts (I’ve added some at the bottom of this post for you to download).
3. You get to represent all of you (the bits you show others, the bits you keep hidden, and the bits you’re discovering)
Through keeping a journal you get to connect with all parts of you, and – the best bit – you can represent them all. I do remember censoring myself and holding back at first. If I could give you any tip, don’t censor. Anything goes. It’s your space.
Don’t get lost in your head either though, it may be that you’ve discovered something that you would like to share with others or get help with. That’s cool too. That’s what a journal does, helps you see things that you didn’t know were there and get support for them if needed.
For example, there may be a behaviour you’re displaying that you don’t like, a journal will give you some time to work through why it’s there and what surrounds it. A journal is your safe, private space to be your own advocate, coach and mentor. You can pour what you like on the page. It’s only for you.
4. You give yourself space to calm it all down
Some say that journaling is a mindfulness practice. I’m inclined to agree. I wouldn’t have said this years ago. My journal used to be an angst-ridden scribble of discontent and ongoing meh.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. (source).
Journaling gives you space and time to reflect, review, explore, identify your actual experiences. Have you ever had an experience where you’ve thought about it for ages afterwards? It could have been something so small but it’s imprinted in your brain, you can’t stop focusing on it?
It’s a busy world. You’re a busy person. Things happen fast on any given day. I journal at night when it’s quiet. The actual doing – of one thing only – helps me be present. Busy becomes quiet. By not worrying about ‘what will I journal’ and being present with ‘space to think’, it calms it all down.
5. You get to explore/tell/share your stories
We are all telling stories of who we are, what we are like and what is – and isn’t – possible for us. Sometimes the stories we are telling aren’t always true. We could be retelling the stories of others explaining our chapters and the part we played.
A journal is where you are the sole storyteller: what you did, who you were with, the dragons that got slain, the help you received along the way. You get to explore and identify the gifts, talents and skills you used and identify those that you wish to learn. You get to connect a little deeper to the storyteller – you. You can look at where you had to grow your courage wings, where you had to retreat and what you needed at different times. You can make your storytelling a place of deep learning.
6. You can rant, rave and whinge (there’s a ‘but’ here though)
It’s a space to get it all out and down. We all have highs and lows, but sometimes we sit with what’s up inside or heads too long. A journal gives you a space to plop down all your rants and ravings. There are many times in one week where I get an email from people saying, ‘that was good to get that all down’ as they explain what’s currently happening in their life.
Of course, it is. When do we actually take the time to get out what is on our minds and bothering us?
Here’s the but.
But, a journal can – if you let it – become just a place for negativity, blame and all things meh in your life. If you’ve tried to journal before and found that to be the case, I can so see why you stopped. Who wouldn’t?
Journaling is a place to observe what’s going on, but you also live in the world. I mean, if you find a solution – through journaling – to a problem and don’t take it off the page, what’s was the actual purpose? The purpose is to grow, not get stuck in your head.
7. You get to ask yourself the questions you want to ask and answer
There is a saying, ‘ask the right questions and you’ll get the right answer’. In a journal, you can ask anything of yourself and your experience: How did I feel here? What was the purpose? Is there another way to look at this? What do I really want to say? How will I know? What am I really saying? What do I need to do first? The list is endless. Many people get stuck journaling because (1) they are correcting their grammar, punctuation and spelling, (2) editing as they write, (3) trying to write an NYT best seller and, (4) trying to write the experience as opposed to explore the experience. Questions help you explore.
Questions help you explore and make connections. Often we don’t get asked or ask ourselves the questions that would help us the most. Journaling does this. If you actually allow yourself to ask questions.
Middle P.S. forget grammar, punctuation, spelling, editing, penning a bestseller. Doodles, drawing, (shock horror) bullet points are just as great as paragraphs. It’s your space. Do what you like. Just keeping asking questions and exploring the answers.
8. You can practice radical honesty/kindness/compassion and thanks
There is no censorship, well, as long as you don’t censor your thoughts. As for kindness, compassion and gratitude, it can be summed up in three words: gratitude changes everything.
If you need a journal starting point or a template for each day try these: 10 things I learned from yesterday, 10 things I am thankful for in my life today, 10 things I am grateful for today, 3 ways I can practice radical kindness today, 7 ways I can show my appreciation more.
9. You can explore alternatives until they are coming out your ears
We, humans, are creatures of habit. Once we get locked into an idea we are really good at locking out alternatives. Assume you have a problem, hurdle, fear, obstacle to cross, of course writing it out will help. Why? Because you’ll have all that mind racing in one place.
Leaving it at just the problem (see 6) isn’t really helpful. A journal is a space – well it can be – to let your mind run riot in a positive way.
Journaling might not give you the best or perfect solution to a current problem, but it can teach you to become a thinker of possibilities. For every problem there is a solution, so the saying goes. But it’s not just problems. It’s ideas, fun options, amazing alternatives that can be explored too. I don’t know about you but sometimes I can get stuck in a pattern, a way of doing things, a journal can help break patterns that are no longer working for you the way they once did.
10. You can further align yourself with your core values (or see where you’re off the mark)
Journal consistently, for even a short length of time, and you will notice where you are or are not in alignment with your deepest core values. If one of your core values was balance and you writing daily about feeling ‘all over the place’, then exploring you must go.
What about you?
Do you journal? What do you love about it, what are the benefits for you? What first step advice would you give to someone beginning? If you don’t journal, what are your reasons? Would you try alternatives to pen and paper? Have you? Would you like to journal, what would help you along?