The Forgotten Art of Journaling and Three Reasons to Start

A year ago I would have told you that I haven’t kept a journal since my angst-ridden teenage years. Journaling has not been high on my priority list, nor was I clear on what I would get out of it.

All that changed about 12 months ago when I decided to experiment a little with journaling to see whether it could have a beneficial impact on my mindfulness and productivity. In undertaking this experiment, a few questions had to be answered:

Why Journal?

As I became more active in productivity circles, I began to notice that a significant proportion of the community were journaling to some extent. It made me curious as to why. I came to the following conclusions:

Journaling improves accountability

We lie to ourselves every day about what we’ve achieved, the time we’ve spent on key tasks, even the extent to which we’re stuck in a set routine (or lack of). Writing things down, almost without exception, sheds light on the extent of these lies by making the evidence much more explicit.

As a side note, I personally find it much harder to lie to myself when I’m writing something down. It’s as though the act of putting my thoughts and feelings on paper triggers a deep, psychological quality check that calls me out on whether I’m being honest with myself. This might be why writing things down (and journaling more widely) is such a popular technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Journaling Gives You Clarity

Journaling, like any other form of writing, is a mechanism for crystallizing your thoughts. The act of sitting down to write in a journal will trigger a mental process of replaying relevant events and experiences and processing them for items of relevance. This gives you a second opportunity to review the events of the day and determine what you can learn from them. It may also trigger you to remember something that you wanted to collect into your productivity platform.

Journaling can help to alleviate the daily stresses in your life by giving you the opportunity to have an internal rant.

Journaling is Therapeutic

Ever had one of those days when you just wanted to yell at your partner, your family or the world in general? If you’ve got to the stage where you feel like yelling then you might need some more primal forms of stress relief (such as exercise), but journaling can help to alleviate the daily stresses in your life by giving you the opportunity to have an internal “rant.”

What approach to take?

Once you’ve decided to give journaling a try, you need to decide how to go about it. The first thing to decide is how often you’re going to write in your journal. I know that some people update their journals twice daily (typically morning and night), whilst others only update theirs once a week. It’s a very personal choice, but in my journaling experiments, I’ve found that daily seems to work best for me, with each journaling session lasting between 5 and 10 minutes.

The next key question is what format your journal is going to take; this essentially boils down to whether you’re going to go paper or digital. I’m trying to be digital in everything I do, so [Day One](dayoneapp.com) seemed the natural choice for me. There are many people out there who enjoy the physical experience of writing on paper with a traditional pen; for me the benefits are outweighed by the fact that it’s another item I have to carry around with me and that with Day One my journal entries are backed up to the cloud and synced across my iOS devices and my Mac for ease of recording and reviewing.

I would also recommend that you give some thought to what type of journal you want to keep. I use Day One primarily to record my thoughts and feelings for the day; I don’t use it to record task-related observations (what worked well, what didn’t), nor do I use it to record food consumption, exercise or other self-quantification type statistics. I have other tools that I find more suited to those types of observation. It’s important to define the boundaries of your journal, in association with being clear about what you’re looking to get out of the journaling habit.

How to Make the Habit Stick?

Confession time: I found journalling daily extremely difficult. At the time of writing, it’s been several weeks since my last journal entry. However, I am planning to persevere and I have made several useful observations in the year I’ve been experimenting with it.

Identify Your Window

Journalling is one of those habits that works best if it’s muscle memory. This means figuring out what time of the day is going to be most conducive to a journaling session and embedding a habit of writing at the same sort of time, every day. For me, this window was first thing in the morning, either prior to leaving for work or immediately upon arrival at my desk. Association and repetition can be powerful tools for embedding a habit like journaling and it’s amazing how a task can leap to the front of your mind when triggered by a mental context like time and location.

I’d also recommend being clear about how long you’re going to spend writing. The shorter the period, the more likely the habit is to stick. After all, who has 30 minutes free every morning that they can suddenly allocate to a new habit? For me, five minutes was the right time slot. Just enough time to note down some key thoughts, not too long to interfere with my other morning habits.

Create the Right Environment

The right environment is key for two reasons: the first is mental readiness. I mentioned before that if I couldn’t write in my journal before leaving for work, I’d do it at my desk upon arrival. There is no doubt that the second environment was much less conducive to quality journaling. When at my desk I was already starting to think about work tasks, I was at risk of being interrupted by others coming into the office and I was very self-conscious of what I was doing.

When at home, on the other hand, I had a quiet house to myself (the family still being asleep), which enabled me to contemplate the previous day without significant distraction. By sitting in the same place (on the sofa in the living room) each day, coming downstairs became a mental trigger to journal.

Journal Your Journaling

This may sound a bit meta, but I used [Lift](lift.do) to record my journlling habit. This helped me to see how successful I was at doing my journaling habit, and helpfully prompted me when I started to lapse. I’ll be reinvigorating this approach as I try to resuscitate the habit that has slipped of late.

Personal Observations on Journaling

When I started to journal regularly, I found it quite therapeutic. It provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the things that were going well in my life as well as the things that were frustrating me. This process of reviewing and recording prompted me to think more critically about the focus areas of my life and where my current actions and activities were taking me. Sometimes it just felt good to get something off my chest, even knowing that I’d be the only person to see what I’d written.

For those with a natural inclination or aptitude towards journaling, I’d say it represents a rich opportunity to catalogue a range of life events and observations: how the kids are growing up, your relationships with friends and family, your hopes and dreams. For those like me who find it more difficult to maintain the discipline, it feels more sensible to keep your ambitions low, stick to key observations and journal “little and often.”

I recommend giving journaling a try and seeing what insights you can gain; It may offer little, or it may prove mind-blowing….but you won’t know until you give it a go.