Keeping a Journal

In the old days, writers used to keep a record of their days in their “diaries”, which served as an archive for their lives. A running account of their lives, if you will. Most of us don’t write anymore in that sense. We are so caught up in the “busyness” of doing everyday things that we don’t take a step back to reflect. We don’t think about our lives enough, and that is perhaps one reason why we remain stuck.

In my previous draft on living your ideal day, I wrote about how few of us remember the days we lived in a typical year. Where did the year go? Why can’t we remember more of what we did during the year? Was it merely a case of not remembering things, a case of not living an interesting enough life, or some combination of both? One of the reasons I identified in that draft was not defining our ideal days for ourselves. While that may be true, most of us don’t reflect about our lives enough. We tell ourselves that we don’t have the time to journal one way or another. We make excuses.

I am reminded of a wonderful quote from Lord Byron:

If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.

The truth is that we have so much on our minds nowadays that we can’t afford not to write (to reflect). It’s not more time we need. Chances are the more things we have on our minds, the less we are doing anything about them. Of course, not everything requires doing. Sometimes we need to explicitly acknowledge things in order to stop thinking about them, which requires writing about it. There is no better way to do that than in your journal.

I have about 2,000 entries in my journal as of this writing. I’ve been writing in it for some time now. You can write in your journal any time you want, but for me there is just something about writing in it at least once in the morning and again in the evening. Writing in the morning helps me capture things that are on my mind without having to think about them during the day. Writing in the evening helps me reflect on things and to keep track of my progress in terms of results and relationships. It also brings closure to my day. In other words, my day is incomplete without it. I’ve been fairly consistent about writing in it. There have been days where I’ve missed writing in my journal, but those have been relatively few and far between.

There are many reasons (and benefits) for keeping a journal. The most non-obvious benefit for me to keep a journal has been to be present in whatever I do. Most of us have things on our minds, and it would serve us greatly to write them out. Even simply writing what’s on your mind will lighten your psyche somewhat and you’ll feel good about it even if the external things in your life remain unchanged.

Journaling is a great way to deal with difficult/challenging situations in our lives. It is a safe place to talk about things the way you want without any consequences. When you are feeling emotionally charged about someone or something, rather than venting about it to a friend or a loved one or going to a barren desert and shouting at the top of your voice (movie reference!), write what you’re feeling. It helps you come to terms with it. It’s strangely therapeutic in nature and it helps you be more calm.

When we put words on screen (or on paper), it helps us better understand our thinking. It helps us process things and make our thinking about those things more concrete. In other words, we write to think. Writing helps you understand yourself better. It helps you accept yourself the way you are (the perfections are in the imperfections we have). The greatest challenge in the world is to “know thyself”. Keeping a journal goes a long way towards just that.

Of course, the reasons and benefits of journaling are countless. A journal can be used to keep track of your daily wins to see how far you have come. You can document your travels. You can use it to recollect old things like finding the name of that restaurant you went to or recollecting your thoughts about that book you read. Any time you want to remember something and/or with someone, a journal is the place to do just that. This is one of the reasons I prefer using a digital journal, but more on that below.

The fun thing about keeping your own journal is you can write anything you want without worrying about what others might think. For this reason, I prefer using a digital journal over an analog one. Plus it’s available on all your devices, it’s private, and it’s secure. It is relatively friction-free to add entries to it. Of course, I am talking about this from the context of the software I use (which is Day One), but I am sure most good software will likely have these features — good design, ease of use, ability to search entries, tagging entries for later retrieval, OTA sync, availability on all devices, private, secure, etc. What I like about Day One in particular is that it lets you print books based on entries in your journal that you can keep as a physical copy and/or share it with others. It also has this great “On This Day” feature that lets you look at all the entries for that day from years past.

Here is how I use my electronic journal. I have multiple journals in Day One, three as of this writing, and I am considering adding a fourth one. The first journal is a defacto “diary” kind of journal. Any entries I write will go in that by default, unless it’s going to other journals. I use a Memories journal to remember the good times I had with friends and family. I have a Logbook journal where I write down things I’ve done in a given day and week. This helps me keep track of things I’ve accomplished over a week and beyond. I am considering adding a health journal, where I will track the foods I am having, how I dealt with food cravings, and the actions (or behaviors) resulting from my thinking at those times. For instance, I am thinking of giving up dairy products from my diet, so this will be a good way for me to keep track of foods that I want to avoid. This journal would also be a good place to document your fitness wins and challenges.

I make a point to write at least twice in my journal every day, once in the morning and once in the evening. I’ll write at least 500 words every morning so I can “empty my mind”, so to speak. I write in the morning so I can move on with my day without having to worry about what’s on my mind, since I probably already captured anything that might have been even remotely meaningful, but I make those decisions later. I also write about things I am grateful for in as much detail as possible. I’ll also write about things that would make the day great for me. Finally, I’ll write a couple of affirmations to finish the entry.

In the evening, I’ll write about my day, mentally go through the conversations I had with others over the day, and reflect on them. I’ll write about at least three things that happened that day that I found to be great and at least one thing I could have done to make my day better in the future. I feel a sense of completion when I write in the evening about my day. In many ways, it brings closure to my day so I can move on to the next.

Of course, I can (and do) write in my journal any time I want, but this way, I make sure I am writing every day at least once in the morning and evening.

Write in your journal freely without filtering anything. It will not be read by others unless you choose to share it. Write what you think. Try to defer your judgement until you have finished writing. Give yourself permission to be truly divergent. It is the one place you need to be honest to yourself (if nowhere else) about your thoughts because if you can’t be true to yourself here, then where? Journaling is more important than reading your diary, but come back periodically to go through your entries to see the running thread in your life.

If you have never journaled before or have only done it occasionally, you will only reap the benefits when you do it routinely. As with anything, you have to commit to it. You need to have a strong Why for journaling. Once you have that down, schedule it, show up, and write for a few minutes. Do it at the same time every day. Track your progress with a physical calendar log and cross out the date if you completed it. You can write any time you want, but work toward making it a part of your morning and evening routine. That way, you’re doing it without thinking about doing it.

Here are some ideas for everyday journaling:

  • Write 500 words every morning. Thank me later.

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write about things you’re truly grateful for. Reflect on things that you thought were great (highlights of the day, if you will). Couple that with reflecting on how you could have made your day better.

  • Use it as a logbook to document your days so you can quickly go back to find out what you did on what day. Track your accomplishments and goals or lessons you may have learned from experience. Perhaps also save quotes that resonated most with you. You can even take a picture a day along with some text to document your day.

  • Keep a health log to keep track of foods you’re having as part of your diet. If you’re trying to reduce or give up sugar, then that is a great place to document your habits. You can even keep track of your workouts and reps over time.

  • Other ideas for journaling might include writing book reviews, film reviews, theater reviews, great music you discovered, your favorite album/track at the time, etc.

  • You can even use automation to help you journal in a variety of ways.

  • If you can’t think of what to write (which is highly unlikely), you can use a variety of writing prompts to get yourself started. I liked the ones in particular by Benjamin Franklin. Each morning, he would ask himself: So what good will I do today? In the evening, he would ask: So what good did I do today?

Writing in my journal has helped me tremendously with my happiness and overall well-being. It has helped me slow down and improved my self-awareness so I learn things better. Writing to reflect on things has helped me grow over time and be a better person in terms of character and contribution. I can only imagine the same would be true for you. My only regret was not starting it sooner.

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