Keeping a journal for a change

Recently, I started keeping a journal. I haven’t been doing it consistently for long, but already I find myself slightly more able in areas like:

  • Quieting the mind
  • Making decisions
  • Managing negative emotion
  • Coming up with creative ideas

I must preface this by saying that I was never a good journal keeper.

For years I dabbled in the “Dear Diary” type of writing, followed by an account of daily events. But I’d always give up after a few weeks or even days. Gratitude journals and other themed journaling endeavours also failed miserably.

This might be odd for someone who claims to love writing. But the truth is I never managed to be consistent with journaling. This was partly because I was lazy and partly because the whole exercise felt quite artificial.

What I am doing now is different from those earlier attempts, and perhaps that is why it’s working for me. Here’s the gist of it:

  • I bought a cheap, no-frills notebook for it, so that the expectations are very low and I don’t feel forced to “live up” to my notebook (yes, I am that bad about getting it just right).
  • Consequently, I don’t care what my handwriting looks like, if I strike out text, if the page looks ugly… The focus is on the writing, period.
  • There’s no obligation to write on it daily (though at the moment I find myself doing it multiple times a day).
  • There’s no set time for writing in it. I write whenever I feel the need to and for as short or as long a period of time as might be suitable.
  • There is no dominant theme. I can write an account of my dreams, a to-do list, a log of events to remember, ideas for creative projects, a description of problems I am struggling with, to name a few. I can’t, however, use this notebook for further development of creative ideas, i.e. I might jot down notes for a poem or a story but once I get to the point of actually writing them I have to move the writing elsewhere.
  • There’s only one fixed rule I cannot break: I must use plain language, go straight to the point and keep my discourse real, talking to myself as I would to a friend in normal everyday conversation. In other words: this is not a notebook for embellished daydreaming or creative writing. This is a journal to help me examine outer and inner life.
The more I do it, the more I find that by writing things down I avoid getting stuck in “thinking loops”, where I confuse and exert myself by overthinking. I also avoid forgetting information I might wish to go back to later and I have an easier time staying on top of what requires my attention at a given moment.

In all of this, forcing myself to express it all in simple terms is crucial, as it gears my brain towards a more practical and productive approach .

I should also point out that while this exercise bears some similarities with the practice of writing morning pages (you’ll be familiar with those if you’ve read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way) it differs from it on one very important aspect. Morning pages are not meant to be reread, whereas the type of journal I am keeping invites further reading of previous content, either to go over the issues themselves or to spot patterns and possible growth.

If, as stated by Socrates in Plato’s "Apology", the unexamined life is not worth living, then for me this recently acquired habit of journaling is proving to be a useful tool in carving out a life for myself that is worthwhile.

I’m sharing it here in the hopes that you’ll give it a try, if it feels like it might be something for you too.

I’d like to end this by saying that nothing in what I just wrote here is new. There are plenty of places out there, both online and offline, where you will find praise for journaling and ideas for making the most of it.

This is just one woman’s account of her own experience, written to a great extent with the intent of telling you that it is possible to benefit from this practice even if you’ve been failing at it for decades. All it takes sometimes are a few tweaks here and there. A cheap notebook. No set time. Some prompts to write about. And suddenly you’re riding that bike on your own.