In our busy, modern lives where every minute counts and many of us feel the pressure to be in delivery mode all of the time, finding the time to journal isn’t high on everyone’s priority list.
But what if I told you, from personal experience, that taking just 10 minutes to reflect and contemplate each day will more than pay dividends, helping you be more focused on what’s important, clear on your intentions, happy and content that your life is moving in the right direction?
Those are just a few benefits of journalling I can honestly point to since I began a regular practice more than 18 months ago.
I know, it can seem self indulgent. You might even feel a little guilty sitting down with a pen and paper when the washing up is still to be done. But I strongly recommend that journalling in some form become a top priority in your daily routine.
It is healthy and cathartic to be able to pour out your deepest, most honest and raw emotions and thoughts in some form. We spend so much time bottling things up, wearing different masks – as a colleague, a boss, a father, a mate etc that we can lose touch of what we are really thinking and feeling inside.
Journalling helps bring those emotions and thoughts to the surface rather than buried, keeping us aware, and helping ensure that we are making decisions and actions based on our true self and best intentions, as opposed to what we might think ’should’ be required as part of those roles.
So what is journalling exactly?
I define it quite simply as writing daily about your thoughts, feelings and ideas, in order to express yourself and increase your self awareness.
This can be done in many different ways. I’ve tried a number of methods, often combining several:
Classic notebook and pen ‘free-writing’
The method that most naturally pops into mind when one thinks of journalling. Man or Woman + Journal + Pen. Usually at the end of a day, the journaller sits down and starts free writing about whatever has happened that day or is on their mind that evening.
Structured template journalling (gratitude journals, happiness journals, habit journals etc)
This is becoming ever more popular alongside the growth in neuroscience research around happiness, focus and wellbeing. An increasing body of knowledge is finding that reflecting on certain questions, or creating lists of things that you are grateful for or that have brought you joy that day has a positive impact on the brain, increasing feelings of wellbeing and happiness.
For more on this, read the ‘Benefits’ section below.
‘5 lines a day’ notebooks
A specific short-form version of the structured template, these notebooks ask for just five lines of notes each day, prompting the journaller to capture the headlines so they at least have a record of each day that passes. Whilst this method doesn’t tap into the deep insights that longer form writing and contemplation can generate, the format comes into its own, two, three, four years into the practice when you can compare on the same page what you were doing and thinking on the same day three years back. These comparisons can be powerful references of growth, or reminders of past lessons learned.
Popularised by the brilliant ‘Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron, morning pages are a variation on the classic free-writing technique mentioned above, but crucially done first thing in the morning rather than last thing at night. The idea here is to dump everything that is on your mind, good, bad, ugly, out onto a page first thing in the morning – thus allowing you to observe and be aware of your state of mind that day, and clear your head for the day ahead.
Cameron is clear in her direction that you must fill at least three pages – believing that only after two pages of writing do we really begin to dig beneath the surface level and start accessing real insight.
I’ve found that morning pages work well followed directly by some daily intention setting or positive affirmations to set you up for a brilliantly proactive and focused day.
It’s 2019 so naturally all of the above ‘pen and paper’ methods can also be achieved digitally if you prefer, using tools like Evernote, Google Docs or Microsoft Office.
For free-writing I by far prefer pen and paper. For whatever reason, I find that I can channel my most authentic, deepest, most honest thoughts and emotions in that medium, whereas when I type digitally I can’t help but add a subconscious filter – perhaps because when I’m writing on a computer it’s usually for someone else to read, so I’m already typing in a ’tone of voice’ that I don’t feel the need to use when it’s just me, a pen, and some paper. It’s hard to explain. I just prefer the old school way.
However, when it comes to the structured template journalling I use a Google Sheet template that I have devised myself to record my gratitude, wins, lessons, and track my habits every day. I refer to this for 15 minutes every night before I go to bed and it serves to remind me how many good things have happened to me, no matter how small.
It’s a nice way to wind down the evening.
As you might expect there are a host of mobile apps for journalling too.
I’ve tried Day One, a very visual journal which encourages you to capture photos and moments every day, and Momento a ‘smart private journal’ which integrates with social media to autonomously curate a full picture of your daily life events.
I also tried Grid Diary– a customisable version of the ’structured template’ approach described above – although I didn’t stick with any of them for very long.
For a fuller rundown of the pros and cons of journalling apps, check this article.
Some people use Instagram or even Facebook as a form of Journal. Although I believe that journalling should be an activity where you can be brutally open and honest with yourself. Where you can be completely uncensored and say things you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with anybody else, or at least with the whole world.
These are just a few of the journalling methods I have tried and tested. Some I’ve used for a few weeks and then dropped, some have lasted the test of time. The key is to find what works for you.
So those are some of the methods, but why should you journal? Here are some of the massive plus points I have found:
1. Supercharged self awareness
Journalling is a form of meditation.
By free-writing whatever is on my mind, it lays it all out there in front of me, revealing thoughts, opinions, feelings and emotions that I might not have been aware of. Once aware of a particular thought pattern I’ve been able to work with it more deeply, start to understand what might be a root cause, and also notice when it rears its head.
I’ve heard journalling described as ‘therapy without paying a dime’, and I can identify with that.
2. Clearer focus
Daily journalling practice has helped me distill what is most important to me, in what ways I want to be spending my time, and what things are mere distractions. And let’s be honest, there are no end of distractions in our lives these days.
As an example, through my journalling last year I kept coming back to a strong desire to create – to build a platform with which I could share my lessons learned, and connect with others to continue my growth. The consistency with which this arose told me I just had to launch Man Body Spirit, which has become a primary focus for 2019.
3. Learning from mistakes
I try to capture at least one lesson from each day – sometimes up to three.
Did I learn something new about myself? Did I learn something new about the world? Did something bad happen that carried a valuable lesson about how to approach a similar scenario next time?
I find that by writing down my lessons I’m more likely to remember them, which means I avoid repeating mistakes, and I grow at a faster rate.
4. Quick course correcting negative or bad habits
As well as a daily reflection, every Sunday I look back and review the week as a whole.
This allows me to see the general pattern of whether or not I have been living in accordance with my best intentions – and if not, put in place measures to ensure that the next week will be better.
For example, if I’ve been overly tired, or I’ve been eating unhealthily, then my weekly review might prompt me to set a nightly alarm to remind me to go to bed 30 mins earlier, or as happened recently, I downloaded a food tracking app to make me more conscious about what I am eating each day.
Before I was journalling these habits could continue literally for years, unanalysed and unaddressed. Now I have a practice in place to notice them and take meaningful action every single Sunday!
5. Feeling prouder and more satisfied
Each night I list out my three biggest wins from the day. Before I began doing this I would have definitely told you that I had no wins to celebrate most days of my life.
That’s pretty sad isn’t it?
And it would also have been inaccurate if only I had taken the time to reflect on the details of each day.
Now, of course, some days I have successes that are bigger than others. Maybe I got a promotion, a free upgrade in a hotel, or I literally won a tennis match. But other days I have to look a little harder to find the small, but still to be celebrated achievements. Maybe somebody complemented my new haircut, I ran for a bus and caught it, or maybe the canteen at work was serving my favourite salad bowl (falafel and hummus).
Wins don’t have to be big things at all, but by taking just a few minutes to recall a few of them, it gives me a little burst of happiness which is a brilliant way to end the day.
6. Feeling more grateful and happy
I also list seven things that I’m grateful for every night. Much like recording wins, science has proven that a daily gratitude practice is also great for wellbeing, happiness and contentment.
As above, these can be small things or big things, and of course, I can certainly be grateful for my wins too! But this is also a chance to think about other people in my life, and how blessed I am in general. For instance, pretty much every day I write how grateful I am for the love of Jessie, my comfortable, secure life, and my health and wellbeing.
Again, it’s a very positive way to end each day and helps me go to bed content.
7. Spark and incubate ideas
The act of slowing down with pen and paper has the great benefit of synthesizing the thoughts floating around my head into some darn good ideas. Ideas that I can return to and develop further day after day. As these ideas grow through regular attention, I naturally start building a plan to realise them too.
Before I know it I’m making some great progress with some exciting new projects!
James Altucher is a strong believer of writing down 10 new ideas every day to exercise your ‘idea muscle’ and become an ‘idea machine’. Read this to be convinced.
8. It helps you become a better writer, or find your writing voice
Quite obviously, daily journalling also means regular practice at writing, and in a forum where you really can do and write whatever you like, however you want to write it. There’s no boss, or readership expecting you to follow a certain style.
Go crazy – just let it flow, however you like and see what flows out of your pen.
Do you keep a regular journal? If so, what’s your method? Have you experienced any awesome benefits that I haven’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments below.