In my last article, I went through the many benefits of journaling and I ended it rather flippantly with, “Just do it”. But getting started can be really hard. I tried journaling on and off for a while and was unable to get started in such a way that I would stick with it for more than a day or two. I finally decided that I needed to find a system that worked for me. I set myself a goal for the final quarter of 2017: Journal at least 75 times for 10-15 minutes a day to build the habit I say I want.
I’m pleased to say that I met my goal target — just — I hit 76 days after an initial rocky start and I lost a few days waking up with a headache.
How I journal
I have been doing the 5-minute journal for more than a year now which has helped immeasurably. I am happier and more grateful, and it’s helped build a daily habit of writing in the morning and evening. There were many times when I filled it in and I found that I would have liked to write more but there was no space.
I first tried expanding my practice by sitting down in front of my computer and opening a blank document. And then I would sit there. Nothing would come. What was I supposed to write? Something, something…feelings? Generally, I’m fine. I’m pretty sure writing “Today felt fine” isn’t what’s considered journaling.
I realised that the specific daily prompts in the 5-minute journal were what unlocked my first thoughts. I needed a template, with some prompts or questions to get me started.
I’m a big fan of Michael Hyatt and he described his template so I began using that. It gave me the structure that I needed to at least write something every day. I gave myself permission to leave questions unanswered if nothing was forthcoming. But, at the same time I came to realise that you might need to sit for a few minutes to recall your day, so don’t think you can skip it immediately.
Over the last few months, I have tweaked the questions to suit my style and needs and have started to make it my own.
Whilst the template is helpful, I still struggle to answer some of the questions within the time I can allow for it. Finding many questions unanswered for several days is quite disheartening. I know it’s a process that only improves with practice but it becomes harder to practice. When that happens, it is more likely that the habit won’t be installed.
Then I heard about the Daily Stoic Journal which was due to be released. It has transformed my journaling habit and made it much more enjoyable. It’s organised into weekly themes that dovetail with the [Daily Stoic]. You’re prompted with a question for you to reflect on every morning and evening. As with the 5-minute journal, it’s something that I write by hand. As research has found, this is key. There’s something much more visceral about handwriting than merely clacking away on a keyboard — and this is coming from a computer nerd!
Interestingly, I’ve noticed two distinct styles of entry. I write some entries in the first-person, whilst others are written as if I were giving advice to another.
I’ve noticed several benefits since I’ve started journaling on a regular basis. I’m beginning to be much more mindful of my emotions and my health and I’m starting to see patterns in my behaviour and correlate causes. I still need to go deeper, it can be hard to recall what’s happened in a day and I still struggle to know what exactly I ought to note down.
One specific improvement I’ve made is tracking what I read more closely. I read several articles most days but it turns out I can hardly remember anything of what I’d read. Granted, many don’t warrant remembering but it made me realise that if I couldn’t recall anything pertinent even after a day, there was little point reading them at all. I decided to more actively read the articles and posts in the same way that I do with books. I created a bookmarklet for Safari and added it to the bookmark menu. When I read a web page that is worthwhile it’s added straight to a Today I read note in Bear and I jot down any further information that seems relevant. Then the following day, when I sit down to journal, I have a convenient reference point. I can think further about the lesson or information that I took from it and make any further notes.
Don’t worry how it sounds. This is for your eyes only. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great writer or whether your spelling is poor. You don’t need to edit yourself. The aim is to get the thoughts out of your mind and on paper.
If you’re struggling to build a good journaling habit, I’d recommend starting out with a template. This can be a simple list of questions that you can answer each day, either on a computer or by writing in a notebook. If you’re also into stoicism then I would also highly recommend the Daily Stoic Journal too. If not, then consider coming up with some of your own prompts or themes that will get your thoughts flowing. In my commonplace book I collate interesting or thought-provoking questions that I can use. In a future post I will organise them into some topics for others to try.
Invest in yourself to build the habit to open your journal morning and night. Keep a pen with it on your bedside table and use its convenience as a trigger to pick them up and write.
Don’t forget to schedule time to review what you’ve written to spot and learn from the patterns that will emerge.