“I will never travel without my diary. One should always have
something sensational to read on the train.”
— Oscar Wilde
Let’s do a quick inventory of all the journals you currently own.
Look around your space. Check your side tables, next to your bed, under the couch. Now your bookshelf, your bag, and your workspace. How about your computer? How many journals did you find? Are they brimming with ideas, colour, and personal flavour? Maybe they’re filled with stream-of-consciousness thinking and poems, or goals and to-do lists. Maybe they’re pristine and empty.
If you’re a person who collects the space to write but doesn’t begin, you may have an unfulfilled craving. I have an on-again-off-again relationship with journaling. I probably have more empty journals than I do full ones. One thing I know for sure? When I write, I’m more clear on my goals and have a better relationship with myself.
Why bother journaling?
There are so many benefits to journaling, I couldn’t possibly cover them all here. These are my top two reasons and I hope you find them as compelling as I do.
It’s a great avenue into mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” One way of bringing this purposeful attention into your life is through journaling.
When you journal, you’re digging deep into self-awareness. As you become a habitual journaler, you become a habitual and intense observer of the details of your life. This is a form of mindfulness. Being in the present moment helps you become more keenly aware of your own life experience. With journaling, you can artfully capture that in words.
It can build your emotional intelligence
Daniel Goleman suggests there are four main areas of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, awareness of self and others, social skills, and self-management. He also suggests it all starts with self-awareness.
When you write, you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. Your journal becomes a safe space to unravel your emotions and develop an understanding of your thought patterns and actions. When you’re self-aware, you’re better able to manage yourself and your social life.
Journaling for emotional intelligence brings a bit more focus into your writing. This practice is reflective and asks you to engage with your thinking and behaviours. You might ask yourself questions about your strengths and weaknesses, or reflect on a particular emotion, good or bad.
If you choose this method of journaling, it’s important to think of yourself as an observer of your thoughts. This isn’t too different from mindfulness, in that you’re observing your patterns in a non-judgement or critical way. You’re simply accepting things as they are, in the present moment. Through this gentle observation, you create the opportunity to see your patterns and possibly choose different actions in your future.
Some common questions
I keep starting, but always give up! What gives?
This is pretty common. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If it’s been a long time since you’ve journaled, start fresh tomorrow, but make a plan. Try this simple three-step process the next time you find your dedication wavering.
If the pile of empty journals on your nightstand gives you hives, fix that. If you think the best place to write is at your kitchen table, set up your space. This is like putting your running shoes by the door if you want to change your exercise habits. By simplifying the process and removing barriers, you’re more likely to move towards change.
Set up a space dedicated to your writing, get your materials in order (journal and pen), set a date and time. That’s all you need to begin.
2. Set yourself up for success by creating a clear goal
There are ways to trick yourself into solidifying new goals, it just takes a little brain science. Why not try a brightline rule? James Clear explains brightlining like this:
“A bright-line rule refers to a clearly defined rule or standard. It is a rule with clear interpretation and very little wiggle room. It establishes a bright line for what the rule is saying and what it is not saying.”
This concept comes from the legal field, but it’s applicable in many areas of life. What might happen if you created a brighter line towards journaling? Instead of the ambiguous goal of “I want to journal more often”, what about:
I will write about my goals for 10 minutes every morning, between 7 AM and 8 AM.
Or: I will write about my day every evening after dinner, up to 1 full written page.
Or, for the Julia Cameron fans out there: I will complete 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness writing upon waking, every day.
Pretty specific, right? Is writing for 10 minutes too onerous? Then don’t build that into your brightline rule. Write for 5 minutes. Heck, write for 2! It’s got to work for you. Over time, you’ll find yourself getting into a groove and the length of time you write, or the volume you produce, will naturally begin to suit you. You won’t need someone else to prescribe requirements on you. You’ll know when and what to write because it’s become as easy as brushing your teeth.
3. Do it even when you just don’t feel like it
If you’ve done steps 1 and 2 above, you’ve simplified your process and set yourself up for success with a clear goal. Now you need to make a choice. Do you want to reap the benefits of a daily writing practice, or are you just not that invested? It’s OK if you’re not. Honesty is best here.
Don’t rely on that old myth of 21 days to a new you. Instead, rely on your purpose. Know you want something — the benefits of writing every day — and you’re willing to do the work to get there. This is what the most successful among us do. They have a vision and then fiercely pursue it.
Make sure you really want this. Otherwise, let it go and fill your time with something you do want.
How long should I write?
Various studies suggest between 15 to 20 minutes is best. I suggest the best length of time to write is the length of time you want to write. If you push yourself into some prescribed length of time, there’s a risk it may begin to feel like a chore. Consistency is more important than how much you write. It’s the key to building your new habit.
BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, talks about a concept called minimum viable effort. He says:
“Make it tiny. To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”
Begin with the absolute smallest amount of work needed to start toward your goal. And I mean a small amount: one sentence. When that starts to feel easy, add a sentence. When that’s easy, add another, and another, and another. As you add more writing time, you’re strengthening your habit.
What should I write about?
The best person to answer this question is you. I suggest this one question to get you started: What do I need to know right now? Then wait. Listen. See, hear, or feel what comes up. Begin.
If you’re journaling for emotional intelligence, focus on a particular emotion (good or bad), or event (good or bad) and write about what comes up. Ask yourself what’s working and what’s not working. Remember, gentleness is the key here.
Here are a few more ideas about what to write about:
- Your big gnarly goal
- Three things you’re grateful for
- The best thing that happened to you that day
How do I get started?
Journaling is a little bit like a meditation practice. Set aside the time and space, and the rest will fall into place. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Choose a time and place where you won’t be interrupted
- Keep your pens and paper where you’re likely to see them (and use them)
- Screw speling and grammar
- Use pen and paper
- Write fast
Can journaling be harmful?
You wouldn’t think a practice with so many benefits could possibly be harmful, but I’m going to say maybe here. If you’re a person who’s prone to analysis paralysis, approach this habit carefully. You may consider writing about anything but what you’re mentally working through. If you’re already in a negative tailspin, putting all that barf on paper could be scary. Taking your attention away from a problem with a more creative outlet may just give you the breakthrough you need.
If you struggle with severe compulsive patterns, you may also want to approach this habit carefully. Robert Shields was a diarist famous for keeping a diary that reached 37.5 million words. He chronicled the minutia of his life, such as: “We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.” While there’s nothing wrong with recording the details of your life, if you’re prone to addictive behaviour, you might be building an addiction, rather than a journaling habit.
We carry out a lot of everyday habits because they’re part of basic self-care. Those automatic habits aren’t usually part of a to-do list, we just do them. Journaling shouldn’t feel like another chore. Instead, make it easy and accessible for your lifestyle, so that it can become as automatic as eating your breakfast.
Don’t beat yourself up if you take a break. It’s OK to take a vacation, even from a habit. If you’re bored, try a new approach, a new prompt, a new journal.
Some key takeaways:
- Be kind to yourself. If you’ve taken a break, it’s OK to stop and start again
- Start small and build up your practice slowly.
- Set yourself up for success – your environment and your intention.
- Try a simple brightline rule to support your goal.