“People who keep journals have life twice.” – author Jessamyn West
“Great Men Keep Journals” – Brett & Kate McKay, The Art of Manliness
Keeping a journal is one of the practices that I struggled with for a long time. I mistook it for simply writing down what I did that day, and I just couldn’t find the motivation to do it with any sort of consistency. That changed September 24, 2013 (I know because it’s in my journal), and since then I’ve written every single day.
Great people journal. It’s as simple as that. While I’m not aware of any study explicitly comparing keeping a journal with becoming great, it’s tough not to see the correlation. Consider some of the people who did both: Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Sir Edmond Hilary, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Reagan, Truman… the list continues. Clearly there is something to be said for the power of the practice.
For starters, being forced to explore thoughts well enough to put them into words is a tremendous way to discover who we are. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself,” states author Susan Sontag. “The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.”
Additionally, being able to look back at previous journal entries is invaluable for personal growth. It’s a way of putting signposts in the ground as a reminder of important memories, valuable lessons, and our evolution as individuals. “This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary,” writes brain pickings author Maria Popova, “its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.”1 It’s easy to miss changes that happen on a day by day basis, but looking back at old journal entries I’m always surprised at how different my perception of who I used to be differs from who I actually was.
There’s another reason to keep a journal, and while it may be less grandiose than growth or greatness it’s just as much if not more important: happiness. As The 5 Minute Journal creators Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas put it, to journal is “the simplest, most effective thing you can do everyday to be happier.” My personal practice is largely based on their book. It was the spark I needed to start the habit, and I really can’t say enough about the impact it has had. It provides an easy template to follow, inspires with a daily quote, has weekly challenges to fuel growth, and includes several scientifically backed methods to help make the habit stick. Plus it’s a physically beautiful book that feels great to fill with writing. (See the end of this post for a 15% discount code!)
Starting a Journal Practice
How? The most important part of a journal practice is doing it. The template I personally follow is outlined below, but I urge you to experiment and find the method that works best for you. You can pick and choose from the following elements but whatever you do keep it fun! Just put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard/phone).
With what? There is some debate on physical vs. digital journals but again it’s really personal preference so find what works for you and stick with it. I find that writing things out by hand forces the mind to slow down, so I use a physical journal. At the same time I like the convenience of a searchable digital archive, so I also take a picture at the end of the day and save it to Evernote where it gets indexed for posterity.
When? The best time to write is anytime that works for you, but writing twice a day – once in the morning and once at night – can provide some great benefits. Writing in the morning starts your day on a positive note, while also setting the rest of the day up to be a great one. Writing in the evening gives the chance to re-live the best moments and reflect on any lessons that can be learned. It’s also a great way to wind down and help the body prepare for sleep. With that in mind, here’s a suggested break down:
Morning Journal Practice
Date + Day #
Journal entries should start with a little housekeeping: what day is it? I like to write the date, day of the week, and the number of days I’ve been alive. Although age is typically measured in years, I’ve found that consistently noting my age in days helps to keep things in perspective. To find out how many days you’ve been alive you can use an online calculator.2
Copy down a meaningful quote as a source of inspiration for the day. The Five Minute Journal includes these automatically, otherwise I like to use a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Calendar of inspirations, Aurelius’s Meditations, the Tao Te Ching, Scripture, or one of several online quote databases.
I am grateful for:
Write down three things you are grateful for. Experiments show that practicing gratitude is incredibly powerful, and there’s no better way to start the day then by counting your blessings. Take the time to really feel the emotions as you etch the memory of positive experiences onto the page and your brain. It’s this re-living of positive emotions that provides the greatest happiness boost.
You can also write things which you don’t yet have, but want for the future. The world has a funny way of giving us what we ask for.
What would make today great?
Write down 3-5 things that would make today great, but they have to be things that you can control. This primes your mind to start working on out how to make them a reality.
Have you ever had the of experience hearing someone whisper something in the middle of a loud room, and even with the noise somehow your brain is able to make out your name? Or purchased a new pair of shoes only to walk down the street and suddenly notice EVERYONE seems to be wearing the same ones? There’s a similar process at work here.
Think of all the millions of pieces of information your brain has to filter through every day. It’s remarkably good at being able to sift through and select the events that are the most important. You just have to let it know what to look for, like your name, or a new pair of shoes. Tell it what would make the day great and it will do it’s best to see that it does.
Personally, I like to end my list with “Relax, smile, breathe, laugh, and be a positive source of life, love, and energy.” Of course I don’t always remember to do those things, but reminding myself every morning definitely helps.
This works hand in hand with “What would make today great?” but in a more meta, behavioral way. “Make a list of all the words that fire you up and write them down every day,” suggests en*theos CEO Brian Johnson. “Use every moment that you are conscious as an opportunity to demonstrate those words: particularly in those moments when you don’t feel like it!”
Go nuts! If you’ve taken a strengths test like the VIA signature strengths, or Strengths Finder 2.0, write those down! Follow it up with the other ways in which you want to present yourself to the world, even if they aren’t things that you normally do.
My personal affirmations are usually some assortment of: loving, creative, disciplined, present, balanced, aware, mindful, original, curious, capable, enlightened, divine, human, humble, open minded, kind, genuine, generous, humorous, energetic, enthusiastic, grateful, optimistic, outgoing, strong, flexible, growing, focused, diligent, patient, persistent, playful, happy, healthy, wealthy, wise…
Evening Journal Practice
Amazing things that happened today:
Write down as many amazing things that happened today as you can, coming up with at least three. They don’t have to be huge, life changing things, just things which you want to remember. Even little things can have a big effect! After completing a Harvard University study, psychologist Ting Zhang told the New York Times “our research shows that we can find joy in journaling about ordinary events, and importantly, later rediscovering those journal entries at a future point in time,”3
Try and include a mix of things: a beautiful sunrise, a nice compliment, a fun event, a moment of good fortune, world news, or even just a nice walk with the dog. Over time, you will find more and more amazing things worth remembering. “What you focus on expands,” explains author Esther Jno-Charles. “So focus on what you want, not what you do not want.”
How could I have made today better?
If you had a “do-over,” what would you change? We never respond perfectly to the events of the day, and by looking at what we could have done differently we make it more likely to respond that way in the future. Reflecting on these over time will give a pretty clear picture of ways to improve.
Other reflections, ideas, and inspirations:
Lastly, write down anything that didn’t necessarily fit elsewhere: inspirations, new goals, particularly powerful emotions or feelings, etc. Sometimes I’ll sketch a picture of something that inspired me or a mental image that’s easier to draw than put in words. I’m also practicing mirror-writing, aka da Vinci writing, so I’ll take some space to write the days inspiration backwards as well as the most common di- and tri- grams.
If you’ve tried to keep a journal in the past but weren’t able to stick with it, or are just getting started, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Five Minute Journal (use the code “Balchan” for a 15% discount. note: I don’t receive any sort of compensation). Alternatively, use any old physical notebook or digital writing tool and the provided template to continue becoming a greater and happier version of yourself!
Experiment to find what works for you, and remember to keep it fun!
If you are interested in books related to this topic, I recommend:
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy
The Five Minute Journal: A Happier You in 5 Minutes a Day by Alex Ikonn & UJ Ramdas
(Remember to use the code “Balchan” for a 15% discount)
- http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/04/famous-writers-on-keeping-a-diary/ [↩]
- http://www.beatcanvas.com/daysalive.asp [↩]
- http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/15/how-keeping-a-diary-can-surprise-you/ [↩]