Why journaling is important and how to start writing a journal

Simon Ash
Simon Ash
Mar 25 · 6 min read

The lessons I have learned through my struggle with keeping a journal

I have frequently struggled with writing a journal or diary. I have always liked the idea of doing it, just fallen down in the daily practice of actually doing it.

I used to think of writing a diary as writing a story; the story of me, that someday — when I am famous — that would be published to great acclaim. So I wrote accounts (with sketches and illustrations) of my days as if I was a character, thinking about who else might read it, rather than what I might gain from the process. While writing I pictured a future where people were gushing over my witty insights and gasping in response to my wonderful adventures.

As if.

Why journaling is important

I have a slightly more enlightened view on both the limited interest of my life to others and, conversely, the much larger power of effective journaling beyond just a record of events.

That is because the power of journaling comes in the process of creating time, on a regular basis, to reflect. This reviewing of our time allows us to explore our feelings and examine our decisions. It is an awesome psychological hack and self-coaching tool.

“I don’t journal to ‘be productive.’ I don’t do it to find great ideas or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me. It’s the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found.”

Tim Ferriss

Why journal writing is good for mental health

In expressing feelings the process is not only cathartic, but it is also essential to effective thinking. Psychologists have identified that emotions can cause blockers to thought processes, so getting the feelings out on a page is a first step to accepting and understanding the emotions we are going through.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Anne Frank

When it comes to reviewing our actions what we are doing is speeding up our learning and analysing our decisions. We are much less likely to make the same mistake twice if we identify the error in the first place and pause to reflect on what we need to change.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Confucius

The habit of creating regular reflection times instils a decision-making loop that allows us to react faster to circumstances and make better decisions. A simple explanation of this process is the ‘OODA loop’. OODA stands for Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act. These essential elements of the decision-making process were identified by John Boyd while he was studying pilots at US Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka ‘Top Gun’).

We are all following a similar process each time we make a decision but in taking time to journal and reflect on our previous ‘Decide’ and ‘Act’ parts of the sequence we set ourselves up for success. After reflection, as we ‘Observe’ new situations and ‘Orientate’ ourselves to these challenges we are armed with our new lessons.

Exercise: Journal Writing; How to start Journalling

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

William Wordsworth

To get away from the story writing or simple logging of events that I used to do when journaling I created a simple format to help me both plan and review my day. My preference is to use a plain notebook (Moleskine are my favourite) as I like to sketch, draw and Mindmap as well as write.

For each day or entry, I use two pages. The first page is for planning the day ahead and the second for reviewing the day just gone.

The first page is further broken down as follows:

In the top half, I write down an inspirational quote and a question (usually related to the quote) that I want to think about. This helps me to get into a thoughtful and positive mindset as I start the day. This can prompt a time for prayer, meditation and mindfulness that gives a sense of peace, before the busyness of the day, and brings perspective, to what I might want to achieve.

In the bottom half of the first page, I draw the four quadrants of the Eisenhower Matrix which is my preferred method of prioritising my tasks for the day. Therefore the headings are:

  • Urgent/Important
  • Not-urgent/Important
  • Urgent/Not-important
  • Not urgent/Not-important.

I populate this matrix while referencing my long-list of tasks which I keep on my phone and my online calendar. Once the tasks are prioritised they go into my calendar to be actioned or delegated by me.

The second page is broken down in this way:

The first half of the second page is also broken into four quadrants. These quadrants are headed:

  • Thanks/appreciate — to help me be grateful for all the good things that I often ignore or forget about
  • Improve/develop/learn — so I can learn from my decisions and mistakes
  • Apologise/repent — to prompt me to say sorry to God, to others, or myself, and change where necessary
  • Success/celebrate — to celebrate the little (or big) successes of each day

“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

Charles Dickens

The bottom half of the second page is left for any sketches, drawings or other notes I want to make.

It looks something like this:

Start writing a journal and make it a habit

If your experience is anything like mine then, however good your intentions, you will fail to write your journal every day. Don’t worry! And don’t stop just because you missed a day (or even a week).

If you do find it hard then experiment with how and when you do the journal. Maybe the best time for you is the morning, for someone else it might be the evening. It could be on your commute or your lunch break. It does not matter when as long as it is a time that you can commit to.

One thing I find useful is linking a new habit to another established habit. For example, I like to read a book (usually some fiction) in bed before I go to sleep. Therefore I put my journal next to my novel as a prompt to write my journal before I start to read. The reading then becomes a reward tied to the new habit. That works for me — think about what might work for you.

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

Peter Druker

What if you are still struggling to keep writing your journal?

So if you are still struggling with keeping a journal how else can you build in regular reflection and creativity?

J K Rowling once says that she “never managed to keep a journal longer than two weeks”. I can certainly empathise with this, but — as is obvious by her incredible success — just because J K Rowling did not keep a daily journal did not mean she did not stop writing and being creative.

If you are struggling with a daily journal, find other ways to capture your thoughts. I am constantly writing little notes on my phone or taking out my notepad to sketch out ideas. For me writing blog posts and articles is another part of my self-reflection and learning process.

Experiment and find out what works for you. The most important thing is that reflection becomes a habit; it is one of the best gifts that you can give yourself.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

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