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The Merits of Keeping a Journal

a women's hands holding a pencil and writing in a notebook

The Merits of Keeping a Journal

Throughout my life I have had a very up-and-down relationship with journaling. I have had times where I kept a daily entry for a couple weeks, then stopped. Months went by and I started up again. Then I did something weekly, and that lasted only for a while. A year went by before I started up again. See the pattern? Sometimes I sit down to write in my journal. I look at the date of my previous entry and think, “Holy moly I’ve sucked at keeping up with this!”

Does that describe you? Or perhaps you’re the kind of person who has thought about journaling, but it seems too big a commitment. Maybe you think, “I’m no writer,” or “I don’t need to journal,” or “What would I possibly write about?” or “I’m an external processor, journaling isn’t for me,” or “I’d like to but it’s too time-consuming,” etc.

Why Should You Journal in the First Place

I think journaling is something that every individual can benefit from regardless of your personality/education/background. However, it sometimes takes practice to cultivate that skill and also discover what it could look like for you ​ . Yes – I’ve found journaling to be something that is very individualized.

Getting Past the “Diary” Stigma

I know for me, journaling had a stigma behind it of writing for each entry, “Dear diary…”Or trying to come up with an essay-format entry that took 30 minutes to write and make it sound profound. Of course all that ended up happening was getting a fraction of my thoughts down on paper. When reading it back I thought, “Wow that sounds way less profound and not quite what I’m thinking or feeling. This is lame.”

Or, I approached journaling with the belief that I should read back on old entries later in life – a memento, if you will, that will somehow help my future self in some way. Frankly – that’s all just too much pressure to put on myself – it’s frustrating and simply not that realistic in my experience. No wonder I (or others) wouldn’t want to stick with it. However, I have learned some things over the course of time that may help you approach this practice/discipline of writing in a journal.

A Way to Process and Reflect on Your Life

But before we get to that, one could ask, “Why should I journal in the first place?” Frankly most of us don’t get to spend enough time actually processing how we are doing, let alone feeling. It’s so easy to be tossed to and fro by the urgent necessities of life and don’t get a moment to catch our breath. Next thing we know, we are bewildered with how time has flown by and we are bewildered by how it’s possible nothing has changed about ourselves and our growth. We realize we’ve done lots of things yet feel “stuck”. Therefore, it is crucial to have times and methods incorporated into your life that allow you to process and reflect on what’s happening to you and around you and within you. If you don’t, how will you know what your next steps are to grow and improve?

A Personal Experience

In my mid-late twenties I was at a social function and I felt angry. If you met me, you’ll know that’s one of the last words to describe me. So it really hit me that something was WAY off. So I went home and opened up my journal and began to write. It helped me get the junk out of my head by putting my thoughts down into words. It brought clarity to the emotions. I hadn’t gotten angry overnight. It built ​ up because I wasn’t resolving my emotions and thoughts and addressing them. (Like Yoda saying in Star Wars, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” – it’s a progression). I was able to have more meaningful conversations with my close friends because I now knew more of how I actually was doing and could relay that and get advice and help.

Get it out of Your Head

Here’s another example that resonated with me. I listened to a guy named Sal in a podcast on Mind Pump Media. In summary, he ​ asked, “Do you know how to get a song that’s just playing in a loop and stuck in your head to stop?” He had read that playing that song through to its conclusion helps to end that loop. In a similar way, he’d found that journaling was an effective way for him to “close the loop” of his thoughts and emotions. When I heard that, I thought, “That’s exactly how to describe it.” When thoughts in our minds are left unchecked we carry a kind of tension within ourselves.  This just adds stress and confusion and clutter to our minds. Getting it out of your head helps relieve that burden and helps make sense of things (or at least begins to make sense of things).

Practical Approaches to Keeping a Journal

All that said, here are some practical approaches to journaling:

  • Journal however much or little you need or want to. It doesn’t have to become a routine or obligation. Approach it as a tool to use when you need it.
  • If a paragraph/essay format doesn’t suit you, try writing things out in bullet-points (short quick thoughts).
  • Get a journal or book that suits your taste and who you are. It helps make it more meaningful and inviting. Your style may be fancy or a simple spiral bound notebook may suffice.
  • Maybe writing isn’t all that much your thing. Who said you have to use words? You can draw little pictures or make lots of arrows and other symbols that connect your thoughts together.
  • If you’re an external processor like me, I have found it incredibly helpful to take time and craft key questions. I write that question down, and then I write in answer to that question. This helps simulate a conversation and put structure to what to write about.
  • If you don’t have much time but want to journal, just set a timer (even 5 minutes) and write however much you write in that time. Maybe it’s one sentence, maybe a few. That’s alright – whatever you can stick with!
  • Write for the sake of helping your present self. While it may be neat to look at your past journal entries, don’t feel like that’s the goal. It’s not. I write with the intention of not reading what I wrote again (it doesn’t mean I won’t, but it takes the pressure off of needing to write well or profoundly).

So, what do you think is your next step in better reflecting on your present self?

Dan Tribley

Lead health coach

EPIC Functional Medicine Center

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