Journaling is one of the best rituals I've picked up in the past few years. In terms of low effort-high impact habits, journaling has got to be near the top of the list. Anyone can sit down with a piece of paper and write, and something you'll find is doing so for even ten minutes a day can have an enormous impact on the rest of your life.
I finished my first journal this past summer, and there's a lot of value in getting to read a year of your own thoughts in an hour. What was interesting to me is how similar some of my worries at the beginning of the journal were to the worries I felt as I was re-reading them a year later. This gave me an invaluable insight: there were some things I worried about that were simply out of my control, but there were others that I simply hadn't taken the necessary action to fix. This idea of knowing the difference is a central tenant of a philosophy worth reading up on called Stoicism, best illustrated by this quote from Epictetus:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control."
A later version of this idea you may have seen around is in the serenity prayer:
"God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
In either case, the goal is to separate out what you can change and what you can't, primarily so that you know where to actually focus your efforts. Going back through my journal allowed me to determine that fitness was a common theme in things that caused stress, and that hadn't really changed in a year. That realization was in part what led to me getting a personal trainer, and getting more serious about learning technique so I could build an exercise habit for a lifetime. Over time, journaling can provide a written record of these stressors that you can't replicate in any other way.
I wasn't journaling every day, and I noticed that in reviewing the times where I wasn't making entries for an extended stretch, were also the times that I felt the worst. I'd venture to say there's almost a direct correlation between how often I'm journaling and how good my daily average mood is. There's plenty of other insights you'll be able to learn after journaling for some time, but it also has immediate benefits that I'd like to focus in on.
"Journaling is like spiritual windshield wipers"
Have you ever been unclear on what you should do next? Have you ever tried to fall asleep and found your thoughts racing on all the things you should've done today or that you need to do tomorrow? It might feel like your future is in a fog of anxiety. One of the ways to provide clarity in the now is journaling.
Writing is essentially thought in written form, so if you get better at writing, you're essentially practicing thinking. If you're writing about your thoughts, emotions and experiences, then you'll naturally increase your understanding of yourself in those areas. The more clearly you can tell your own story to yourself, the more effectively you'll be able to direct it.
The benefits to mental of this clarity should be obvious; if anxiety is like a cloud that hangs over your every move, then journaling is like the windshield wipers that allow you to keep moving in the right direction.
Where do I start?
I've been keeping a moleskine ruled pocket journal with me for about a year and half now. I like the small size because it means that it's not a burden to keep with me at all times. Where I go, it goes for the most part, and that includes on walks! You never know when you'll have a valuable insight and wish you had somewhere to write it down. There's other methods like bullet journaling, and online journaling that people I respect might vouch for, and I would encourage you to do your own research to find whatever works best. For my money, it's hard to beat putting pen to paper to clear your mind.
What... do I write about?
There's a good chance that if you give yourself the opportunity to sit in front of a piece of paper or a screen with the intention of writing thoughts that they'll just pour out of you, but if they don't, something that's works was introduced to me by Tim Ferris called 5 minute journaling.
Five minute journaling is exactly as good as it sounds: 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening.
The goal with 5MJ is to help you decide what to focus on and how to execute, while sprinkling in some self-encouragement. The format is simple:
In the morning:
I am grateful for: 1.___ 2.___ 3.___
What would make today great? 1.___ 2.___ 3.___
Daily affirmations: 1.___ 2.___ 3.___
In the evening:
3 amazing things that happened: 1.___ 2.___ 3.___
How could I have made today better? 1.___ 2.___ 3.___
Do this for even a short period of time and it'll make you far more effective at whatever you set out to do.
If the 5MJ feels too structured for you, you should try another Tim Ferris approved journaling style called Morning Pages. Here are the steps:
Start by simply write out the 3-5 things that are causing you the most anxiety in this exact moment. The more specific, the better.
Then decide, if you could only make progress on one of these things today, which would you choose?
Next, set aside a 2-3 hour block of time in your day (bathroom breaks encouraged) to work on just that one thing. Taking breaks to check social media, watch Netflix, or any other distraction can't cut into this!
If you do get distracted, simply move yourself back to your one to-do.
I can't recommend journaling enough. One of my heroes is Benjamin Franklin, and he used to ask himself a morning question and an evening question that would allow him to guide and then reflect on his actions every day. They were:
I liked the morning question so much that I tattooed it on my arm as a gentle reminder to always ask myself what good I'm doing. Today, it was this post.