My first experience with journaling was in first grade.
Our teacher made us keep a journal each day as a way to practice our writing skills. Not that we understood it that way at the time–it was just another assignment that no one particularly wanted to do. I’ve no idea if that journal survived through all these years–I imagine it’s probably buried in some box at my parents’ house.
Regardless, that was my first introduction to journaling, and it was hardly an inspiring one. I didn’t pick up the habit again until a few months ago, when I realized that if I was going to study abroad, I ought to do something to document all my new experiences. And so I picked up a blank, orange journal, and I began filling it up.
With a few exceptions, I’ve written a daily entry for the past three months, and I can’t recommend the habit enough.
In today’s post, I’ll share the benefits of keeping a journal, how to overcome your reservations about keeping one, and how to make journaling into a habit.
Benefits of Journaling
“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.”
– Virginia Woolf
Why bother keeping a journal at all? Here are a few reasons:
- Journaling allows you to reflect. With social media and blogging platforms, we’ve no shortage of opportunities to share our feelings. But how often do we pause to reflect on them? A journal is a place where you can not only record your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but also attempt to make sense of them. It’s like free therapy.
- Journaling is a chance to practice writing. Ever wanted to start a blog? If you’re not ready to start posting your writing for all the world to see, journaling can be a stepping stone, a chance to practice writing regularly in a no-pressure environment.
- Journaling provides something to look back on later in life. Just think how cool it will be to look back on your journal five, ten, twenty-five, even fifty years from now. Sure, your life may not be interesting enough to be the subject of a film (although you never know!), but it will provide insight into how your mind changes over time.
- Journaling is a safe place to express your feelings. We all have that friend on Facebook who feels the need to vent about everything wrong with their life and the world. Instead of putting that stuff on the Internet, they could have just written it in their journal, providing the same catharsis without having to involve a bunch of acquaintances who would rather not know.
And these are just a few reasons off the top of my head. Don’t take my word for it. Keeping a journal will put you in the company of such historical/literary luminaries as:
- Anne Frank
- George Washington
- Sylvia Plath
- Henry David Thoreau
- Virginia Woolf
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Don’t let these writers intimidate you. Let them instead be an inspiration–none of them had any idea that people would care to read their private thoughts all these years later.
Reasons Excuses for Not Keeping a Journal
“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.”
– Susan Sontag
Maybe you want to start keeping a journal, but something’s holding you back.
Here are a few common reasons for not keeping a journal…and how to overcome them:
- My life isn’t interesting enough to journal about. You might be right, but if you think journaling is about writing an interesting story, you’re missing the point. Journaling isn’t for the rest of the world, it’s for you. If you want to write an exciting story, write a novel. And even if your life is so boring that it pains you to write about it, remember that narrating your day to day experiences is just one form of journaling. If you turn your gaze inward to your thoughts and feelings, you’ll find no shortage of material. If nothing else, journaling may be the thing that gets you out of a boring rut, into a place where you have “exciting” things to write about.
- What if someone reads my journal? This concern usually takes two forms: fear that people will read it while you’re alive, and fear that your descendants will read it after you’re gone. I’ll address each. For the first concern, to quote Gandolf, “Keep it secret, keep it safe.” Don’t journal in something with “Ransom’s Super Secret Journal: DO NOT READ” written on the cover. Keep it in a locked drawer. Or just ditch paper entirely and journal in a secure text file on your computer. As to the second concern, just don’t worry about it. I doubt that anything you write is so horrible or depraved that it would make posterity hate you. Even if it is, you’ll be dead–you won’t be around to worry about it. So don’t hold back.
- Journaling just feels…weird. Yeah, it can feel weird. It’s almost like talking to a counselor for the first time, or like a first date. It’s awkward at first. So I’d suggest easing yourself into the process. Don’t feel like writing about your deepest personal longings at first? Then don’t. Write about what you did today. Write a meta-entry about how journaling feels weird. Just start writing something, and I think you’ll find with time that it gets easier to open up.
- Journaling is dumb. Only angsty pre-teens keep journals. First, see the above list of great diarists/journalists. Second, try to have a beginner’s mind about this. Put aside all your preconceptions about what it means to keep a journal. Approach it as if for the first time.
If that convinced you, then let’s get into the mechanics of journaling.
Build the Journaling Habit
“I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my Journal. I regret the gaps. I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past, whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.”
If you’ve tried to keep a journal before and just forgotten or lost interest after a couple days, you may be taking the wrong approach.
If you want journaling to become a part of your daily routine, you need to make it a habit. Here’s how:
- Commit to journaling every day. Put it on your calendar. Put it on your to-do list. Write it on the back of your hand. Post about it on Facebook. Tell a friend. Find an accountability partner. Whatever you do, just make the commitment.
- Journal the same time every day. Personally, I journal right before I go to bed. It helps me clear my mind before going to sleep. But if you prefer to journal first thing in the morning or after lunch or at the stroke of midnight, go for it. Keeping a consistent time is what matters, and bonus points if you can tie it to a preexisting daily habit.
- Make journaling fun. There’s no “right” way to journal, so have fun with it. Get a beautiful journal with a quality writing implement. Get a crazy journal. Journal while you have your favorite food or beverage.
- Have no expectations. I don’t have a set length for my journal entries. They can be a few sentences or a few pages. All that matters is writing each day. Sometimes I write about my hopes and dreams. Other times I write about what I had for lunch. I commit to the process above all else.
Tips and Inspiration
“A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient…”
– Maria Popova
Here are some links both inspirational and practical:
- Morning Pages. A particular philosophy of journaling that involves writing three longhand pages each morning.
- Austin Kleon on Keeping a Logbook. A different perspective on journaling.
- Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary. Perspectives from literary luminaries on what diary/journal writing means to them.
- Digital vs. paper journals. Which is better? This article presents the pros and cons of each approach. Personally, I say that the best method is the one that works for you.
If you let it, journaling can be the first step to heightened levels of self-awareness, empathy, and self-reflection. It could even be the first step to blogging or longer forms of writing. Like so much that is good for you, it has to be experienced to be believed. Just give it a try.
If you need some support or advice, hop on over to the CIG Community and discuss it.
So what do you think? Still on the fence about journaling? Inspired to start one? Or maybe you’ve been keeping one since you could write. I’m curious to know. Share your perspectives on journaling in the comments below.