“The kid were mean to me at my old school…but I lived.”
I fell in love with journaling at 7 years old.
In second grade, our teacher gave me and my classmates cheap, yellow 24-page composition notebooks with a logo of a Spartan warrior on it. We were instructed to write in it according to her daily prompts, but I (apparently) wrote it in without prompting too.
The quote above? I wrote that when I was 8. I was a dramatic kid.
Since then, all through junior high, high school, college, til today, I have been a diarist—albeit not a consistent one. My practice has rhythms to it—seasons of daily practice followed by weeks of silence. In recent years, I’ve not let a week go by without putting my reflection to paper.
Without an iota of exaggeration, I tell you this:
Journaling has saved my life. And it could save yours too.
The Physical & Mental Effects of Regular Journaling
According to James Pennebaker, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas, journaling has tangible health benefits—genuinely powerful, life-changing benefits.
For one, reflecting on stressful events through writing can help you come to terms with it—reducing the impact of stress on your body.
Have you ever journaled about a problem and came up with a solution as you were writing? Pennebaker believes that writing unblocks your thinking, cuts through anxiety and irrational fear, and allows you to apply creative problem-solving to your problem.
The act of reflection has also been associated with positive outcomes for addicts. People who express addictive behavior—functional or not—have been able to use journaling as a way of evaluating their triggers and expressing their struggle in a non-judgemental, non-destructive context. Journaling allowed not only for faster “bounce-back,” but helped diarists identify early signs of vulnerability and allowed them to create preventative strategies.
Your Diary Is Where You Workshop Your Future Self
Reflection is about more than “recalling” your day. Every time we access our memories and give them meaning, we’re recreating those events, framing them in new ways and giving them a new context in our present. Journaling allows us the freedom to rewrite and recreate our own stories.
Susan Sontag puts it this way:
“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.”
I journal on a near-daily basis because life is chaos —I have personal goals, professional goals, long-term goals and short-term goals, errands, tasks, paperwork, dreams, fears, and the million-and-one things I need to accomplish just to be a basically-functional person. On a given morning, I could allow myself to fall into the stream of busyness and never come up for air until the following week.
I have prodigious energy, but so does the Sun—and like Alexander Graham Bell once said, “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
In order for me to sail the stream of life (and not just drown in it), I need to harness myself and ensure my day is taking me a step forward in the direction I want to go. It’s a chance for me to center myself, direct my energies, and not end my day wondering if anything I did will actually matter to me in 10 years.
When I journal, I can answer that question before the day starts.
Journals Empower Us to Drag Fear Into the Light
Just as importantly, journaling allows me to get out of my own way.
By putting my irrational anxieties and fears into words, I subject them to the hot stage lights of rational thinking. I put them in the context of my lived existence (not just my fears)—and in that light, the diarist finds that everything he or she fears is manageable. Even puny.
After I’ve cut down my fears and burned away lingering anxieties, I decide what I want to do with my day. I crouch, like the sprinter, and face the direction I’m running.
Then I run.
Great Thinkers & Creators Who Journaled Regularly
Anne Frank once said of her diary habit, “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”
Franz Kafka finds that writing fortified his resilience.
“In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today…”
Other famous diarists who recorded their thoughts, feelings, and ideas regularly include:
- General George Patton
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Mark Twain
- Marie Curie
- Frida Kahlo
- John Steinbeck
The last thing I believe is powerful about journaling: it’s accessible to anyone with a pencil and paper (or a phone). I believe the physical act of writing is more conducive to reflection—there’s something about our phones that drags us into shallow waters—but frankly, it’s best to use what you have.
Tomorrow morning, take 15 minutes to ask yourself what you want to accomplish or do in the next 3 months. Decide what you’re going to do and how, and then ask yourself what you’re going to do today.
No matter your answer, I promise that you’ll go to sleep tomorrow with a satisfaction few people ever experience.