I write a journal — I admit it

Closeup of hand with pen writing in a journal

Mention that you write a journal and you may get an odd, slightly confused smile along with a “That’s nice.” You know they have a vision of a pre-teen girl with a pink book with a little lock on it.

Okay, the pre-teen thing would be right. I started writing a journal around that age. To be sure, most entries were rather mundane. Something like: “Drove my moped to school today. Watched The Persuaders on TV” Very insightful stuff. Deep thought!

Later I journaled while traveling and the entries became longer, with lots more detail. Plenty of facts. But also thoughts and feelings creeping in.

The entries reflected my sorting out what life is all about (yeah, around 20 you still think you can actually sort that out or alternately have it all sorted out).

Honestly, I don’t know what prompted me to start journaling. But it became a habit for many years.

Then there was a period when I didn’t journal. Life somehow got busy and it was hard to find the time at the end of the day to reflect and write something. It wasn’t that I made a decision to stop journaling. I just missed a lot of days and fell out of the habit.

A few times in years following, I’d start journaling again and keep it up for a while, but then something would happen, I’d miss several days or a week and stop.

Then came a season when our family was going through major life and health changes. A very difficult time. But so many things happening — amazing things, needs-met-out-of-the-blue kind of things — all by the grace of God. I realized that if I didn’t start writing them down, we would totally forget them. So it was really a need to track blessings and express gratitude that made me start writing a journal again. That was several years ago now. And I’m still journaling.

Hand with pen writing in a paper journal

What is journaling?

In its simplest form, it’s writing down anything you want on a regular basis (often daily) in one place. Some people will add sketches or photos. If you’re Sheldon, it probably includes complicated equations.

All that’s truly needed is a pen and some paper. I’ve used notebooks, blank books designed for writing in, loose sheets of paper (just not around a fan), and currently I use an app on my computer.

The method doesn’t matter. The how and where doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it. It’s about writing, regularly, about your day, your life. And gaining insight in the process.

We journal for different reasons at different times in life.

When I started writing a diary as a pre-teen, I didn’t think about any benefits. Didn’t have any particular purpose. Not even to track if the redheaded girl at school really truly loved me (she didn’t — life is cruel some days, Charlie Brown). I can’t even remember what prompted me to start a diary. Guess it just sounded like a good idea at the time.

Looking back though, I’m really glad I did journal for many years (and a bit sad that a somewhat older version of me then later stopped, leading to “the missing years”).

When I’m on a trip, the focus changes: I want to record lots of details because there’s so much happening. At home, it may get more reflective.

More recently I’ve journaled to keep a record of my days and thoughts, dreams and plans. And of good things happening (gratitude).

Benefits of journaling

It’s a review of the day. Writing that entry forces me to think about the day (and sometimes admit that I didn’t get the things I really wanted/needed done). It also celebrates the accomplishments/high points.

When I go back and review entries for a week or month past, it allows me to spot trends. Maybe the same words keep coming up. Or I keep doing the same things every day or at least very frequently.

Along with that review comes the ability to course correct. Looking back over journal entries, I may see that things are not going in the direction I’d like them to go and so I can change things up. Make a different choice for the next week or month. Good habits are built when we recognize the value of doing something regularly and then proceed to consciously do that something until it feels a normal part of the day.

Journaling is also about the bigger picture. We live our days moment to moment, or maybe in anticipation of the next great event. We’re less good at keeping a perspective over a whole year or several years. On December 31, I like to take some time and do a summary of the year that’s ending, as well as think forward to what next year may be like. At that time I’ll go back and read that summary/look ahead from a year ago. Quite interesting to see how much changed in a year.

Journaling brings health benefits:

  • Clarifies thoughts as I write them out
  • Helps solve problems more effectively
  • Reduces stress because I review the day and write about it, getting a load off my chest
  • Can help manage anxiety — putting things in writing makes them more manageable and less worrisome

Science tells us that we remember things better when we write them down. Even if we never go back to review those notes. So in that sense, journaling helps anchor the events of the day in our minds. We’re processing, evaluating, sorting out what happened and how we felt. That’s an immediate benefit.

The longer term memory strengthening benefit is that I can go back and review the journal entries and through that relive the memories, thereby reinforcing the impressions in my brain.

I’ve recently gone back and re-read journal entries from when I made my train journey across the eastern half of the US, so I could write the blog series about that trip. Reading those journal entries, and watching the photos I took, brought the trip back to life again (like I was there once more). I reconnected with emotions of the trip. And I’m glad for detailed journal entries, because there were things that had slipped my mind by now.

Writing IS therapy. The cheapest therapy we’ll ever get. And always on call. Can’t beat that.

It can get as personal as I want it and let it. That could mean a rundown of the day’s events, maybe with a few comments sprinkled in. For somebody else journaling is cleansing, freeing — a way to express and explore feelings and emotions that would otherwise not be vented.

Those journals sitting on my shelf are a reminder of who I am and who I was. I can go through them and see how I’ve changed and grown over the years. And we need to be reminded of that at times.

Woman typing on a computer while sitting on a bed

Getting started journaling

  • Describe your day. Yes, it’s facts, but they provide a framework.
  • What was the high point of the day? How did that make you feel?
  • What was the low point of the day? How did that make you feel?
  • What are you grateful for today?
  • If you had this day to do over again, what would you do differently?
  • Remember, your entry for the day can be as long or short as you want.

What journaling is not

  • Journaling is not about perfection.
  • There are no rules about what or how long to write. (I’m writing just for myself.)
  • It’s often daily, but doesn’t have to be. Miss a day? A week? A month? Just pick up and start again.
  • It’s not going to be graded.
  • It’s not about impressing somebody else.

For me, journaling has become like a trusted old friend I can share anything with. Looking back, I’m very grateful that (for whatever reason) I started journaling way back as a pre-teen and kept it up for many years.

And I’m glad to be journaling now. True, there are days that are unremarkable, but there are also so many events, experiences and people that come along that I wouldn’t want to lose track of.

If you journaled at some point or are journaling now: What is/was the biggest benefit for you from doing it?
If not: What do you think you might discover if you started journaling?

Write a journal for the next 30 days. If you miss a day, no sweat, just pick up and go on. At the end, review the experience and tell me (email or comment) what your big insight was from the experiment.