Updated: Apr 7
I really like the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. Usually I don’t have the time to listen in but during the latest Lockdown I’ve been catching up on some past episodes. A few days ago I listened to one where Guy Garvey, lead singer of the band Elbow, was the guest. If you’re not familiar with the show the format is as follows: the guest talks about their life whilst choosing eight pieces of music to take on to a deserted island. This allows listeners to gain an insight into the lives of all sorts of interesting people. What I learned from Guy Garvey is that he, like me, has been keeping journals for years.
Guy uses his journals to write down ideas for song lyrics, capture thoughts and do some reflecting. Allison Quatrini, an assistant professor at Eckerd College has also been keeping a journal for years. “I’m able to organize thoughts and feelings on paper so they no longer take up room in my head…If I get them out on the page and clear the mental decks, it sets up the rest of the day to not only be more productive but be more relaxed.”
Benefits of Journaling
Journaling is good for generating and refining ideas, organising thoughts and clearing your mind. There are other advantages too.
Writing a journal can help you to prepare for the day ahead. If you get into the habit of journaling in the morning, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius did, you can set yourself some personal challenges. Say a person wants to work on their anger – they feel they get too angry, too often and they want to reduce this. They can anticipate situations that might arrive during the day and write down how they will deal with them without anger appearing. The same process can apply to any other emotion you’re trying to learn to control such as anxiety or fear. Repetition of such exercises can have a positive effect on your behaviour.
Writing a journal can help you to be your best-self more often. One really nice exercise that I’ve picked up is called, What would my Hero do? Write down something that is bothering you such falling out with a family member or colleague. Then write it out like so:
How I’m responding
How my hero would respond
We all have different heroes and sheroes – men and women who we admire and look up to. We admire them for a reason: they show characteristics that we desire for ourselves. So try out this exercise for ten to fifteen minutes. Write down a problem that you’re currently facing, how you’re currently dealing with it and then write down how you think someone you admire would deal with the same problem. It’s even better if you actually know the person because you could talk to them in advance of your journaling. Thinking through someone else can allow you to reconsider your current response to it. Later in the day, or the following day, you can reflect whether your behaviour has been closer to how your hero or person you respect would have behaved.
Writing down your thoughts can help you to acknowledge your worries. Once we’ve done this you can ask yourself: ‘What is the belief behind this?’ When you drill into your beliefs you can start to question whether they are coming from a place of rationality or not. Many of us hold irrational beliefs. Here are a few examples:
· I need everyone to like me.
· I can’t allow myself to make mistakes.
· Things must be the way I want them to be.
It’s useful to realise when you’re acting on irrational beliefs. In such situations you can write something like: “I will stop worrying about things I can’t control.” Lots of people spend too much time worrying. Journaling can help to reduce it.
Journaling can also help you to clarify your values. For example, Stoic philosophers believe that we should all try to live by our highest values. One way of becoming clearer is to write about the traits that you admire in others. This might include friends and family members as well as your heroes and sheroes. Such an exercise will provide you with useful insights into our own values.
Another way to clarify your values is to list as many as you can then reduce them down to just two values. This suggestion comes from the leadership expert Professor Brené Brown. The reason: two values are actionable and the focus on a smaller number of core values can better drive our behaviour.
Finally, by keeping a journal you’re learning to talk to yourself in the right way. How you talk to yourself deeply affects the direction of your life. Sometimes you may need to give yourself “a good kick up the backside”. This is especially true when you find yourself repeating patterns of behaviour that don’t really work for you. Some tough, self-questioning will hopefully create better outcomes. On other occasions, you’ll need to be gentler with yourself and recognise that making mistakes is part of learning. “Tomorrow is another day.”
So we’ve explored why we might regularly write in a journal. Now how should we do it. I’d like to offer you ten tips for making journaling a part of your daily life. So here goes:
1. Get a Journal!
Sounds a bit obvious but you have to have something to write in. A simple exercise book will suffice but I think you’ll take journaling more seriously if you invest in a decent notebook. Try being eco-friendly by ensuring the book contains recycled paper. Some people prefer to type their thoughts into a computer which can be just as good but I prefer good old pen and paper.
2. Set aside some time to write each day
Some struggle to find the time to keep a journal despite only needing to find about 10 minutes a day to write. Here’s a great way of scheduling your time that I learned from Tim Urban the creator of a website called waitbutwhy.com. He does a great Ted Talk on the topic of procrastination which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU
Most of us sleep about eight hours a night. That leaves 16 hours we’re awake each day or about 1,000 minutes which we can break down into one hundred 10-minute blocks such as in the diagram below.
This is a really cool way to think about time. All you have to find is one block of time a day for your journaling. Looking at time in this way may help you to realise that you’ve got more time than you think and this can enable you to be more productive. Try it and to see if you manage your time better. You can click on the grid within Tim Urban’s website and print one out if you have access to a printer.https://waitbutwhy.com/2016/10/100-blocks-day.html
The key to good time management is scheduling your time in advance. Schedule when you think your best time for writing will be, set a reminder your phone and keep to it. See it as a promise to yourself to write each day.
3. Find the right place(s) to write
It’s nice to get to the point in your journaling habit that you look forward to sitting down and writing. If you’re going to write at home, a good idea might be to create a space that is your writing place. This does not have to be a desk but if it is try to make it a tidy area so that when you look up from your journal you’re not distracted by mess. Oh, and don’t get distracted by your mobile phone either. Leave it in another room and turn it off for the duration of your journaling.
4. Get in the Zone
'Get in the Zone' means get focussed, get prepared. It’s a phrase often associated with sport but it also applies to journaling. Start your journaling with some sort of ritual that gets you ready to write down your thoughts. See it as a warm up if you like. This could be as simple as having a nice cup of tea to hand, doing some deep breathing or stretching, playing a piece of music, lighting a candle – whatever works to get you ready.
5. Don’t hold back and don’t show off
Your journal is private. Write things down that only you will see. So don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Don’t worry about impressing someone either. Journaling is for you and you alone. Write as if no one else will read your words. By doing this you’ll avoid you “putting on a show” or being dishonest with yourself. Protect your privacy by keeping the journal somewhere safe.
6. Date every entry
Writing the date next to each entry is also useful. If you’re writing as a form of therapy it’s sometimes useful to go back over past journal entries, especially when you’re in a better emotional place. Dates will make it easier to navigate back through your thoughts.
7. Let your writing flow
As soon as you have written that day’s date, start writing. You can write to a prompt (there are some at the bottom of this article) or start with the present moment (“What’s happening now?”) or start with a feeling (“Right now I’m feeling frustrated”). Try to keep your writing going and don’t try to edit or rewrite it. Let it flow.
8. Keep going when you get stuck
Some days you’ll find words come easy to you, on other days it can feel like pulling teeth. If you get stuck don’t stop. Try to stay with it. Don’t worry if you write next to nothing or just do a bit of doodling. Sometimes a prompt or a question might stump you. But it’s better to stay stumped for ten minutes and maybe just write some questions back to yourself. Even just write, ????????. You can always revisit that question later.
9. Write to Prompts
A prompt is another word for a question. In the world of Journaling they are questions we ask ourselves that help us to reflect and unload the thoughts that might be running around our minds. So here are some useful prompts that you can use when writing in your journal.
Living your values
· What did I do today that I was proud of and happy with?
· What could I have done better?
· How could I be a better version of myself tomorrow?
· Who has helped me to get where I am today?
· If something ‘bad’ has happened, what do I still have?
· What simple pleasures do I sometimes take for granted?
Examining your beliefs
· What irrational beliefs do I hold?
· Why do I think you hold that belief?
· In what ways does this belief cause me harm or hold me back?
· Who do I know who doesn’t hold that belief?
· Which of beliefs do I no longer hold?
· What made you change your mind?
· How has eliminating that irrational belief helped you?
Thinking about what you can control (and what you can’t)
· Are things making me anxious or am I making yourself anxious? If so, how? (the same question can apply to other emotions that mat be troubling you such as anger).
· What things in my life have I learned to control?
· Where have I shown self-control before in my life?
· What things in life can’t I control?
· What reminders can I give myself to help me stop worrying about things I can’t control?
· How would my role model or (an imaginary) friend deal with this problem?
· What problems have I faced in the past have turned out to be less serious than I thought?
· Might this current problem not seem as bad in a few days, weeks, years?
10. Get creative
I haven’t really focussed on expressive writing in this article. However, many a great poem, story or song has been inspired by someone working through a problem. Unrequited love, break-ups, loss and other emotionally disturbing events have been turned into art through the process of creativity. So please do use journaling time to express your thoughts and feelings into anything that might help you, and others if they ever get to see or hear what you’ve written, to come to terms with what you’re struggling with.
In my early forays into art therapy, I’ve learned that being creative can help you to process your emotions. For example, many musicians need to create music to feel happy; many artists need to draw or paint to feel alive. In her book, Roots – the eco-journal, Bernadette McBride* talks of the importance of the process of journaling. Hers is a guided journal where the reader is asked to, “expressively write in order to process your feelings.” So, feel free to do your journaling in any way that you want to.
*A quick plug. I recently recorded a podcast with Bernadette as part of the Communitea Talks series we run, listen to it here:
Hopefully, you’ve taken something from this article. There's some reading suggestions below if you want to learn more about journaling. I know that writing in a journal can help you to be clearer on what parts of your day are within your control and what parts are not. I know because the process of journaling has helped me. It can help you to realise what you’ve got, rather than what you haven’t got and enable you to slow down and get a truer perspective on things. Journaling can help you to make tomorrow a better day, a day where you show the world a better version of you.
This article was written by Andy Griffith, Director of Malit in the Community.
Roots, the eco-journal by Bernadette McBride
The Wisdom of Groundhog Day by Paul Hannam
Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius