Why You Need to Daily Journal and How to Make it Easy
Approximate Read Time: 10 minutes
Each morning, when I sit down to work, I pull out two notebooks. They have very different, yet equally vital roles in my life. The first is a details notebook, for all the technical aspects of what I do. It contains movement flows, fitness classes, personal and group programs, notes from calls with clients, and notes and strategies for IHD. It is simply a notebook, for notes, to contain and make sense of all the practical aspects of my life. While seemingly more important for my day to work (and vital to make sense of things on page before giving them life), I don’t care much for this notebook. Sure, it’s useful, but it is simply a tool.
However, my process of note-taking and program-writing isn’t the aim of this discussion.
While there are aspects of my methods in this first notebook that I think are valuable (I will discuss them later), the highest order benefits come from the second notebook - my journal.
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter. And lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” —Jack London
Daily journaling is the most important habit in my life.
Daily journaling is the reason that I am writing to you today.
Daily journaling is why I feel I have anything valuable to share.
At IHD, we’ve outlined three daily core habits: movement, meditation and gratitude, and feeding the right wolf. If you have explored our free ebook or any of our thoughts on meditation and gratitude you will find mention of journaling. I journal frequently, if not daily, and value it as a vital piece of my personal development and my contribution to our work together with IHD.
I would not be who I am or able to share aspects of my personal recipe with you if not for my journal practice. It has helped me to discover myself, design and implement every major change in my life, and guide me to into the path that I currently walk. For me, it is the fourth IHD core habit and provides the foundational structure that allows me to find the most growth from the other three.
I believe that you need to journal. It doesn’t need to be complicated, lengthy, profound, or public, but you need to do it. I’ll first share my personal how and why and then give you the tools to develop your own easy and simple (under 10 minutes) journaling practice.
Slowing the Rushing River
The most immediate and easily found benefit of journaling for me is simply to release the thoughts that I no longer wish to hold onto. My mind is almost perpetually on overdrive. I have a constant swirling soup of ideas, thoughts, and memories and I tend to exacerbate this problem through voracious and near-constant consumption of podcasts and audiobooks.
At times I feel like my mind is bucket with constant heavy spigot flowing in. New information and perspectives are vital for growth, but effective only to the degree that we can process and catalog them. Journaling is turning off the flow, allowing the waters of my mind to calm, and opening a slow tap at the bottom to examine my thoughts at the pace of handwriting.
As things slow down and I summon from the swirl thoughts one-by-one, lining up like lottery balls from a hopper, I can finally make sense of what I’ve been carrying. Two things happen here. First, I can release the crap that isn’t serving me - irrational fears, emotional responses, people, ideas, and circumstance that upset me. The easiest way to release my grasp and fear over things outside of my control is to put them down on paper. It feels as though they are parasites that need a host. They thrive inside an over-crowded mind. Seen on paper, I’m reminded that they arose from somewhere outside of me and I can let them pass just as quickly. On paper, they wither and die as quick as the ink dries.
The second thing that happens as I examine thoughts one at a time is that I discover what I actually think.
Finding Out How I Actually Think and Feel
Writing provides a structure to piece thoughts together. A pile of bricks becomes a wall. A bunch of random railroad ties become a track. A jumble of thoughts group together to derive meaning. From chaos comes order. From that structure and order we can practical value. Walls serves a purpose. A railroad track can take us somewhere.
On the surface, it seems that we have a bunch of thoughts and when we write them, we are simply transcribing what we already know. From this understanding, journaling can seem superfluous and a waste of time. Why write things down that I already know? However, this notion is completely contrary to my personal experience.
I write to discover what I think. An odd thing happens as I sit down to journal. No matter how much I think I have considered an idea, mulling it over for days or weeks, I always discover new thoughts and connections as I explore the original idea on the page. I have been daily journaling for over 5 years (as my stack of old notebooks will attest) and still find amazement in the fact that I never know where I will end up at the end of a journaling session. I discover aspects of my own thoughts that would not reveal themselves any other way.
Through continually discovering, unpacking, and re-organizing my previously unseen thoughts something else emerges. If each journal session reveals how I actually think, long-term and regular journaling reveals who I actually am.
We are a collection of our thoughts, actions, and choices. Our values are the spring from which these all flow. Examining how we think, feel, and act can help you discover and define your core values. Being in touch with your core values allows you shift and shape them toward who you ultimately want to become.
I do not mean to create the illusion that you should approach daily journaling with the expectations of constant life-altering insights (though they do happen from time to time). The daily experience of sitting down to journal feels quite ordinary. As with all habits, journaling provides a one-degree course adjustment and only reveals a drastic shift in the long-term.
Writing is pulling pieces from your internal reality and bringing them into a physical (or digital) space. You can see them more clearly than when they existed entirely inside you. Journaling helps you break your attachment to your thoughts as part of your identify and allows you to more objectively discern their true meaning and their potential merit or folly.
It is much easier to see the error of your ways (or your reasoning) when its out in front of you. Once identified we can easily adjust our thinking or course of action accordingly.
In this way we not only discover, but create ourselves. A journal provides the platform to host the ultimate equation for growth:
Self-Reflection + Assessment + Plans to Change = Self-Creation (and repeat)
Daily journaling is not only “spiritual windshield wipers,” but, through constant iteration, give us the ability and direction to create ourselves.
Learning to Write
Perhaps the greatest benefit of journaling is simply the writing practice. When free from constraint and the fear that anyone will read you words, you can write and express however you like. This the purest way to practice writing.
And those who can write, can think.
Writing, with its structure and format, no matter how rigid or loosely applied, teaches you to organize, clarify, and rationalize your thoughts. Whether you aim to publish or not, writing should be part of your thinking process.
I wrote at the beginning that my personal journal practice is the reason that I am able to write this. This is true. It is also the reason that you are interested in what I have to say and the reason that you are engaged with this piece of work, to the extent that both of those are true.
Journaling began for me (as it should for you) as self-exploration. This will always be the primary goal but along the way I learned to develop an idea, craft the words to express it, practice doing this in a compelling way, all while uncovering valuable insights worth sharing.
Simply put, without my journal I would have very little to say to you and would lack the ability to do it well. My journal is the stage on which I both learned the craft and developed the content to share. IHD, at least my contribution to it, grew within the pages of my journal over the past few years. I know that the coming journal pages sow the seeds of my future growth.
For me, learning to write meant learning to think, learning to think meant learning to seek, seeking brought growth, and growth enabled sharing and contribution and service.
Making Journaling Easy
While I have just finished espousing the life-changing benefits of journaling, my relationship with the actual practice feels far more commonplace. The day-to-day experience of journaling feels like brushing my teeth or exercising. It makes me feel great, but seems profound only with accumulation and when viewed in hindsight.
Like a meditation practice, release any expectations for earth-shaking effects from a single practice (or from consistent practice, for that matter). I honestly do not remember my initial inspiration to begin, but I think it came from an article much like this one. I had already been religiously logging my workouts and food, but the thought of writing my feelings felt a bit silly.
The beginning was clunky and, like any good self-respecting “successful” person, I prioritized the quantity of how much I wrote. I found satisfaction through out the day knowing that “I wrote three and a half pages this morning.” This approach was, of course, complete nonsense.
You need not have a specific goal, or subject matter, or length, or time. It is best to start simple and minimal. Once you fall in love with the practice, the scope will inevitably expand. This is organic. Here are a few strategies that offer a great starting place:
1. Write What You Did Today - The first few times you do this, it can feel silly and insignificant. Most days don’t offer much excitement or growth, at least at first glance. When you finish your first session though, I bet that you will feel a sense of lightness from simply unloading the days events. Once released from the churn of mind, you can be more present in what you are doing and who you are with. As you continue though, you will find that your initial role of chronicler will naturally grow to include commentator and analyst. You cannot help but see the events of the day and thoughts and feelings that arose without looking deeper into them. While I still often have remarkably non-insightful journal sessions, most days take a turn toward the introspective and lead somewhere unexpected.
2. Write About Something On Your Mind Lately - Every life change I have ever made grew from a mild interest or discontent into a huge shift that I had to make. This growth took place within my journal. We can often stew indefinitely on an idea or project or change that we would like to see through, afraid to start or speak up do to lack of certainty. Write about it. Discover what you truly think and then discover what you think about that. Exploring new potential realities is one of the best uses for a journal.
3. Write About Something That You Are Grateful For - Make a list of three things that you are grateful for. Make a list of three things that you did well today and three things that you could have done better. Write about a person who’s influence made a positive impact on you.
4. Ask Yourself Tough Questions - What am I afraid of? When was the last time I let my fear rule me? When is the last time I chose comfort, ease, or avoidance, over doing the right thing?
5. Thoughts On - There are a host of things that you think about a lot. Open up a journal and simply pick a topic and write your thoughts on it. As almost always happens, you will discover things that you think that you didn’t realize you think. This can be fun and insightful. The “Thoughts On” journal comes from Derek Sivers, who offers an interesting list of all of his personal “Thoughts On” topics.
Even when we recognize the value in a new habit, it can be difficult to incorporate it into our routine. Here are a few tips to make it happen:
1. Do 10 minutes of less - Start small, if you fall in love you can let it grow later. No matter how much or what you write, do not feel the need to exceed 10 minutes.
2. Set a Time - This doesn’t have to be a set time of the day. It’s best to insert a new habit in between existing elements of your routine. I believe journaling is best done in the morning or evening. A morning session can set the tone for the day. It helps guide you toward a meaningful, productive, and calm day. An evening session is great to release the days events, both uplifting and stressful, to put closure on the day and allow you to feel more present.
3. Make Time - I cannot agree more with or phrase it more clearly than Tony Robbins: “If you don’t have 10 minutes, you don’t have a life.” You have a 10-minute block somewhere in your day. Find it and use it.
Your Personal Practice
Your journal practice is going to look entirely different from mine and that of everyone else. This is beautiful. I cannot attribute my personal growth, fulfillment, or current life place to another habit more that journaling. All the aspects of myself and my work for which I feel most proud grew out of my journaling practice.
If you want to find more guidance for journaling and the other IHD Core Habits, check out our free e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery. We discuss methods to understand yourself and your inner workings much clearer. A journal will be the perfect companion to reading and reviewing the guide. We have even included several bonus journal prompts at the end.
I share my personal relationship with journaling in hope’s that it might help you feel inspired to develop your own practice. I have been similarly inspired by others. Check out a few pieces on the topic by a few of my favorite thinkers (and journalers).
This Is The Most Important Thing You Can Do Each Morning by Ryan Holiday
Benefits of a daily diary and topic journals by Derek Sivers