A Year of Journaling - What I Learned from this Life Changing Habit
So for the last one year I’ve been journaling on a regular basis. I’ve tried my hand in writing journal digitally before, but I could never stick to it. This time I tried going old school and writing it all down in a physical notebook. In about one year, having written 209 entries and 266 pages across one and a half notebooks, I can say that this definitely has been a life-changing habit for me. Let’s try to summarize why.
What makes a good day
Sitting down with my journal day by day helped me identify some clear patterns about what makes a good day for me. I now have a clear understanding about the elements I need to add in my day to make me feel good when I go to bed. Conversely, of course, I also know what constitutes a day I don’t feel good about. For me, one thing that really makes a good day is balance. What balance is for me is a combination of work, family time and personal time. Also, days in which I may have been extremely busy, but in things I really enjoy, feel really satisfying by the end of the day. In contrast, days filled with aspects of work that I don’t enjoy and when I have not able to spend time with family or in my own regular habits feel really disappointing at the end. In general, writing down my achievements, shortcomings, successes or failures, strengths or weaknesses every day helps me to check in on myself at the end of each 24 hours, where the day went well or how it could’ve been improved.
Emotions and reactions
Happiness, anger, sadness, stress.... we all go through these states during each day. But how often do we take the time out to ask why and when we go through these emotions? Taking a short break completely by myself with my own thoughts and writing down about the events of the day and my emotions about them make me truly understand the reasons behind these emotions. If we write down our states of mind, our responses (positive or negative) to life’s events day by day, we have the chance to reflect on our own mental state. I found this particularly true when I look back at my entries at the end of a month for my monthly review. I get a clear picture about happenings in my life and their associated emotions. Over the year, I have discovered some clear correlations that I didn’t realize before starting journaling. It made me understand my true self. I now know some elements in my life that can lift my mood and make me feel happy. I have also identified aspects that can trigger my anger or make me stressed. Writing down about the events and the emotions they trigger allow me to be more intentional about the things I need to do more often to keep myself in good spirit. Also, knowing the triggers to my negative reactions has helped me notice these triggers more clearly before they arrive. So when I encounter these triggers now, I have the ability to notice that this is a trigger for anger/stress/annoyance etc. and now I’m able to put a pause between the emotion and the reaction. That means although the emotions come up naturally, I have more control over how I react to the events. In short, I have more control over my reactions.
The first step in getting over any weakness (whether that be physical, mental or spiritual; related to personal, work or family life) is to identify that there’s a weakness in the first place. Looking back at my mistakes, shortcomings and regrets has helped me a lot in pointing out areas of my life that I want to improve on.
Eyes on the target
I have been using some sort of habit tracking mechanism for quite a while now. Before journaling I used to depend on one of the myriad of apps that are available on my smartphone. Definitely it’s convenient to use apps like that. But for some reason, after tracking my habits for a while, which maybe be a few weeks or couple of months, I always used to become irregular in using the app. So ironically, maintaining the habit of habit tracking was proving to be difficult to maintain. That changed completely as I started tracking habits on my physical journal. I put up a very simple habit tracking table at the beginning of every month. Whenever I sit to down with my journal every night, the first page I open is that monthly tracking page and put my ticks. And since starting this I have been able to consistently track my habits without any breaks.
Apart from small daily habits, journaling has also helped me in achieving my more long term goals. At the beginning of each month, right next to the habit tracking table I mentioned earlier, I set aside 2-3 monthly focuses. These are some key areas on which I want to focus on to improve or develop throughout the month. Since I put it right on the habit tracking page, I get a glance at these short bullet points each time I open that page to track a habit. This regularly reinstates my monthly focuses and helps me immensely in achieving these goals. These monthly focuses come to use even much longer terms than a month. After several months, when I look back at the monthly goals of previous months, I rediscover a goal or a target that I may have become weaker at over time. Reviewing these goals then makes me remember again the importance of these targets and I sometimes sort of ‘recycle’ these monthly goals to strengthen the weakened skills or habits.
Engraving what I learned
I learn a lot of things from books, videos or podcasts etc., but quite often they get ‘lost’ somewhere in my memory. It is common knowledge about learning and education that lessons learned are more likely to be retained if it is reviewed, discussed or written about. My journal is a place where I write down interesting things that I’ve learned. This enables me to think deeply about the topics and identify how it can improve my own self. This sort of reviewing makes me further interested to explore the topics in the future and possibly become something I implement in my own life. One obvious example would be my adoption of Digital Minimalism. I’ve known about this practice from before but not too deeply. Watching some videos and writing down about them made me wanna explore the concept even deeper, and that led me to the book by Cal Newport. Soon I started reading the book and writing about what I thought about it from time to time. Eventually I adopted the practice myself and for the past two months I’ve been a digital minimalist. Same can be said about my learning about Stoicism. The more I listened or read about Stoic philosophy, the more I got to think about the Stoic principles during my journaling. That got me to writing another separate journal altogether. Writing down also solidified these concepts in my mind and enabled me to think about the Stoic teachings in different occasions of life. Thus, stoic mentality has become an integral part of my view of life. I believe this development owes a lot to my journaling habit (In fact, journaling is an integral part of stoic lifestyle).
Time feels longer
In the current fast paced lifestyle, a common complaint that gets thrown around is that time flies by so fast. Days bleed into months, and a year seems to pass by without time to notice its passing. Writing down day to day events, thoughts, gratitude, emotions, concerns etc. and reviewing the journal entries from time to time makes me realize that my days are full of noteworthy moments. Days don’t feel like blazing past anymore, and months seem to be full of eventful days, and the year full of 12 months each with a different tone.
Not getting carried away
Sometimes we face events in life that completely overwhelms us. A situation arrives that takes us for an emotional ride. A bad turn of events that makes us anxious and fills the mind with negative thoughts, which prevents us from thinking straight and considering all aspects calmly. Journaling can bring that much needed calm. Whenever I go through such a turbulent phase, whether due to issues with work, family or personal life, I sit down with my journal and write down whatever is going through my mind. This enables me to put into words my thoughts, concerns and also gives me the much needed time and calmness to step back and look at the bigger picture. It gives me the perspective look at the events from different angles and contemplate on the different possible outcomes. So instead of freaking out due to stress or anxiety and loosing sleep or being gloomy and making bad decisions, it gives me the power to deliberate the situation with patience. This by itself could be the single biggest benefit of journaling.
Learning from the past
There are so many lessons we can learn from events in our own past life. Pondering about life events and what can be learnt from it and having them written down helps solidify these lessons. Without such reviewing, noting down and revisiting, we can easily miss the chance of learning from the past. Journaling helps in maximizing these opportunities to learn. I have been greatly benefitted by such reviewing of past events. In one occasion, I had a seemingly negative set of developments unfolding at my job. Naturally I had a lot of negative thoughts about the developments and got serious concerns about having bad outcomes. I was writing down what was going on along with my thoughts about the situation. But a after a few weeks, the seemingly negative aspect turned out to be quite alright. Looking back at my own writings about my negative assumptions about the situation taught me that I shouldn’t always assume the outcome will be negative. Instead, I should also consider the possible positive outcomes and try to steer towards that path. So, the next time I faced a similar situation, I looked back at these realizations and that helped me keep a much more positive outlook.
Sharing our gratitude for the blessings all around us is something that’s been prescribed by mental therapists, spiritual guides and wellness experts alike, across so many different cultures and traditions. I find my daily journal is the best and most efficient way to express my gratitude towards my Lord Allah. Aside from my journal entries where I often express my gratitude for positive events that may have occurred in a day, at the end of each page I have a one line segment where I thank Allah for a blessing that I think about at that moment. Sometimes these items of gratitude may be an obvious one like receiving a gift or having great food, but often I get to think about benefits that we quite often take for granted. And this ability to seek out, ponder upon and express gratitude, like any other practice, develops with regular practice. Soon we can see so many favors and blessings all around us that we constantly take for granted.
Suffice to say that my journaling practice has helped me immensely over the past year in developing myself. In the beginning of the journaling practice, a year ago from now, I would have to find time and sometimes force myself to write to develop the habit. But now, sitting down with my journal on my bed or table and being by myself, with my own thoughts, and pouring my mind’s wonderings down through the ink onto the paper is something I actually look forward to at the end of the day.