I began journaling almost three years ago. I tried every method I could find.
The idea journal
The gratitude journal
The bullet journal
This journal and that journal
None of them stuck with me. Piles of notebooks filled with only a dozen or so pages collected dust on my bookshelf. It seemed pointless, but I stuck with it.
Experimentation and simplification turned out to be the key to success. I started small, recording my daily experiences. I tried dozens of experiments. Most fizzled out. A few made the cut and became part of my core journaling practice.
After a year of refinement, I created the Experience Journal. I wrote about it a year ago. It had become my chief source of writing ideas. Since then, I’ve tweaked, tightened and perfected the process. It has now grown beyond an idea generation tool.
I’ve always struggled with low-grade, but consistent anxiety. I’ve found that this bedtime process has helped calm me. It has an almost meditative effect.
Why Consistent Journaling Is So Hard
Everyone I meet talks about the virtue of keeping a journal. Only a handful of people do it. I understand the struggle to keep it up. It requires time and attention, your most precious resources. Plus, some of the journal techniques championed by guru’s are difficult and a bit cheesy. Yeah, I tried the gratitude journal. It felt forced and phony. I couldn’t sustain it.
The experience journal is childlike simple but effective. I use a cheap spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen.
The contents of my journal feed my daily writing habit. It has allowed me to write over a thousand blog posts and a 129,000-word novel. The notes from my journal fueled all of that output.
I never worry about writer’s block because my journal provides me with an endless reservoir of source material. I let go of my deepest anxieties before I hop into bed. The practice of recording my worries has curbed my insomnia. I’ve discovered answers to life, work and creative questions. If you don’t journal every night before bed, start today.
It requires ten to fifteen minutes of my time before bed. You do not need an MBA or a $1,000 course to learn it. Everything you need is explained here.
Here is how it works.
You don’t need a leather bound book with your family emblem monogrammed on the front. I use a cheap spiral bound notebook. You can buy them at Target for $1.99 each. A 100-page spiral notebook will last you two to three months.
What Goes In Your Journal
Where do you get the information to fill up your journal? You write about the experiences, observations and thoughts from your day. This exercise will help you build a critical skill — Observation. I don’t mean passive observation like sitting on a park bench, mindlessly watching people. I mean active observation. Keep a pen and notepad handy all day, or at least your phone. I typically take notes in my iPhone. I open up a blank email and type in any interesting observations, experiences or thoughts. I’ll then email the list to myself at night. It’s embarrassingly low tech. I know. Sorry, there’s no app. Feel free to adapt this system to your needs. Just find somewhere to record your information.
Observation does not just pertain to what you see. It also relates to your experiences, your thoughts, doubts, and struggles. If you’re fretting over a meeting scheduled for later in the day, jot it down. If you make a decision, write it down. Read over your notes as though you were a disinterested witness. The information you glean from this process will serve as fodder for your journal.
The most meaningful life experiences are realized only upon written reflection
Begin your journaling each night before you go to bed. In your journal, you will fill up an entire page of experiences, thoughts or struggles from your day.
Begin your journal exercise by writing down whatever pops into your head. Don’t worry if your mind goes blank. I’ll give you a trick to overcome that issue.
Next, transfer the notes from your daily activities to your journal, unless you’ve already recorded them.
Once you exhaust your notes, think back to the start of your day. Run through all of those experiences in your mind.
You might have overheard an interesting conversation at a coffee shop. You might have encountered a nasty salesperson while you shopped. Maybe you ran into an old friend while out for lunch. Write it all down. Avoid filtering.
I suggest you leave open at least three lines on your page for the first three questions below. If you have any additional space on the page, proceed to the rest of the questions.
- What decision did you make today?
- What thoughts did you obsess over throughout the day?
- What worries monopolized your thoughts?
- What idea challenged you?
- What question do you need answered?
- What did you reminisce about?
- What angered you today?
Again, no filtering. Whatever the thought is, write it down. Do not judge the quality. The act of writing down your thoughts, especially the ones that cause you worry, helps relieve the anxiety. For some reason, when you see it on paper, it doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
What happens when you sit down to write, and your mind goes blank?
I will give you a process that helps with recall. Before I get to that, keep one thing in mind. Your recall will improve with practice. You’ll become more attuned to your experiences, observations and thoughts.
Start chronologically. Begin from the minute you wake up. This morning, I emailed myself a list of things I needed from Target. I wrote that down in my journal.
Pick out the mundane events from your day. Let’s suppose you commute to work each day. Did you witness a disabled car on the side of the road? Was there a broken traffic light? Did someone cut you off? Start broad and then dial into the specifics.
Run through this mundane event in chronological order. Let’s suppose you’re thinking about your dinner. You got a plate. Then you took your food from the stove. Oops. You dropped some vegetables on the floor. You kicked it under the cabinet so your spouse wouldn’t see it and chastise you. See how it works?
As you do this, you get better at noticing and recalling these experiences.
My Journal — Fuel For Writing
Each morning, I put a check mark next to three to five journal entries. Then, I forget about it for an hour. I let it stew in my subconscious. Later, I sit down to write. I pick one entry that seems most interesting that I can tie in with a lesson or learning opportunity. Then I write about it.
I always begin with a personal experience story and then segue into the meaning or lesson.
The experience drives the subject. These examples demonstrate the simplicity.
A few days ago, we suffered through our first snowstorm. My Facebook feed overflowed with complaints about the lack of snow plows. I later learned that a neighbor died from the storm. All the petty complaints ceased. This reminder on the fragility of life became the basis for a story.
I took my kids to a new local bookstore and bought them an unsweetened hot chocolate. The barista asked me if I wanted sugar. I declined. It was a poor decision. My kids hated it, and I ended up taking them to Duncan Donuts out of guilt. I wrote a story on decision making.
The latest election cycle brought back memories of my childhood. It got me thinking that we used to elect leaders, and now we elect cult leaders. That thought inspired a story on leadership.
Take It To The Next Level
Pick a handful of entries in your journal — no more than three. Put a circle next to each one. Ask yourself what it teaches you about yourself, people or life. You won’t find answers all the time. Every so often, you will find one of those aha moments that lead to growth.
Sometimes I’ll come up with a story idea. For those, I’ll put a little triangle next to them. Each month, I review the story ideas and put them in a separate document.
Many of the scene ideas for my novel come from nowhere. It could be while I shower, do the dishes or exercise. I record all of these in my journal and put a star next to the idea. The next day, I’ll write out the scene.
A life worth living is a life worth recording — Jim Rohn