For more than twenty years I've been keeping a journal and it's a habit I couldn't live without. A daily journal is one of the most simple… yet powerful tools you have to live a happier, more productive life… and it's free.
Psychologists, as well as self-development gurus like Tony Robbins, Robin Sharma and Tim Ferris all recommend keeping a journal.
What Is Journaling?
Before we talk about what to write in your daily journal, we should quickly go over what journaling is and more importantly… why it's good for you.
In it's simplest form, journaling is the process of writing down your thoughts and emotions. It can flow freely and be fun, or it can plunge the depths of your deepest thoughts.
Journaling can also be structured, purposeful, and take on specific topics such as food, finance, or exercise.
There's no shortage of journaling ideas, from reflecting on your favorite quotes and expressing gratitude, to capturing life's moments and tracking your goals. Done daily, it can change your life…
Why Journaling Is Good For You
One of my favourite things to do is drive. I can indulge in this guilty pleasure for hours just so my mind can wander. The car is my place to think.
Some people go for walks, or ride a bike (something I should be doing) and others fish, or just sit on a park bench.
But whatever we're doing… we're all thinking… every second, of every minute, of every day. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.
But what really adds to the madness is that we're usually thinking the same thoughts over and over… and this is why daily journaling is so effective.
Can't Finish A Thought?
Humans have a surprisingly poor short-term memory. As sophisticated and “brainy” as the brain is, the region that stores our short-term memory is quite pathetic.
It’s measured in seconds.
Without taking your eyes off of this line, try to remember what the third sentence of this article is. I can't even remember, and I wrote it.
Our short term memory ranges between 15 and 30 seconds.
It’s no wonder we can’t finish a thought. We begin to think about something, but before we can follow it out to a reasonable conclusion, we get interrupted by emails, texts, kids, or someone cutting us off in traffic.
“What was I thinking about?”
And rarely do our thoughts pick up where we left off…
It could have been a good thought; excitement over a new car…
It could have been an argument that’s lingering in your mind, playing itself out over and over…
And then there are those persistent thoughts that seem to go on forever. Frustration with your job, or some other situation that’s been bothering you for months, or even years.
Within seconds of that thought… a new one is formed and squeezes out the old (but don't worry… it'll return).
Your new thought may be an extension of the one before, but somewhere along the way you'll be interrupted again by something unrelated… and your original thought is left unresolved.
The Donkey Kong Brain
It happens to all of us…
Eventually we come back to whatever it was we were thinking, and again… before it’s resolved, it gets bumped aside by another thought or distraction.
Our short-term memory is like 80's video games. There was no “SAVE” in Donkey Kong. You died, you started over.
The same thing happens in our heads. A thought process begins, it gets interrupted, and progress is lost.
We go weeks… even years, re-starting and re-living the same thoughts. We dwell…
The Real Benefit of Keeping a Daily Journal
How do we break this endless loop of restarts?
Distract yourself with TV, video games, social media, a good book…
You can break a sweat, play an instrument, paint a picture… or whatever it is you do to get into the “zone”.
Eventually though, your persistent thoughts return.
With daily journaling you can tackle them head on. Write them down, get them out of your head and onto paper (or screen).
Give them order, perspective, and the attention they deserve.
There are many benefits to keeping a journal, but in my opinion, none are more important than the ability to grab hold of a thought, deal with it… and then finally let it go. Or at least come up with a written plan to resolve it.
A computer accumulates bits and bytes… it stumbles, crashes, slows down and gets confused.
Our thoughts are the same… they become cluttered. We lose perspective, important details get forgotten and re-written with biases…
Journaling is your daily save and reboot.
The Reason I Started Journaling
I wasn't aware of any of this when I started journaling… it became a journey of self-discovery.
In the mid to late 90’s I was somewhat obsessed with the new generation of big screen directors. I’m still a huge fan.
It was an era of low budget blockbusters that gave us Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Darren Aronofsky (just to name a few).
One of my favorite directors who came from that era is Robert Rodriguez, creative genius behind hits like From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City and family favorites like the Spy Kids saga and Shorts.
In the early 90’s however, Robert Rodriguez was known for an extremely low budget movie called El Mariachi, and he wrote a book about the making of it called Rebel Without A Crew.
The book was basically his journal of the experience, and as an aspiring filmmaker myself (back when we used actual “film”), I decided I'd be just like Robert Rodriguez… (“just like” didn't work out obviously) 🙂
What I did do though, is adopt his habit of keeping a daily journal, stumbling onto something that would change my life.
That's not to say it's been all roses… but keeping a daily journal has given me perspective and a self-awareness I wouldn't have otherwise. I've been able to work through my heartaches and failures, move past them… or at the very least, recognize they're a problem.
As years of these daily journal entries stacked up, I began to notice recurring themes running through my head, the repetitive “life issues” and problems that were always the same.
Little things change from day to day, but under the surface we find parts of our character that stick with us wherever we go.
In my case… it didn't matter that I had moved, changed jobs, or surrounded myself with different people, the same thoughts and issues that troubled me always crept back into my writing.
Journaling helped me to see them as something internal and take responsibility, rather than looking for situations or people I could blame.
How Does Journaling Help?
We all know someone who complains daily about the same problems, month after month… year after year. Even when times are good… they wish life could be this way, or that way.
Maybe you're also frustrated by the same recurring struggles.
It might be a job you dislike but for some reason refuse to leave. It might be the money you always seem to owe, or the weight you intend on losing (or gaining).
It could be a destructive relationship, or one you wish you could pursue… but never do.
Or all of the above.
But a funny thing happens when you start keeping a daily journal. Over months and years you find yourself coming back to the same issues… again and again.
Instead of haunting you for years, festering under the surface where you might not even notice… a new awareness arises. Having your thoughts written down and in front of you allows you to see them as others do. Maybe not right away, but eventually you'll notice the patterns that are obvious to everyone else.
It's as if you become someone else; an outsider looking in… and you get sick and tired of hearing yourself repeat the same problems over and over and over.
At some point, you have no choice but to do something about it. Whether it's a life changing event, a conversation with someone, or a simple choice not to think about it anymore… at some point, you'll get tired of writing it down and do something.
And as you bring it to a conscious level of thought you'll find your brain starts looking for (and recognizing) solutions.
I'm not sure where I heard this, but… “if you don't force yourself to change, change will be forced upon you.”
Journaling allows you observe and analyze those areas of your life that need changing so you can do it on your own terms, rather than life doing it to you (which is often unpleasant).
A Purpose Driven Journal – Write Down Your Goals
Of course, journaling is more than writing down your problems. It's a tool to solve them.
I'm sure you've read that people who write down their goals achieve them far more often than those who don't.
Similar to your struggles… your goals, when consistently written down, become hard to ignore. At some point you'll get tired of writing them down without taking action.
How many times will you write about a goal you haven't yet achieved, especially if you haven't even started?
Just like the perpetual complainer… You probably know someone who's been talking about their goals for years, never even taking the first step. They probably don't even know they're doing it… or at least how long they've been doing it.
You don't necessarily need to list your goals everyday. Having a list and keeping it in front of you is important, but if you're going to write daily, allow yourself to explore.
What Do You Write In A Journal?
The simplest (and best) answer in my opinion… is to write whatever you want. But it's not the only way.
You can use specific journaling prompts to get started; questions such as,
- What did I dream of being as kid?
- Name five things I'm thankful for?
- If money was no object, what would I do with my life?
- What limiting beliefs are holding me back?
- Who in my life consistently creates negativity?
There are thousands of journaling prompts you can use, but the truth is… to get better answers, you need to ask better questions.
What issues are troubling you now?
It might take some digging to figure out what's really bothering you, and to get there you need to write without constraint. You might find what you thought was bothering you isn't really what's bothering you at all, and that's when you're able to ask the right questions (which become your journaling prompts).
Most importantly… be honest with yourself. It sounds so simple, but it's amazing how often we lie to ourselves, justify our decisions, or surrender to our biases.
Don't worry about the number of words. It can be a single paragraph or several pages… what matters are your thoughts between the words. That's where you'll find what you're looking for.
Have Fun With It
Daily journaling doesn't always have to be a deep dive. You can (and should) have a little fun with it too…
You can write about things like…
- Blog, book, or podcast takeaways. Did you learn something new or get inspired to look at something in a different way?
- The funny things your kids say?
- Write a short story with yourself as the main character.
- The things you wish you could say to your boss.
- Your favorite milestones or life changing moments.
- A bucket list.
- If you don't already have a blog, write a blog post as if you did… (many of my posts, including this one, were inspired by something I wrote in my journal).
- Write about a fantasy you have…
- A letter to someone. Say something you've been struggling to say. You don't have to send it… but putting what you want to say on paper can either help you to release it and let it go… or inspire you to take action.
- Just be creative…
One thing you should try to include everyday though, is…
A New Outlook…
Putting your thoughts on paper (or on the screen) for safe keeping gets rid of the clutter.
With an ongoing record of what's going on inside your head, you can let those thoughts go. They've been recorded and you know where to find them. If you choose, you can now move on to new ones.
Daily journaling empowers us to work through our problems in an organized and methodical way, instead of just dwelling on them for days, weeks, or years…
If you struggle to find the time, check out The 5-minute Journal. Save your long entries for the weekends and during the week focus on specifics like gratitude, goals, and journal prompts such as, “how could you have made the day better?”
Life can be challenging and we need every advantage we can get. A daily journal is just one more tool that'll help you achieve the life you want.
If you do keep a journal, what are some of the benefits you've experienced? If you don't, what are the challenges holding you back?
Comment below and share your thoughts.