Is there a right way to journal?
For many years I subscribed to the popular notion that journaling is a highly individualized endeavor; there’s no wrong way to do it. Holding that view probably contributed to my initial frustration with journaling. It stands to reason that if there’s no wrong way to journal and I’m not experiencing success with it, that it’s not for me. So, why bother with it?
Nothing could be further from the truth. By taking a different approach, one inspired by reading Julia Cameron’s classic, The Artist’s Way, I discovered I could do it right. Or, at least, not wrong. Journaling has become such an enjoyable experience for me that it’s now a daily habit. In an earlier post, “Why I gave journaling another try,” I describe the three primary benefits I get from journaling. In this post, I outline the principles I’ve learned that have made my journaling experience more enjoyable.
- Get a cheap journal. My first mistake years ago was to invest in a nice fancy leather journal. Important words need to live in an important place, I reasoned, so why not invest in the very best journal to contain them? The problem with that logic is that it made me more careful about what I wrote. Every word was measured to make sure it was fitting for such a fine repository. Without knowing it, the very tool I was inscribing upon became the censor of what was to be written. Instead, buy an inexpensive journal, one that you can soil without getting upset about. Or even lose. An inexpensive journal, or a simple spiral notebook, is a constant reminder that the purpose of journaling is to gain insight, not to leave a legacy of pithy words.
- Write three pages. Every day, or for as many days a week as you can until it becomes a daily habit. Three pages sounds like a lot and there’s a reason for it. In my old journaling paradigm I would write until I felt like I got my idea on paper. Usually that was less than a page. Then I’d close my journal and leave it on the shelf until the next moment of inspiration urged me to write in it again. Those moments seldom came, at least when my journal was nearby. And so it languished. But, by writing every day and continuing to write until three pages are filled, something remarkable happened. I discovered my most valuable insights came after my initial rush to record my thoughts; after the time I would have otherwise closed my journal. Three pages is just enough to get beyond our immediate conscious thoughts to surface the ideas and perspectives that are tucked away inside us. If you’re not sure what to write about, read my post on ideas for jumpstarting your journal entry.
- Don’t stop writing. Make every effort to finish your three pages in one sitting. Write what you are thinking, from your stream of conscious, without stopping. Hesitation is a censor. While you may think you are thinking when you take that pause, you’re actually filtering what you write about. In doing so, you may lose some keen insight. If you finish a thought and don’t know what to write next, just write about that. For instance, when you write “I don’t know what to write about so I’ll keep writing until something comes to mind” it often brings the next string of thoughts to write about. Don’t worry about what you write about. You’re on a discovery, remember? You’re not writing a book. No one else will read it.
- Don’t edit. This is not the time to critique your writing, worry about your penmanship, or wonder if you’ve spelled a word correctly. Those things just slow down your journey and don’t add any value. For that reason alone, resist journaling on a computer. With its spelling and grammar checkers, it’s a tool designed for perfection, and journaling is not about perfection, but discovery.
- Find your best time. Create a routine by choosing the best time of day when your thinking is most fresh and when you stand the greatest likelihood of finishing three pages in one sitting. On those days when you can’t finish three pages in one sitting, take your journal with you and finish it later, even in bits and pieces. You’ll still gain more than if it just sat on your desk at home.
- Take note of your PAIs. Nearly every day as I’m journaling I get an urge to push away to get a drink, or go to the bathroom, or whatever. I’m just looking for an excuse to disengage. I call those little urges the Push Away Impulse, because I noticed them as I put my hands to my desk to push my chair away from it. I’m now tracking every time I have a PAI to force myself to focus on the task at hand. This has been one of the key benefits I’ve received from journaling. Resisting your PAI is like repeating Isaac’s words to God as he wrestled with Him, “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Gen 32:26).
- Keep another notepad nearby. I have yet to have a journaling session where I didn’t think of a whole pile of things I needed to do. Instead of being distracted by them, I keep a small notepad next to me to record those to-do’s as I go. That gets me back to my journaling as quickly as possible without carrying the extra baggage of reminding myself what needs to be done.
Is there a right way to journal? Who knows. Perhaps the question itself is fundamentally flawed because it makes a goal of journaling the right way. A better question might be, “Is the approach I’m taking generating the benefits I seek?” If you find yourself as I did, not seeing much benefit in it, try this approach. It might give you the jumpstart you need.
Leave a Comment: What are some journaling tips you’ve found helpful?