Journaling is, without a doubt, the most important thing I do for myself. It is the act of taking the internal mess of thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and structuring and codifying them. It makes the intangible, tangible. Understandable.
I wrote an article a few years ago documenting my foray into journaling. At the time I'd been doing it for just over 3 years. Today I'd like to revisit those thoughts and observations and add a few more, as well as lay out a structure for journaling that works very well for me (and could potentially work for you).
I'm not going to rehash the points that I made in the past article. They are still entirely valid and I recommend reading it before continuing.
Over the last few years, my approach to journaling has shifted from something I do for my mental health, to something that I just do. I find it helps me structure my thoughts, reflect on my experiences and emotions, and articulate myself better. It is also a robust log of my life (although I have rarely re-read what I have written).
Better memory; structured thoughts
This is a tangible effect of journaling that I only noticed a few years after starting. I regularly receive comments on my ability to remember things, whether it be the history of a certain place, or deep knowledge of an arbitrary field of study; and I can say with confidence that I have a good memory. This certainly wasn't always the case. I was a terrible student and would regularly get frustrated with my memory and my complete inability to retain information.
In the same way that note-taking during a lecture is a robust method of internalising the lecture content, taking notes of your experiences and emotions is a robust way of remembering your day and understanding yourself. Although, in this analogy it would be more akin to attending a lecture and trying to summarise the lecture in your own words. This is arguably a better method for comprehension and learning.
This, combined with the act of revisiting my day, lead to a better overall memory, and a deeper understanding of myself. Most people live their day only once.
There's a term in programming called "rubber-ducking" where, when struggling on a particularly difficult problem, a programmer will sometimes turn to the person next to them and describe it (hoping the other person has a solution). While describing the issue the programmer will inadvertently solve their own problem, say “oh…never mind…”, then turn around and keep working. The act of trying to describe and articulate the problem causes them to interrogate it more deeply. The reason this is referred to as "rubber-ducking" is that the other person could easily have been replaced with a rubber duck.
In some ways my journal is my rubber duck.
Most (if not all) religions have some form of this. Whether it be meditation or prayer, the act of articulating your thoughts to your deity is a great way to come to divine realisations. In essence, it's rubber-ducking with God.
In prayer you express your gratitude, relate your experiences, and describe your worries. Exactly what you would do with a journal.
When I read something interesting, see something beautiful, or experience something complex, I automatically start thinking about how I'm going to write it down. I start the process of journaling in my head. This isn't a conscious process. It formed naturally throughs years of journaling and I find it quite useful.
I feel like I inadvertently think about things in a more structured way as an effect of journling (and writing these essays, if I'm to be entirely honest). I lose less information to the ether.
I used to have a separate notebook in which I would write short book reviews. This was in an attempt to remember the book content more coherently. I've since found that writing these thoughts directly in my journal feels more natural and has less overhead, and I still get the satisfaction of revisiting what I believe to be the most important points of each book.
Writing makes you a better speaker
I plan to write a full article on this concept, but I can say with certainly that writing has made me a better speaker. This is due to the confidence of having whatever I’m about to say written down and riddled out already. I know myself and the idea I’m about to express, have articulated it in words, and can speak them with confidence.
The best speakers are all great writers. In a podcast I was listening to recently Neil deGrasse Tyson (arguably one of the most articulate people of our generation) said that the reason he speaks so well is that he's written it all down before. His thoughts are structured and easy to access, and therefore, articulate.
This isn't to say that people can't have articulate thoughts without writing. It's just the metaphorical difference between looking something up in a well organised library vs trying to find information in a room filled with random books. It's the efficiency of recall which is improved. This is doubly useful as keeping disparate pieces of information in your head is a great way to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. Memory is, arguably, an important part of the creative process.
How I write
My journal has evolved significantly over the last 6 years. In order to start journaling I only wrote 2-3 sentences a day. These would be the thoughts at the top of mind, or the experiences that seemed the most relevant. As my journaling routine evolved I started writing longer form entries, and with that, delved deeper into my subconscious.
It is, however, difficult to sit down and immediately describe the “most important thing”. Our brains are a mess. Instead (and this naturally surfaced as the format in which I journal) I start by describing the events of my day.
"I woke up this morning feeling pretty lethargic. I scouted out a coffee at Deluxe and once the caffeine kicked in I opened my laptop and managed to get some work done."
This gives a spacial structure to all the other disparate information for the day. Humans are great at remembering place, and so that becomes the cue for everything else to build off of.
"As I was getting ready to leave I saw an angry Afrikaans man in khaki shorts shouting at a waiter. This gave me physical anxiety. It reminded me too much of my militaristic ex-step-father who had anger issues (and an alcohol problem). I realise that I have un-dealt with trauma regarding those days. Could this be influencing the way that I see traditional Afrikaaner men? Is this an unconscious bias I’m carrying around with me?”
The spacial cue easily allows me to follow the my train of thought, which then potentially opens up to something more nuanced. Emotions. Observations. Questions.
I continue writing about my day.
"That evening my girlfriend and I made dinner and I told her about the man at the restaurant. She was thoughtful and supportive. I appreciate her listening to me ramble about my day."
Most of my journal entries are actually quite boring. They have me waking up, feeding the caffeine monster, working, spending time with friends, reading, etc. But it's the days when I find something to latch onto that help me better understand myself and my context. It's those days I journal for.