A simple thing, on paper. Get a piece of it out and start writing. Or typing - doesn’t really matter. Anything and everything that comes to mind. It’s weird and unnatural at first - push through it. Save it, or burn it. Don’t overthink it. Wait a few days, and do it again, and again, and keep doing it. Four years into it and I’m just beginning to grasp the immensity of the benefits this simple habit has brought to my life - so I hope to share some of them with you.
Our brains are incredible but they could do with a few upgrades that would save us all a good deal of time. One such addition is a diagnostic port not unlike the kind your mechanic checks when you take your car in for maintenance - a clear and actionable readout of problems which need to be addressed. Given that we’re not quite there yet with the state of brain-computer interfaces I’ve found journaling to be a suitable replacement until then. Many of my anxieties, worries, and decisions tend to get warped, distorted, and intermixed in my mind as I sit there mulling over them until they’ve morphed into something nearly unrecognizable. Writing about them almost always helps - and occasionally even clears them away entirely. I suspect this happens for a few reasons: it forces me to be explicit about what I’m worried about, preventing me from leaving murky gaps in lines of reasoning in my thought process. It allows me to visualize the problem on paper and frees some room up for coming up with solutions (which I also write down). And it make some of my concerns look rather silly after I’ve put them in context by listing the things that did go right, or the things I do have currently.
A typical entry starts out with a quick recap of the day or past few days - interesting events, people I met, memorable things I saw or heard, or events which frustrated me. It’s a great space to practice gratitude and list out what I’m thankful for having in my life. Do these for long enough and they become indispensable for establishing when I met someone, what I was up to a particular week, or when I first came across an idea - basically a searchable, timestamped archive of my life events. Let’s call this a Level 1 entry - the bare minimum; equivalent to buying a gym membership and making a habit of walking to and from the gym. Much better than nothing, but not getting into the major benefits quite yet.
Level 2 begins when I try to describe how I’m feeling - am I stressed? Worried? Angry? Happy? Relaxed? Exhausted? I look at the events leading up to me feeling this way - was it a particular conversation? A good workout? A walk outside? Can I quantify what it is exactly I’m worried about? What will happen if it goes well? If it ends disastrously? What’s the likeliest case scenario? Occasionally it’s simple and obvious but sometimes I really have to think it through and figure out why something has been clouding my mind for a day or two and walk backwards to the conversation or event that triggered it. Over a long enough time span, I’ll notice if I’m writing about the same thing over and over again. I begin to see patterns - particular people, tasks, or habits that are making me feel a certain way. Sometimes these are good, and highlight what I should be focusing on more. Other times, not so good - giving me a hint at what I should be minimizing or fixing. This should be the goal of a good journal entry and is usually achievable 2 times a week.
Level 3 is more spontaneous and I don’t think it can be forced; it just happens. Not very often - I’d say once every few months, though it really depends on what’s going on in life. This entry starts out like any other but instead of just listing and sorting your feelings, emotions, and worries - you start digging a little deeper and following those rabbit holes. It happens by giving yourself both permission and the space to start asking and exploring questions that you might not want to dig into while eating lunch on your work break. Questions regarding your real happiness. Why have you been coming home upset for the past several weeks? How come seeing or not seeing a certain person affect your emotions so much more than expected? Why do you feel stuck with the next steps seeming like they’re getting further and further away instead of coming closer? Before you know it you’ve written a few hundred, five hundred, a thousand words and you’ve barely scratched the surface. Congratulations, you’ve made it to level 3. There’s a non-zero chance that you’ve just come across something big - something that needs addressing and perhaps has needed addressing for some time now. This doesn’t mean your entry is going to conclude with a solution (though it might). More often it’s only the beginning of the process to resolving it - but I have yet to regret starting that process and following it through - no matter where it leads.
Enough of the wishy-washy: time for the practical. I use a simple encrypted notes application on my laptop, accessible from my phone (super handy when out and about). I start every every entry with the date and time - newest entries on top so I don’t have to scroll. Once in while I write on paper - if it’s good I’ll take a photo but generally losing an entry here or there isn’t the end of the world as most of the benefits happen in the act of writing itself. There are some things that I won’t type and instead just destroy after writing. I also leave a few notes at the very top of my entries that I see every single time: a few questions I’d like to ask myself regularly and a list of people I admire. If I’m ever feeling stuck these provide a nice starting point from which it gets easier. I typically write in the morning but the most insightful entries seem to occur late at night. Sometimes I’ll have a period of a week where I write nothing - not every day is an adventure and other days I don’t feel like writing at all - it’s ok to skip those as well. It should be an activity you look forward to doing leaving you feeling calmer and less worried.
Looking back through my entries from earlier is a humbling experience, but it’s not something I do very often. I’ll be honest, I’ve cried and I’ve laughed at them before. They end up being snapshots of my mental state from a very specific point of time: a little window into what I was feeling, worried about, regretting, or looking forward to. Sometimes looking back at an entry it’s absurd how dead-on I was describing something without understanding it fully, only to have it all come together months or years down the road. Other times I see how completely off the mark I was, failing to tell apart cause from effect and top from down. It’s helped me realize just how few of the things I worry about turn into the worst-case scenarios (so much wasted brainpower) but on the flipside just how easy it is to forget the essence of the very experiences that make me, me. Most importantly, it’s helped me keep an eye on the important things in life - my goals, aspirations, and the people I love in my life - and I hope it helps you too.
2019-09-04: changed “so more than” to “so much more than”.