Journaling is an interesting practice—one that, like free-writing, I didn’t understand the value of for a very long time. It seemed self-indulgent, and primarily I thought of it like a child’s diary, or perhaps at most like a scrapbook or travelogue. Now I understand that there is much more to it, and although I don’t do it regularly (unless you count blogging, which as it’s done in public is really only a sort of truncated form of journaling), I’ve done it sporadically when I’ve needed it.
Journaling provides a handful of very specific benefits. It allows you to free-write with respect to your life and the events that happen within it, allowing you to apply the benefits of free-writing (coming up with unlikely ideas; making connections you wouldn’t otherwise; entertaining thoughts you’d normally dismiss out-of-hand) to your daily life. It also provides the following specific benefits, found in a post in Steve Pavlina’s personal development blog:
Journaling allows you to break free of sequential thinking and examine your thoughts from a bird’s-eye view. When you record your sequential thoughts in a tangible medium, you can then go back and review those thoughts from a third-person perspective. While you’re recording the thoughts, you’re in first-person mode. But when you’re reading them, you can remain dissociated instead of associated. This dissociative view, when combined with what you’ve already learned from the associative view, will bring you much closer to seeing the truth of your situation.
Here are 3 other powerful benefits of journaling:
- Solve tricky problems. Some problems are very difficult to solve when you’re stuck in an associative, first-person viewpoint. Only when you record the situation and then re-examine it from a third-person perspective does the solution become clear. Sometimes the solution is so obvious that you’re shocked you didn’t see it sooner.
- Gain clarity. A great time to turn to your journal is when you’re just not clear about what to do. Should you quit your job to start your own business? Should you marry your current romantic partner? Are you on the right track financially? It’s amazing how much clearer things become when you explore them in writing.
- Verify your progress. It’s wonderful to go back and re-read journal entries from years ago and see how much real progress has been made. When you’re frustrated that your life doesn’t seem to be working out as you’d like, go back and read something you wrote five years ago — it will totally change your perspective. This helps you in the present moment too by reminding you that you are in fact growing and changing, even when it feels like you’re standing still.
So, journaling allows you to gain a perspective on your life that you simply can’t get when you’re standing smack-dab in the swirling currents of it. Think of it like standing in the waters along a beach and looking at a satellite photograph of the entire ocean, allowing you to see your location and place in a given region or even the entire thing.
Journaling has additional benefits for writers and other creatives. You can jot down all those ideas and thoughts that you’d lose otherwise, then come back later and mine them for inspiration. You can paste articles, scraps of paper, photographs in that might inspire you later. You can take notes from books or articles that have taught you something. You can explore writing or creativity exercises within the pages of your journal.
Journaling is also a way of holding precious our memories. You can write about the little, amazing things your husband or wife does for you, so when you’re annoyed with them you can be reminded of how special they really are. You can write about the feelings a particular view or event inspired in you. Later you can take a step back, read about past events, and see the traces of patterns in your actions that weren’t evident from up close—like being able to trace the flow of those ocean currents over time.
Journaling can be difficult and frightening. It requires at least a little dedication, the ability to set aside a few minutes every day to write a paragraph or two or, if needed, much more than that. (This is where I tend to fall down.) It requires coping with the fear that someone might read what you’ve said someday, although these days computer journaling programs with password-protection make that a little less of a worry. It requires facing yourself—even those parts of yourself that you don’t like—and learning from them. It requires nothing more than a cheap notebook or pad of paper and a pen, but it can be as fancy as you like, involving leather-bound journals and expensive pens or feature-laden software. The important thing is that you find a method that works for you.
I think it’s worth finding that method, because there’s so much you can learn about yourself from journaling.