Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about journaling. A few weeks ago I was at my parents’ apartment trying to help with the yearly spring cleaning, but instead of finally throwing away the clothes I never wear, I became distracted by a box full of books from my childhood. Tucked between a worn copy of The Outsiders and a Judy Blume novel I can’t remember reading, I found the first journal I ever kept.
I’ve made a lot of attempts at keeping journals, some more successful than others. But none of my more recent attempts compare to the tenacity with which I kept my first journal. Thumbing through the spiral bound pages of the colorful notebook, I was shocked to realize that I wrote nearly every day. I was just eight years old when I started this journal; how could I have filled so many pages?
It turns out, I wrote about everything. My days at school. My feelings toward friends. My frustration with my older brothers. My fear that the coolest kids in the class didn’t know my name. The thing that struck me the most was how unconcerned the younger version of myself seemed with what I was writing. I was just venting, fearlessly, confidently, without an ounce of hesitation.
I was so blown away by how much I had to write, and how willing I was to write it, that I had to stop and reassess for a moment: What changed between that journal and my more recent attempts?
I haven’t touched my most recent journal since January 2012, and I’m convinced that my negligence is partially due to being “on” all the time. I can’t remember the last time I had enough down time to do something just for myself without feeling guilty about it, without feeling like I’m neglecting work or forgetting to respond to e-mail. It sometimes seems like everyone is moving so fast and doing so much that if you do have time to just focus on yourself, you’re probably doing something wrong.
When I sit down to journal now, I often find myself thinking: Do I really have the time to just write about my feelings for a while? Is this more important than my to-do list?
I suspect I’m not alone in my hesitancy.
But if you consider mental and physical well-being important, journaling shouldn’t feel like an extravagant indulgence. Research has proven that taking the time to process your thoughts -- to reflect on interpersonal conflicts, or even just to write down a quick account of your day—has tangible psychological benefits, as explained in a superb article from PsychCentral:
“The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. In sum, writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you.”
Additionally, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that journaling can protect your physical health as well—regular journaling strengthens your immune cells and decreases the impact of stress on your physical health by helping you come to terms with and manage the stressors in your life.
So maybe we shouldn’t feel guilty about journaling. But for many, I’m sure the concept of writing in a journal is daunting for other reasons.
One of my oft-cited reasons for not writing in my journal is that I simply don’t know what to write. What’s important enough to put on paper? To save and go back to later? But the fact of the matter is that you can write about anything, as long as you’re writing without barriers.
Researchers say that writing for 20 minutes daily is the ideal if you’re writing with health benefits in mind, but offer few other directives other than to just let your guard down. Don’t worry about what’s important or how you might feel about your entry two years from now. Just write. If it helps you get started, pick a topic to write about (relationships, your work, the books you’re reading) each day, week or month. Whatever you can maintain.
I’ve decided to challenge myself to write in a journal at least five days per week for the next six weeks to see if I can get back into the habit. I’m going to force myself to make time to just be with my thoughts, to “turn off” for a while in order to turn inward and gain a better sense of myself.
And to keep myself on track, I’ve decided to try doing this in a new medium. A friend recently brought to my attention the existence of journaling apps—programs that you can install on your laptop and smart phone that will not only allow you to securely journal from anywhere, but that also allow you to set up reminders. The apps will actually e-mail or text you reminding you to write.
And while I recognize the irony in “turning off” through a journaling application on my smartphone, the primary source of my constant need to be on in the first place, I think it will be an interesting experiment: Is it possible to translate something as timeless as the paper journal into the digital world? I’m going to try to find out.
But no matter what your chosen medium is, I think we should all try to journal. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. Because I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather live in a world where we all take a few moments a day to step back and reassess.
Just a thought.
Photo Credit: Sueanna