Journaling practices for people who are bad at journaling
I aspire to be a good journaler. I go on journaling binges like others go on gym binges (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). The problem is that those binges often peter out and I return to my previous non-journaling self, with a beautiful half-filled notebook to add to the collection on my bedroom bookshelf. Once I’ve lost momentum, it’s extremely difficult for me to pick up steam again and I end up carrying an odd feeling of guilt around in the form of an unfinished personal improvement project.
Why do I keep trying then? Well, the impetus of journaling (at least for me) is to make a practice of noticing and reflecting, a habit that has served me well when I incorporate it into my life.
Maybe you’re like me and want to build a journaling practice but often fall off the wagon and lose momentum. Maybe you know that reflection and noticing are helpful practices for decision making, gratefulness, thoughtfulness, and more, but can’t quite build a sustainable habit. Or maybe you’ve got a practice all ironed out that works well for your life and season. Either way, I think we could all do with a little grace around the topic of journaling and a little reminder about the purpose behind the practice.
If your goal for your journaling practice is to record the events of your days and the thoughts and emotions you’re feeling in the moment, then keeping a daily journal is a perfect practice. If your goal, however, is broader than that, more focused on the major events and long-term ramifications of the season you find yourself in, then perhaps a daily practice needn’t be your goal at all. Personally, my goal is more of the latter. So, why bother carrying around the guilt of falling out of the daily journaling habit?
If you find yourself in a similar circumstance, here are a few suggestions to help you purposefully reflect and build a practice that meets your needs, without the pressure of a daily practice. I’m incorporating these suggestions into my own life this advent season too, so if you try them, I’d love to hear your thoughts. All of us bad journalers can trade tips.
Tip 1: Keep a “These are the days” list.
One of my favorite authors and thinkers on the topic of reflection is Emily P. Freeman and this comes straight from her. A “These are the days” list is a simple way to capture the personal and communal events happening in our lives. It’s not a detailed journal entry, just a quick bullet point of something notable (or ordinary) you want to remember. I like to do my list at the end of each week, as part of my weekly pattern of rest, and keep one list per month. Below is a partial example of one of my recent lists. As you can see, the items on the list run the gambit of serious and mundane because that’s often how our lives are.
These are the days of…
Returning to dance classes
Settling into a new church community and leaning into the rhythms of liturgy
Hans’ dental surgery
Virtual hope*circle attendance and finishing my second draft
Early Christmas shopping and supply chain back-ups
Dreaming of a farm, ducks, and gardens
The list doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be profound, but it’s a great way to see the patterns of our days and it can illuminate where we’re headed in the long run.
Tip 2: When considering a decision, set a timeframe for intensive journaling.
When you see a looming decision or you’re considering a pivot in your work or personal life, step into the decision-making season with a period of intensive journaling with the goal of making that choice wisely.
I am decidedly not an impulsive person. Quite the opposite, actually. I am notoriously bad at decision-making and will put off a decision for far longer than is necessary or healthy. This practice, rather than slowing down the process, helps keep me on a deadline. During a period of decision, I have found it very helpful to journal daily about that specific issue. This is not the time for general navel-gazing; this journaling has an intention.
It may even be helpful to use a specific notebook for this practice and it can be fun to look back at those scribblings later to see how your expectations match up to the reality found after your decision is made.
Tip 3: Invest in a guided journal.
Sometimes my main issue with journaling is that it feels rather aimless. If you’ve felt like this in the past or it’s the reason behind your practice dwindling, a guided journal may be a helpful tool for you. Some guided journals are created around specific topics or needs, others are more general-purpose to help you record your life at the current moment (e.g., a one-line a day journal or the like).
Not all journals are created equally of course, nor are they one-size-fits-all. Because of this, I highly recommend visiting your local bookstore and flipping through a few to see what features you like. You can also read reviews online, but I find the tactile experience of holding the journal in my hands a helpful exercise. I’m currently using Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing Guided Journal and it’s worked well for me, but you may like more or less structure than it provides and that’s just fine. The key is that the right guided journal for you should make it easier to journal, not harder. If you find yourself flummoxed by the prompts or you’re putting off writing in it for any reason, it’s not the right fit.
Do you have a regular journaling practice? What have you found helpful for building a practice of reflection and noticing? Please share your experiences in the comments!