Matt Marshall

 

A year of journaling

As of last night I've been journaling every day for a solid year. I began on 2019-11-05, after several months of putting it off. I had just finished returning from a wonderful trip across Europe with one of my closest friends and was very tired and run down; owing from a really weird and busy year of adapting to my new life and work. I'd put off starting to journal for a few reasons: for one I wasn't sure whether I'd enjoy it or whether I liked the idea of journaling from all these lifestyle blogs; I wasn't sure what I'd be writing in my journal (like at all) and I don't blog very much any more so was wondering if I actually had anything to say; and "people who journal" are sometimes (most of the time), quite frankly, annoying.

The reasons I wanted to start a journal were actually pretty much the reasons you'd expect. Do a search for benefits of journaling and you'll find umpteen lists and blogs dedicated to the habit. Specifically I was keen on: boosts to mood and sense of well-being; potential benefits to long-term memory; and aiding sleep. Don't get me wrong, I was already sold on other benefits of journaling such as it being an inherently reflexive practice and good for the soul. Brett over at AoM has been pretty good at documenting various aspects of journaling that I knew I'd like. What I knew I wasn't attracted to was what some blogs centred around which was inevitably tied to being "more productive" and "more creative" at work due to the other benefits.

The thing that pushed me over the edge to start was actually a bad night's sleep. The benefit I was most interested in from journaling was the potential for a better sleep. A year of stress from work, stress from travel, and stress from my then-shitty PhD thesis was all contributing to a consistently bad sleep cycle. I'd just spent nearly a month travelling across some Central/Eastern European countries, and the latter third of that I spent basically being rained on in Ljubljana and Venice. I was ready for my own bed and every single sign from my exhausted mind and tired body pointed to the fact I was due a good night's sleep when I returned. Sadly it evaded me. During my undergraduate years I'd read about (sorry can't find a link) and subsequently adopted a short-term habit of keeping a pad of paper next to my bed to scribble down thoughts before sleeping. This helped me get all the thoughts out of my head and onto paper and stopped my mind racing as much; like software on a laptop and freeing up memory. I abandoned the practice largely because I couldn't build a habit, but I remembered it working and thought that sitting down and journaling and using that to process my thoughts and feelings would in some way help me sleep.

This gave me the 'in' that I needed to start: one of the key things to building a habit is finding a when to do it and I figured that if journaling was going to help me sleep then it'd be most sensible to tie it to my bedtime. This also had the related benefit of giving more structure to my bedtime routine which (supposedly) helps with getting off to sleep. It also gave me a what to journal about. As noted part of my apprehension was centred around not knowing quite what to write about; the slew of journaling prompts just really didn't appeal to me whereas the idea of just sitting down and getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper seemed reasonable enough as a start. I checked AoM for advice as it was the only site that had written about journaling in a way that made it seem appealing (I swear I'm not a shill for Brett) and this gelled with what they were saying: "Just write about your day. No need to get fancy with those cute little journal prompts. Some days might be pretty routine, but other days you might be feeling philosophical or have a problem that will require you to write more in-depth entries. Just write what comes naturally to you on that day." (source). With these two points aligned, I had my motivation raised and my barrier to entry reduced sufficiently to start.

I actually had the next day off of work when I arrived back home so spent it around Newcastle centre acquiring bits and pieces and made a point to swing by a stationary shop to grab a notebook that I wanted to use as a dedicated journal. Not wanting to intimidate myself I bought a nondescript A6 lined notebook; figuring that the small page size meant I wasn't going to be feeling bad about not filling up an entire page with thoughts. Turns out this was definitely the right move. My first entries were barely half a page of A6 each but worked well enough for me to continue and build the habit. Here's the first page of my journal:

2019-11-05
First day back home after my travels; didn't sleep well. Watched a movie, read, and bought some misc useful items. Turns out nobody in NCL stocks safety razor blades except 'Cuban Cigar Club'. It's cold out and I love it.

2019-11-06
Tired. Back to work today and [redacted] already extended my work day into my evening -_- In the grand scheme of things it means nothing but it irritated me a bit. I did, though, love being back at Goodspace.

And honestly that was it. Really mundane right? As the muscles for journaling were flexed I found myself writing more and more each time. I went from a single paragraph to a main paragraph and a reflection on a problem. Then from that to writing two paragraphs, and then around three or sometimes four. By 2019-11-14 I had found my perfect balance which was to write until I'd just-about filled an entire single side of A6 lined paper. By that point I was using it as a reflective practice and actively teasing out lessons from the day:

2019-11-14
A pleasant day overall; work was 360-based; then Goodspace Tea-Thursday; then CPB Meeting.

An interesting reflection on work -- whereas OCDS is stressful because of the granular and specific time tracking which causes me to stress about the time taken / spent on items… 360 is stressful because I don't do it enough to know all the moving parts and I'm often left needing to do some personal triage before I can get any work done.

A lesson from this is that I should hold a personal version of the weekly check to keep on top of the 360 work

I am aware of the irony that I was not attracted to the benefits of journaling for productivity and that this entry was entirely about making myself really productive. As it happens, I work in an amazing worker-owned business and do stuff I'm passionate about. Other things in my life became regular features of my journal such as my current challenges and approaches in my strength training and running (I took up running around this time too, on 2019-11-17 apparently), my dating life, my struggle with particular thought patterns, my attempts to control my yo-yo eating habits.

As each of these found their way onto the page I was able to interact with that part of my life a little bit more. It's not all problem-solving and deep reflection. Some of my entries are very mundane and quite a lot of the early ones involve pointing out things that have made me happy. One thing it did allow me to spot was trends; if I'd been writing about struggling to control snacking for around five days in a row it meant that I could dedicate some time to figuring out what was causing that, or realise that it was more of a problem than I thought. With 2020 being so bat-shit (as a result of late-stage capitalism mind, not it just being weird) journaling has helped a lot there too. It lead me to making a few changes since writing down the positive realisations about my relationship to myself and others made that stick. As a result I feel I'm genuinely a better person for it. I've clearly kept up the habit as it's a nice way to sign off my day and I get a lot from it. I've managed to totally fill two of the little A6 books and I've started on a third. I think once I'm finished with that one I'll "graduate" to an A5 book. Again, I'll not try and force myself to fill an entire page but the extra room might allow me to do some interesting things.

I don't really have a 'winning formula' as I sit down to write a page in my journal but I do seem to have a habit or a framework. I start with giving an overall impression of my day, then go into the detail about some key events in it and how they made me feel. Being a worker and a human being with hobbies these tend to appear more often than not and I find myself writing about strength training, writing my PhD, cool open data stuff, my awesome flatmate, food etc. I don't expect this to change particularly but I've thumbed through my older entries in preparation for writing this post and I've noticed that my focus and style does evolve and change over time, in the order of months rather than days; so I'm excited as to where I'm going next and what my journaling may look like in a year's time. I'm aware that recently there's been a bit of a push-back against journaling (e.g. here and here). I think those are making some good points and I'm not so emotionally tied to or dependant on journaling that I'm defensive. In fact I do see myself stopping journaling when it ceases to be useful to me. Until then I'm a bit late to the game because I didn't spend most of my 20s journaling and I haven't really reached a point where it's stopped being useful or becoming a burden. One day I'll retire the practice but until then I'll keep writing about my boring day.

Oh, and I do sleep better now ;-)

life habits writing mental health journaling wellbeing