I’m going to take a moment to pat myself on the back: I’ve kept a daily journal for over 365 days.
Sounds spectacular, right? That’s why I wrote it that way. It’s many consecutive days but fewer years. Not that I just began a year ago – I’ve been journaling for six plus years – but until the last year, it’s been sporadic. So what’s changed?
I’ve committed to daily writing. Most important, I’ve freed the time and space to do it. Journaling has become a habit, and I can’t end a day without it.
I started my present journaling streak with one rule: make.
To create the right conditions, I removed as many constraints as possible. I’m foremost a writer, so I tend to start with words. But I didn’t limit my journaling to writing. I made space for drawing, sketching, images, and even videos. No matter my mood, I can sit down and capture something without the worry about form. My journal is a collection of all sorts of strange, different bits threaded by my personal experience.
As the de facto starting location all my work, my journal is integral to my creative process. Problems are introduced and wrestled to the ground. Observations made. Seeds cultivated. Meaning derived.
The journal is a space where I can one day write with a pen, and the next entry can be typed.
Though a lover of analog, I switched to a digital journal years ago, but adoption was slow. I started by constraining myself to typing entries, saw some success, but I had trouble working day-to-day because I wanted to do it differently each time I sat down.
Once I allowed handwriting and sketching, I embraced the digital journal. I could take pictures of handwritten notes and drawings and include them with videos, images, and words. Or I could use the Apple Pencil to jot down notes and other ideas.
Writing is my default mode of operation. In keeping with the original rule “Make” and the spirit of eliminating constraints, written content starts as freewriting.
If you’re unfamiliar with freewriting, it’s an approach to writing first drafts that gets words on paper (or the screen) without self-editing. The goal is to get going and stay moving. You don’t edit the work while it’s in motion. Instead, you move to the next word.
With freewriting, I don’t filter what comes out. I follow inspiration as it arrives in the moment, wherever and whenever that may be.
Approaching it this way decouples the connection between space and time. You do not have to be at the assigned location and the specified time. And the work is expected to be imperfect. Freewriting is all about the capture of unrefined material. Refinement comes later.
While I did not impose structure on my journaling, a pattern organically arose: collection and reflection. Collection occurs throughout the day. I note interesting observations, thoughts, and ideas. At the end of each day, I reflect by assimilating the day’s entries and examining the meaning.
Eventually, another pattern emerged: re-reading past entries. While collect and reflect is important for capturing new ideas, re-reading allows for the identification of patterns in your life and work. It is the synoptic view while collect and reflect is focused on the present moment.
Some considerations for getting started
I’ve discussed why journaling is important above. Below are some considerations if you’re getting started or refining your own practice.
Choose the best method for you. Don’t overthink it.
Whether a fancy Moleskine notebook or loose leaf paper or an app on your phone, get started. It’s better to get going and change than fail to start because you’re pondering the tools without trying. You won’t know until you go. As your self-knowledge increases, you’ll be better positioned to make meaningful change in your life.
Make it easy.
Whatever method you use, make it easy on yourself. When I was in college, I used to carry a 3x5 spiral bound notebook in my back pocket and a pen in the front, taking notes like a detective. Later, when I adopted digital journaling, it became so easy to capture notes and observations throughout a day that it has become my preferred method of capture.
Find your golden hour.
It’s often good to journal early in the day or late in the evening. I get my best work in those moments between wake and sleep.
David Sedaris journals every morning without fail. He assimilates his notes from the day before into something bigger when his mind is open and flexible.
Do the work to find your golden hour.
Get beyond the superficial.
The great thing about the journal is that it’s an audience of you, so there’s no reason to feel self-conscious. Tackle hard questions that make you blush with unabashed candor. Answer easy questions with wit and unexpected insights.
Unsure what to write? Write about not being able to write.
One of the challenges with keeping a daily journal is that there are days that you don’t feel up to it. On days like that, write about your struggle to come up with the words. This almost always nets an insight unrelated to the struggle to produce words.
Wordcounts are like stop signs – suggestions. Seriously, write as many or as few words as you have in you that day. The point is that you showed up to do the work. The habit is more important than the work itself. The habit will yield better work over time.
Split an entry if needed.
Sometimes entries span multiple days, because I need more time with the subject. Other times, my entries are a sentence or a very short paragraph. Something is preferable to nothing, but don’t be afraid to sit with a subject.
Your life is a great subject.
You may believe your life story uninteresting, but you’re wrong. Write about the experiences that shape you into you. The most mundane aspects of life have high value upon reflection, like a flower emerging from a crack in the sidewalk. Use your voice and reflect upon your personal struggles.