6 Tips to Get into the Journal Habit

Photo by Dennis J Coughlin

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Spring cleaning; a process that is at once gratifying yet painful. Given that our garage had turned into a treacherous obstacle course, my wife and I decided it was time for a clean out.

There on the bottom shelf, inside a dusty bag, I found a cosy home for a family of spiders along with my diary from 17 years ago. Seeing spiders that were approaching the size of chihuahua’s didn’t bother me, but coming to the realisation that my journal was 17 years old made my heart stop for a few seconds.

These days my journal is digital and I try to spend at least 10 minutes each morning typing out my thoughts. Even if it’s the last thing in the world that I feel like doing on a rainy morning, writing in my journal always helps to clear my mind and reduce unwanted anxiety.

Here are the tips that have kept me motivated:

Tip #1: Decide to Keep Your Journal Private

Karl Martin, the author of Stand, said that one day while writing in his journal, he realised that he was expecting someone to find it after he was gone. Without admitting it to himself, he had been trying to leave behind a legacy and that goal was hurting his writing.

If you expect someone to read your journal, then you are not going to be honest. In order for journal writing to reach its full potential, then you have to be able to say anything. Any silly, crazy, angry, weird or happy thing that’s on your mind. A journal is like shouting into an empty cave; once it’s done, you feel better and no one heard your rant anyway.

Tip #2: Use Email

If you tend to be a bit of a perfectionist like me, then your journal writing could be over before it has begun. You are going to to think, “I need to buy a fancy new journal!”

Nope. Just use your email. Fire up the same email program you use every day, start a new message, leave the “To” field blank and start writing. Write for 10 minutes, save the draft and you are done. Each journal entry is an email that you are never going to send.

Email has no learning curve and it doesn’t include any fancy editing features. If you’re feeling adventurous one day, add bold to a heading. Maybe even highlight a word in italics when you want to save an important thought for later. Otherwise, simple text will do. Just write.

Tip #3: Start Small

I went back and read my first email journal entries and boy, were they short! Most of my first entries were only 1 or 2 sentences long. These days I tend to write at least a few paragraphs and more often than not, the entry can go on for a couple pages.

The difference between now and then is practice. Once I got into the habit of daily writing, the process became more natural. Over time, those hesitant words turned into a steady stream of thoughts.

Tip #4: Set a Time Limit and Don’t Stop Writing

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird said, “…I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible.”

It will be hard at first, but keep your fingers moving. If you have 10 minutes before your first meeting, then keep typing until time is up. Don’t stop to Google something, don’t stop to read an email and don’t stop to make a note about the lunch date you just remembered.

It is natural for distractions to bombard your mind as you move into a reflective state. The trick is to expect them and then ignore them.

Tip #5: Include a Prayer List at the Top

Writing is a form of prayer. At the top of my journal, I keep my Prayer List, which contains a list of people that I want to keep in my thoughts. The list is organic and it tends to change every few weeks.

It’s the first thing I read in the morning and on some days I read through that list quickly. Other days I have more time and I take longer to consider each thought. Either way works.

With so much going on in our modern lives, we tend to lose our focus in less time than it takes to write this sentence. Your Prayer List becomes your protection against the madness of everyday life.

Tip #6: Start a Fresh Journal Every Month

This might be my favourite part about keeping a journal. At the start of every month, I create a brand new journal inside a fresh new email and the previous month gets archived.

Starting each month with a clean sheet forces you to reevaluate what’s most important in your life. Maybe your job is no longer driving you crazy and instead, you’d like to keep your sister-in-law in your thoughts since she’s going through a rough time. You can clear the decks and bump new things up in priority.

Keep Writing

If you are not keeping a journal, then where are all these thoughts going? They are either staying inside you or just disappearing into thin air. Writing it down will improve your day.

If you are stressed you’ll have a chance to get it off your chest before your work day starts. Or if you are concerned about a friend, you are more likely to put them into your Prayer List, which will remind you to invite them for coffee that week.

When we were young and idealistic, we thought personal reflection was worth our time. Yet, all the associated benefits are still valid, waiting to be enjoyed. A journal puts everything on the table and gives you a better chance of improving your mood, your relationships and your faith. Good luck and keep writing.