The Benefits of Writing a Journal

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I’ve adopted a new habit: writing an almost daily journal. Almost, because I try to write it every day but Sundays tend to become the exception to the rule. However, I still call it a habit because it’s ingrained in my system: from Monday to Friday I wake up at 6 AM and after showering but before breakfast, I write my journal.

I keep my thoughts to two pages per day – I’m afraid that in the modern world the hand muscles aren’t what they used to be. But it’s a 30-minute exercise in concentration and a great way to start one’s day. Let me tell you why.

(But first, I’ll shed some light on my history as a journal writer)

An On/Off Habit

Ever since I was little, writing a journal has been some kind of on/off habit for me. I can’t remember why I began writing in the first place – I was probably inspired by some character in a book that kept a diary and I wanted to be like him/her. The first journals I’ve kept are from elementary school when I was in second grade. The cute, pastel yellow Winnie the Pooh notebook has lost many of its pages and is barely holding together. But the important things, the diary entries about my dance practices and who of my class mates I liked the most, are still there.

After that, I’ve written a journal of some sort through the years up until this day. I’d like to declare I have something from every year from my life written down, with a date and a few thoughts about life, but I’m not quite sure. Some years might be missing. But in that case, it’ll only be a few.

For this post, I perused my old journals. There are three different time periods when I’ve written actively, i.e. on a daily basis:

  • In 2010: I wrote three pages every day for six months or so. I have no idea where the idea came from – maybe I wanted to prove something to myself or be able to tell everyone I wrote every day. But I did, and held on to the habit for an impressive amount of time, considering I was a teenager filled with angst and confusion.
  • In the Fall of 2016: one to eight pages daily. This was the time I spent in Ireland. Writing about my exchange period kept me sane and also had the function of making the time there more memorable.
  • Now, in Fall 2018 (which I guess we can start calling Winter as we just got our first snow in Southern Finland and it’s less than four weeks until Christmas): two pages on a daily basis. It is an effort to try to document my thoughts and feelings, trying to dig deeper into what I know and feel, what I want and how I want it.

Analyzing my more sporadic journal entries from previous years, I seem to have picked up my pen and put black on white when I’ve been 1) overwhelmed by feelings, may that be love, hate, sadness or confusion; 2) feeling guilty about not exercising enough and only eating candy and chocolate, or 3) when I felt like I needed to get out all those thoughts about people, school work and life in general, and didn’t feel like telling about them to anyone else (or writing about them on my LiveJournal blog that has been gone for a long time).

Focus on Depth

Today, however, I have a different approach on writing a journal. Actually, I only recently realized that I haven’t actually been writing a journal all these years. I’ve been writing a diary – a book where I’ve recorded events as they happen and that have included feelings and moods. That I have done, for sure – all that foul language, teenage hate towards others and myself, crushes on cute guys… And a play-by-play descriptions about my plans and what I intend to do later that day or the next.

But now it feels like I have become a grown up – I’m writing a journal. A book where I record, not events or what other people say and do, but ideas and thoughts. I try to focus on depth instead of just telling what I did that day or how I felt. I’m actually digging deeper into those emotions, trying to concentrate on what’s on my mind and find out why it’s on my mind.

Writing for me has always been something I’ve had to force myself to do. It’s not a natural daily yearning for me to write down my thoughts and pick on them with a stick to find out what these thoughts really are about. Sometimes, I also find the process somewhat frustrating: it takes time to write by hand compared with writing on a computer which means the process is slow, while at the same time my thoughts are running around like the crazy dodos in Ice Age. It feels like I lose the track of thought before I’ve managed to write everything down.

(And let’s not forget about the hand – it does get tired which means the writing won’t be as pretty. A thing that tends to matter to me.)

But never have I regretted sitting down to write my daily two pages. Some days, I know exactly what I want to write about. Last week such clear thoughts were about self-care, thoughts on why I’m writing my thesis, and how I deal with anxiety that comes from school work. And on those days when I have no clue what I’m thinking about – I write about that and try to figure out why I don’t have anything to say.

During this new in-depth writing habit of mine, I’ve experienced some of the benefits of daily journal writing:

  • I realize new things about myself and my though processes that I might not have realized if I hadn’t written them down.
  • I take a moment to focus on what feels important in my mind at the moment: what thoughts are constantly there?
  • I listen to myself: how do I feel today? Am I anxious, motivated, tired, stressed or energized?
  • I improve my concentration by focusing on a single, manual task for thirty minutes or so. It helps me focus on projects at hand during the rest on the day.

Retrospective Reading

And one of the huge benefits of writing a diary or a journal, when regarded in the long run, is the retrospect one gets when reading old diaries and journals. As I’ve been reading those old entries, especially from 2009 onward, I’ve understood myself in a different way than I did before.

Of course, I remember many of the big things I wrote about (and forgotten many of those that felt so big at the time but that lost their meaning in a few weeks or months). But the events and the people aren’t that important – it’s more about how I wrote about them. I’ve realized how much built-in anger I had when I was a teenager, and how I had no way of letting it out. So I wrote these awful things in my diary, and yelled at everything and everyone on paper – instead of confronting them in person.

Reading old entries gave me a refreshed view of my younger self – what was I insecure about, what events and happenings did I consider being important enough to write about, and what did that mean, on a deeper level? My findings have been thought-provoking.

What I’ve thought about is this: what if I had never written a diary? What would I know about myself today, what kind of image would I have about my childhood and being a teenager? In his book Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari speaks about the experiencing self and the narrating self.

The experiencing self is the person experiencing the emotions, thoughts and feelings in the moment. The experiencing self is able to tell exactly how one feels, giving a realistic, although subjective, description of the current state of life.

The narrating self takes over when the experiencing self is taking a break – and builds up a narrative, a story, that tells how the situation was. The narrative self tends to bend the curves, put a filter on what the experiencing self just told and transform the memories into something else, something nice and less complex.

In one way or the other, the narrative self distorts the real experience and creates, in the long run, a not-so-truthful perception of oneself and the happenings that occurred.

This doesn’t help us understand why we have become the people we are today. What events formed us, who had a great effect on our thoughts and opinions? Here, the diaries and journals come to our help. They are the reality check we need every once in a while – how was the experience really, was it as good or as bad as I remembered? What did I think of this thing previously, has my thinking shifted?

Writing a daily journal helps to understand our own progress and who we are. This, however, requires patience and self-discipline: in order to have something to analyze, you need to take the time to write down those entries. But it pays off in the end, I’d say. What do you think? Is it worth your time?

***

Why do you write a journal, if you do? Or what is keeping you from it? Can you relate to any of the benefits I mentioned in this blog post?

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