You Need a Journal

I’ve been writing a daily journal for the best part of the last six years.

I’ve come to the conclusion that journaling is the best thing you can do with five minutes of your time, and one of the habits with the best return on investment.

Why? Because writing thoughts on a journal has a therapeutic effect, to a level that most people would pay money for. And I think I’m slowly understanding why that is.

Our brain is an echo chamber. When sitting there, our thoughts get amplified. Positive or negative, our brain loves to munch on thoughts, making them bigger day by day. Our hopes get brighter and our worries darker. This causes them to stray further from reality.

Putting things to paper lets thoughts escape this echo chamber. When written down, thoughts take a step towards the real world. You can see them for what they really are. Was that worry really warranted? Was this plan of action really feasible? Journaling gets you closer to the ground. You can see things with a higher resolution. It’s like when you put glasses on for the first time.

If it’s so good, then why don’t more people do it? Possibly, you don’t know anyone who journals. I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just hard to stick with habits. For this I recommend committing to an absolute minimum. Your goal is not to write a 1000-page essay every morning, your goal is to pick up a pen and paper every day. That’s it. By doing that, you’re already doing better than 90% of the rest of the world. If you write a couple of words, then, that’s a neat extra.

Second, we don’t journal because we think we have nothing to say. But if that were true, then why is your mind talking all the time?

Third, we think our thoughts have no value, and are not worth the ink. Well, I agree that thoughts have no value: they are invaluable. The amount of insight you can get from reading old journal entries is astounding, even if it’s just a sentence a day. Reading old entries is like having a conversation with your old self, through a portal to the past. It’s the closest thing we have to personal time travel.

How can you tell whether you’re getting happier, if you have no way of asking your old self? How do you know you’re going the right way, if you can’t see where you’re coming from? If this isn’t well worth the ink, I don’t know what is.

Getting started

How do you actually get started? What do you even write about?

In journaling, as in all habits, quantity is more important than quality. What we want is to stick to it every day, not to craft a masterpiece every blue moon. To increase quantity, we have to reduce friction. The word “journaling” is too demanding, it creates too much friction to starting. Thinking of it as just “writing” does it.

Every day, pick up a pen and write. Don’t “journal:” just write. Write whatever comes to mind.

For an example of this, Julia Cameron, in her best-selling book The Artist’s Way, popularized the idea of Morning Pages. Morning Pages are just about anything: they don’t need to be a journal, they don’t need to be tidy, they don’t need to be anything. Morning pages are a literal stream of consciousness. You could give that a try.

When you have five minutes, sit down and write something. Every day, just for a couple of days. Chances are, your mind is already talking. Just record what it’s saying. I’d love to hear how that goes.

PS: Don’t like pen and paper and want an app recommendation? I’ve been using Day One for a long time. Not a sponsor, just my thoughts. I bought it when it wasn’t yet a subscription, so now I get to use it ‘for free’ with the grandfathered plan. Is it worth the monthly fee? I suggest you give the free version a go for a while, then decide.