How about focusing on just one new habit instead of multiple New Year's resolutions? That way you're more likely to succeed. And this one doesn't involve pain or sacrifice, but can truly change your life.
Daily journalling is one of the most powerful habits you can have for bringing positive change to your life, whether that is bringing dreams to fruition, or coming through an emotional upheaval.
Benefits of Journalling
Journalling lets you dream big and make plans for those dreams to happen. It also ensures you are clear on your priorities so you know which actions to focus on each day.
If you’re skeptical check out the positive effects of expressive writing in these 17,000 citations on Google Scholar. I’m assuming you won’t have time to read them all, but I’m here, trying to help. So… journalling…
Helps you achieve your goals, as writing them down and reviewing them changes how you think and act.
Makes you proactive, not reactive.
Makes you a better thinker, clarifying and connecting thoughts.
Brings congruency between what you think and do, what you want to be and who you are - most people have inconsistencies and this leads to internal stress.
Ingrains your learning, through active recall and review.
Improves your emotional intelligence. Emotions are soothed by reviewing and making sense of the past.
Optimises creative potential by bringing focus and avoiding distractions.
Makes you a better writer because you tap into your stream of consciousness.
Helps daily recovery. By journalling at the end of the working day, you can put work thoughts to bed so that you can focus on recuperation or spend time being present with those you love.
Is free! No $9.99/month app subscription or expensive counselling session required.
But there’s more.
Journalling allows you to become your own personal historian, recording the events, progress you made and challenges of your life, along with your thoughts and insights at the time - our memories rewrite history later if we don’t capture what actually happened, in the moment.
And why would you want to record your history? Realising what you have achieved, the opportunities you have been blessed with and how your whole life has connected together, usually brings enormous and deep felt gratitude. And we know gratitude has been shown to have huge positive benefits on your relationships, contentment and health.
An Aside - Counteracting trauma and stress
If you feel that you are in a more negative place, and have problems to resolve before you can dream and plan - perhaps you’ve had great stress or emotional upheaval - research indicates that expressive writing can increase happiness, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, strengthen the immune system, and improve work and school performance. And these benefits have been shown to persist for months.
“Compared with a control group that wrote about superficial topics, participants who wrote about traumatic experiences for four consecutive days reported greater happiness three months later, visited the doctor less than usual during a six-week period following the writing exercise, and seemed to have a healthier immune system.” Professor James W. Pennebaker, University of Texas
I’m not going into the detail of therapeutic writing here (you could go to the source by reading “Opening Up by Writing It Down” by James W. Pennebaker). But his tips for writing are still good advice for all of us:
Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed
Write continuously for at least 20 minutes
Don’t worry about spelling or grammar
Write only for yourself
Write about something extremely personal and important to you
Try to go deep, and think constructively about how to solve problems
Cautionary note: deal only with events or situations you can handle now — that is, don’t write about a trauma too soon after it has happened if it feels too overwhelming.
Creating Your Future
OK. So this is where the rubber hits the road.
Journalling can actually help create your future - hugely increasing the likelihood of achieving your dreams.
Start with your ‘WHY’
Most people have very low standards for how they use their time, and end up wasting large portions of it. This is usually due to lack of clarity about where they should direct their attention - most people do things for superficial reasons and end up spending time on things that irritate them instead of those things that fascinate, challenge, and motivate them. Most people fail to manage themselves in this intense, addictive, stimulating modern environment - we have so many choices, we have decision fatigue.
So dig down to understand what you actually want. Write down your goals and dreams and why they are important to you. Understanding your why brings clarity and motivation. It leads to optimal performance because you can prioritise the important and let go of everything else.
“Begin with the end in mind” - Stephen R. Covey
You’ll know you have hit on your ‘why’ when you get excited just thinking about it (I recently wrote about my why). The more emotion you feel, the more your subconscious takes note and your brain works to ensure it happens - it’s the same principle that makes you remember the things you are interested in at school - what fires your emotion has been proven to physically and chemically rewire the neurons in your brain.
This is where spirituality really does meet science: thoughts actually create physical changes in you. That is why visualisation is powerful. Because imagining you are already the person you want to be, and feeling the emotions of achievement - before you have achieved - motivates and focuses the mind to make sure it happens. Let’s look to see what someone more credible than me says about it:
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.” - Buddha
Most of us won’t get straight to our ‘why’ in the first journalling session. It may take weeks or months to get clarity. The important thing is to start writing down your dreams and goals, and to explore why they are important to you - a few bullet points is sufficient. Just make sure you do this every day. Keep digging down. For instance a goal might be to “live in a comfortable home”. When you ask yourself why that is important, perhaps your answer is “I want to be hospitable and welcoming to friends” or “I want to look good in the eyes of my parents”. Don’t leave it there… in the next day’s journal, ask the question why those things are important to you - why is “being hospitable” or “looking good” important? Eventually you will get down to your true values.
Once you have your ‘why’ it won’t change very often. But make sure you remind yourself of your ‘why’ every day as this will provide a framework and guidance for everything else you do.
The ‘WHAT’ and the ‘WHO’
Once you have your ‘why’ you can think about what needs to happen in order for you to achieve your goals.
Write down your plans and strategies.
Write down people you need to meet who will help you along your way.
Write down the knowledge, skills, and abilities you’ll need to develop to make it happen.
If you do this daily, and act on the intuitions and insights that come - what your inner voice is telling you - you will be amazed at what occurs.
Your journal will make you see opportunities that you didn’t see before. And if something looks like an opportunity, smells like an opportunity or feels like an opportunity, grab it while it’s in front of you. Don’t procrastinate. Taking every opportunity is what separates successful people from everyone else. If you don’t take the insights and act on them, you will just keep living the same life you’re living now.
With your journal, you can zoom out (the ‘why’) or in (the ‘what’). The bird’s-eye view is great for perspective. The worm’s-eye view is great for focus.
Think of a plane flying across the globe - it needs to know the destination - but as it gets blown around on its journey it gets bumped off course - it spends 90% of its time going in the wrong direction - so it continually needs to make small course corrections. And that’s what you can do with your journal. If the plane doesn’t course correct it will land 500 miles from it’s intended destination - don’t let that happen to you.
How To Journal
Every morning, first thing, before any other tasks or distractions, go to a quiet place and write in your journal.
Doing this first thing in the morning is best because:
1) your brain is most creative;
2) your subconscious mind is most receptive to new information and change.
So what do you write about? Here are some guidelines if you want to truly transform yourself for the better (hat tip to Benjamin Hardy):
Where are you now?
Accept yourself as you are - be honest and vulnerable. What are your current beliefs? When you reflect, you may be shocked how low your personal standards have been. Are you wasting your precious time doing shallow reactive work instead of deep creative work? Also, are there things you are doing well?
What is your ideal future (ignoring the past and where you are now)? What do you really want in your life?
Think about: work, emotions, routine, experiences, what kind of person you want to be. What are the ultimate ends you want for yourself - not the means (i.e. intermediate steps or goals). Examples of ‘ultimate aims’ might be happy family or great health.
What do you need to let go and change? And what can you bring forward from your past?
Don’t just let go of the negative things, but also everything that isn’t important. Commit to change. If you need to learn something new, start learning it. If you need to behave differently, do. If you need a new environment, change it (it could be as simple as putting your smartphone somewhere you can’t see it for the first four hours of your day). What needs to be weeded out? Physical things? Habits? Be active and actually take the actions to remove the obstacles. Also note how you can build on what you’re already doing well.
Visualise the future ideal and start being that person.
How do you prime yourself to get to your destination? Try writing about the ideal future in the present tense, as if it’s already here, and feel the emotions.
Plan the things and relationships required to get you there.
What are the things you must do? Nurturing the right relationships is one of the most powerful things you can do.
Act on the plan.
Prioritise and only focus on the top one or two things from your plan. You do not need to work for 8 hours a day. Peak productivity is achieved for 3-5 hours a day. Focus on results not amount of work. Confidence builds from progress, so succeed in small building blocks, rather than biting off more than you can chew.
Keep regularly going back through this cycle, of cleansing and focusing on the important.
“If you want lasting change, you’ve got to give up this idea of ‘trying something.’ You’ve got to decide you’re going to commit-to-mastery. Most people dabble. They say “I’d like to change my body” or “I’d like to make my relationship better”. These people don’t have enough detail to follow-through.“ - Tony Robbins
Journalling is a keystone habit that can transform your life. It brings clarity, direction and motivation, and lets you break down emotional blocks.
The world promotes ‘busy-ness’, but most people don’t know where they are going. So starting out, write down what is important to you. Then write down what is important about that. Keep repeating this until you get to your real values: your why.
Journalling should become a habit that you do every day, like brushing your teeth. So do it for 30 days without fail, then it will become automatic. Do it in the morning, first thing, before being reactive to someone else, even your family. It doesn’t need to take long. A good technique is to write less than you want to — only a few sentences or paragraphs at most. You’ll avoid burnout and want to come back to it the next day.
“Private victories proceed public victories” - Stephen R. Covey
Use the time to write in your journal about:
Anything that comes to your mind
Anything you want to do that day
Who you should reach out to, or ask for help
The kind of person you want to be
The things you are grateful for
…or anything else that you feel is of note.
You will find you become a historian of your past, in control of your present day, and a creator of your future.
Thanks to Jan Kahánek (on Unsplash) for the photo.