This is somewhat different than the usual post. On the surface, it’s basically extolling the power of journaling to make life a little better. But the “too long, didn’t read” version would be this:
Teenagers especially can benefit from journaling. The creators of the NOSO Notebook (Not On SOcial media, get it?) have not only created a journal specifically designed for teens, they are also devoting a significant amount of the proceeds towards “teen wellbeing and mental health initiatives.”
For me, that’s the big selling point. Because there’s a lot of great notebooks out there (in the video, one of the creators has a Field Notes notebook prominently displayed on her desk). But if you’re going to buy a notebook, why not combine that with something that is also going towards the greater good?
Journaling Under Duress
Full disclosure: I began journaling about age fourteen, and it was under duress. I was raised in a religion that held up the journals and memoirs of the founding members in high regard, and it was encouraged as one of the many virtuous qualities a young man would have on his path to righteousness.
Of course, I resented that. I didn’t want to journal, and so a lot of my writing ended up being the furthest thing from righteous. I did not write about my faith in God, I wrote about my bitter resentment over the way the Baby Boomers had put us on the path to nuclear armageddon. I wrote about the crushes that I had on various people, and the heartbreak of unrequited (really: clueless) attempts to garner their attention.
One of the things I wrote a lot about was the way that I could see where people I cared about needed psychological care and counseling — and how the adults who could provide it didn’t see it. I was really resentful of that — and I can tell you that because I can still read those words written thirty-four years ago.
Finding Your Path
I’m not resentful any more — the benefit of hindsight has made me more charitable to the shortcomings of being an “adult” — but I still journal, and I still write whatever comes into my head. It’s by no means been a constant practice. Even the month of December has a whole week missing from my daily journal, and I’m somebody who’s writing a blog post telling you to journal.
Journaling might have been easier to turn into a daily habit if it had been fun from the beginning.
I mean, now I lust after notebooks, I thrill at filling my fountain pens with special inks, I have favorite mugs filled with hot beverage and a comfortable chair to do the writing…I make my journaling a pleasure for myself.
That’s what the NOSO creators have done. They understand all of the reasons why journaling is good for teens especially — but they went the extra mile to make the product itself interesting:
We want to give our budding teens something meaningful and intentional — something analogue to balance beautifully with their tech-filled social lives…our focus is also on it being not too prescriptive, so that it lends itself to any preferred use, be it for goal-setting, planning, ideation, writing, drawing or something else.
Along with that there’s a bunch of stuff about the materials, the paper, even the production process — but if you know a teen, this would be something that would be a worthwhile tool to put in their hands. It can be life-changing.
And if you don’t know a teen, I’d still suggest you back their project. Because somewhere out there there’s a teen who’s gonna need it.
I received no compensation from NOSO for this article, but I am a backer of their project.
It’s been a few weeks of working with the SELF Journal, and there have been some surprising results, so I thought I’d do a quick updated review.
- The journal’s design is wonderful. It’s a real pleasure to hold, the cloth cover maintains integrity in spite of taking it on several trips, and the thick pages are a pleasure to write on. It’s big enough to feel important but small enough to be conveniently stowed in a pocket or taken out on an airplane.
- The spaces for morning and evening gratitude are great ways to renew that particular practice, which had lapsed for me.
- The daily “My Goals” has indeed helped me both stay focused on my long term goals such as Passive Income but also provides room for identifying areas that need more focus, such as Don’t overwork yourself.
- The simple act of pulling out the journal at the beginning and end of the day has become a nice “work is beginning/work is ending” ritual, and pulling it out during the day helps re-center and remind myself of what needs to be done.
- At the end of every week there is a review, and at the very top of that is a space for you to write down your habits you are cultivating and how many you actually accomplished.I find this pretty worthless, because I’m not going back and forth and tracking those habits in my daily time. I still fill it out because I do still use the Productive app for goal-tracking – but having this at the end of the week is just not intuitive for me.
- The three-month calendar pages at the beginning of the book are numbered but not arranged by weeks – which makes it very un-intuitive when you’re trying to work out schedules based on days of the week. I understand the choice, but I would have rather had to fill out the monthly numbers on a week grid than the other way around.
- Three weeks in, I have found that I need to take a break from my initial goal and focus on a different project until late February. I know that they set this up precisely so that you can do this – the daily pages are not dated the way the month pages are – but at the same time it feels difficult to do so. I don’t want to change tracks – which means that this journal is even more effective than I’d expected.
- The “Zero-Based Calendar” that I was totally convinced I would hate? Turns out I love it. I still don’t understand why…but there is a great pleasure to filling in the blocks with what I’m going to be doing at any given time. Maybe it’s because it’s a lot like Tetris. I haven’t found that there’s a lack of slack – rather, I’ve been better able to see where I need to schedule more time and where I need to give things up.
- Weekly Milestones: I totally forgot about them until writing this review. That’s a problem, in terms of making the system work, but it also is a nice reminder of how this is a great tool for personal development.
In case the review doesn’t make it clear: I like this journal. I am likely to buy more when this one is full. Then again, I’m less than a month in…so tune in when April comes and I do a more full review!
Do you use tools like the Self Journal? Or do you know someone who should?
Please share this article with them and let me know what you think!
I am one of the happy backers of the “Self Journal” – a tool that seemed to want to be the Everlasting Gobstopper of journals. At first their mission – “to create something that lends itself to making success inevitable – through planning, execution and measurement” – seems pretty in line with my own efforts at personal development, and when they showed their stack of books they used for inspiration, I saw a lot of my own favorites there – Ferriss, Pressfield, Covey.
I was curious, in that experimental life-hacking sort of way, to see how I might like it. As a side note, if you’ve not explored Kickstarter.com, you should. It’s a way to feel part of the American Dream – watching someone go from Idea to Product, see their trials and tribulations, and (hopefully) end up with a product that you didn’t just buy, you helped make. It doesn’t always work out – but when it does, such as with the Self Journal, it makes it an even more enjoyable experience.
This is a three-month journal, so that’s why I call this the “pre-review”; it’s a first-reaction kind of thing.
- The pages combine several methods that I’ve already used successfully, such as gratitude journaling morning and night, “MIT” (Most Important Tasks), a plan similar to T. Harv Eker’s Life Makeover System, a daily calendar, and even space and pages where I can do sketchnotes.
- The construction of the book feels nice. I suspect that they used the same manufacturer of the Baron Fig Confidant, because it feels almost identical – and that’s a good thing. In fact, it feels even better, because it has the elastic band, beloved of Moleskine users, that is missing for the Confidant. Opening the box felt like you were opening something valuable.
- All of this adds up to the book being an easy space for daily practice of planning your day. I’m on day three right now, and I am liking the way it works.
- “Zero-based calendar“. This is a big one. The theory behind this comes from zero-based budgeting, and the idea is that you “leave no time unplanned.” If you’re planning on sucking on the Gravy Hose (i.e., Facebook) then plan it. This goes very much against my belief in the necessity for slack, and it’s the hardest thing for me to try out.
- They use a lot of hyperbole – “inevitable success” and “maximize productivity”. I don’t much care for that kind of corp-speak (I tend to think it’s destructive). I’ve come up with my own phrases – for example, I’m hoping this book will enable me to “create joyous flow” in my life. Dance, Don’t Scramble.
- The fact that it’s only three months is a little annoying…but I also know that I can easily replicate it in my own notebooks, so this is a minor complaint. Also, if it works well, it’s easily worth the $29 to buy another – and how awesome would a bookshelf full of these feel?
- The one big disappointment was the three-month wall calendar that came as a “bonus”. I do like erasable wall calendars – but this one felt cheap and tawdry compared to the high quality of the rest of the book.
- There is an obvious old white guy bias in the inspirational quotes that accompany each daily outline. It takes some looking to find a quote from a woman, and even then they tend to be women from contemporary pop-psych books. I wish they’d made a little more effort to draw wisdom from multiple cultural and demographic sources.
Don’t let the fact that the “cons” list is longer than the “pros” fool you: I’m liking this book. I’ll write more about the process later, but in the meantime, if you’re looking to start your own journaling practice (a common thing to decide this time of year), why not try out the Five Minute Journal to just get things started?
Remember the Five-Minute Journal? I love the thing; I extolled its virtues, I recommended you buy the fancy one if you like that kind of thing, I even formatted one for my daughter to try and help her get more centered as she prepares for her boards.
However, if you look in my colorful little Field Notes book, you’ll see a bit of a discrepancy. There’s May 8, when my mantra was “Centered”, then May 13th , when I was thankful for Spring, a day to work on my busines, and a good night’s sleepThen there’s two blank pages, and the next date is March 18, which doesn’t make any sense except that it was early in the morning and I probably meant May 18. On that day I planned three things to make the day rock:
- I will sketch
- I will think
- I will relax
…and I must have done them a little too well, because guess what? Not only did I neglect to fill out the remainder of the day, the next entry doesn’t happen until June 18 – a full month of no Five-Minute Journal. In fact, there is only one other day in June that I did it – June 23rd.
Let’s jump past the simple self-recrimination of Bad Personal Development Blogger! No biscuit! Instead, let’s ask the more pertinent question: during that month of no-five-minute-journal practice, did my life fall apart? Was I unhappier?
And if not, perhaps the initial joy of the Five-Minute Journal was less about the efficacy of the journal and more about the Shiny New Technique to Make Life Grand?
There’s No Magic Bullet. Except for…
No, I wasn’t unhappy during the month of June. In fact, I had a lot of great things happen, things that are still happening. The Five-Minute Journal could have made things happier – maybe – but they didn’t make things unhappier. It’s one of many tools that you can keep in your Personal Maintenance Toolbox, and just like a torque wrench isn’t going to be the only thing you need to fix your car – in fact, you could get by without it and just use a socket or adjustable wrench and guess – it’s a nice tool to have. When it comes to doing that one precision thing, having the right tool feels great.
Almost everything I write about in this blog falls into that category. I love reading articles like “100 Things You Should Be Doing to Increase Productivity” for the same reason gearheads like to browse tool shops: not that you want to buy all the things, but because you appreciate the myriad possible ways of doing all the things.
(Let’s face it, there’s also the inherent joy of realizing that the tool you already have works as well or better as the shiny new ones, but that’s a guilty pleasure we won’t dwell on.)
The one exception – the one thing that is a magic bullet, and for which there is no substitute tool, is sleep. As my fellow blogger Karl (who is on that most civilized of breaks called “paternity leave”) mentioned to me last week: “It’s amazing what getting enough sleep can do for your stress levels.” But this blog post isn’t about sleep, so I’ll simply point you towards another good post if you’re interested in that.
Getting Back on Your Habit Horse
What do you do when you fall off a horse? Dust yourself off and get back on. I’m happy to say that my 5-minute Journal is on a 4-day streak that started on the 10th with mantras of “ease”, “happy”, “joy”, and “forward”. I’m considering downloading the app Chris Brogan recommended, “Streak”, which will help me celebrate this (and other) practices (though I’m trying out the free “Productive” first). I’m pleased to say that I’ve even managed to mostly avoid that typical “Why bother? You’ll only quit again…” voice in my head.
What was it that got me back in the saddle for 5 minutes a day? Not some epiphany. Not some great resurgence of will or resolution. No, it was a simple request from one of my patrons for some “custom content” (that’s right, if you’re my patron, you get that kind of access to Love Life Practice! What a deal!).
Specifically she wanted to see how I laid out the book I made for my daughter. So I made this little video:
In the process, I was reminded of how much fun the 5-Minute Journal was to do. I was reminded of how easy it was to do if I set up an Environment of Win. Next thing I knew, I was making sure the pen and the book were next to my bed, and poof the practice is reborn.
The lesson I got from this is that if you’re having trouble maintaining a practice, maybe talking yourself into it or trying to create peer pressure aren’t the best strategies. Maybe it’s as simple as this: tell your friend why you want to do the practice. Maybe they want to try it out too (or, for your sake, could pretend to) and you get to show them how to do it. Heck, use this blog for some techniques; I grant you permission to steal liberally.
It’s not about being happy. It’s about being happier. It’s not about being perfect, or even about being better. It’s about being authentic. Some practices help you with that, some don’t. The nice thing is, they may come and go, but your authentic self?
It’s always there.
My Middle Daughter (who is celebrating her quarter-century mark today) has been working on establishing a “5-Minute Journal” habit for herself. Like any good Personal-Development-Blogger-Dad I saw this as both an opportunity to bloviate to her and come up with a useful practice post.
“I really like the journal,” she said – I’d given her a pretty Spring edition of the Field Notes brand, with the first few pages outlined with the elements of the 5-Minute Journal process. “But I always forget to do the end-of-day parts.” That’s the “Awesome 3” – three good things that happened that day – and the one thing that, if you could make time go backwards, you would change. Being a geek, I like to call those “Tardis Moments” or “3MIT” (“TIME” spelled backwards).
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m already in bed, and it’s sitting downstairs…and it just doesn’t seem like I can get up and bother with it.”
“Ok,” I said. “So the barrier is inertia. Beds are comfy. We need to make the journal as convenient as your bed. How about keeping it at your bedside table?”
“Oh, I tend to write in it later in the morning, so I keep it in my bag…”
“Ah, there’s the problem,” I smiled. “The idea of the 5-Minute Journal is that you do it right away, first thing, with a mind untrammeled by the events of the day.” Now, of course, this is me writing about the conversation after the fact to illustrate the point; I wasn’t nearly as concise. I am pretty sure I actually did use the word “untrammeled”, though. “Just keep the book by your bedside table all the time, and that way there’s no way for you to avoid it.”
Science of Solution
That is part of the science of habit, called “triggers.” It can be a bad thing – like eating a cookie every time you pass a cookie jar. But it also can be used to your advantage by hooking the habit you want to cultivate to a habit you already have – like waking up, or turning off your light.
So the way it would work is:
Wake up triggers: I write in the book.
and then on the other side, when she wants to go to bed and reaches for the lamp, she remembers:
Can’t turn off light until I write in the book.
The key, though, according to many people who write much smarter stuff than me about habits, is that you make sure the trigger and habit are right next to each other. It has to happen right away. If you try to associate waking up with writing in your journal an hour later…the two won’t be connected.
It has to be very conscious and deliberate at first, but over time this gets easier, and the new habit becomes almost automatic. Do it as consistently as possible, every time the trigger happens. The less consistent you are, the weaker the bond between trigger and habit. The more consistent, the stronger the bond. – Leo Babauta, Zen Habits
Application is not Permanence
I know that this can work, because I used it to develop my own 5-Minute Journal habit. It worked wonderfully – but you will notice that I’m using the past tense. That’s because, to be fully honest, I haven’t been doing it for a while now.
Part of that is because I’ve been trying other morning routines and such – but more to the point, when I stopped making “reach for pen and notebook” the first thing I did in the morning, it no longer had the trigger, and the habit faded. Not completely – I’m confident I can re-establish it – but habits are tools that are only useful if you maintain them. They’re not simple machines like levers and pulleys – they are made up of complex moving parts that require constant vigilance to maintain.
But if you pick out your trigger and your habit and you do it now it will get easier. I promise. We are hardwired that way; isn’t it about time that you made that work for you?
What do you want to do?
Giving is a GREAT habit!
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It first manifests by my social media (aka the Gravy Hose) craving, when I wonder What have I missed in the last seven hours?
My hand reaches almost automatically towards the bedside table – where my phone isn’t. No, my phone is charging out at my standing desk, about as far from where I am as you can get in our apartment.
Fine. I don’t get to check social media, and I know what I should be doing: my morning protocols. Which consist of the following:
- A short 15-minute yoga routine;
- 15 minutes of meditation.
- One page of journaling (with coffee)
- A light breakfast while watching something inspirational (usually a TED talk).
Sure, that’s what I’m supposed to do. But it’s not what I want to do. What I want to do is skip right to the coffee. Every morning I have an argument with myself as I stumble into the living room.
C’mon, you were absurdly productive yesterday. Why not give yourself a break?
(as I turn on the light, I see the yoga mat in the corner. Automatically my hand reaches for it.)
Yoga? Again? You don’t need yoga. You’ve been working out a lot – you should give yourself rest.
I unfurl the yoga mat on the living room floor. The voice in my head changes tactics.
Like this little 15-minute routine you stole from Tara Stiles is actually doing you any good. What, you expect to look like Rodney Yee or something? You’re probably not even doing it right, since you don’t even have an instructor. Why are you bothering?
By then I’m doing the cat/cow stretches, and usually my brain stops for a little while. Then I reach for my phone – where it’s two clicks to the meditation app, vs. three levels to the social media app. It’s early, and my finger manages to stumble over the Mind App, with a neat little ratcheting sound as the electronic timer winds to 15 minutes. That’s when the voice in my head really hits stride:
Oh, look at you, all meditating! Fine, might as well use this time to think about your day –
Come back to the breath.
Did you see what Bruce wrote online yesterday? Can you believe that? Here, let’s compose a new entry in response, since you’re not doing anything useful.
Back to the breath.
You realize you’re 46 years old with almost zero net worth? Why are you wasting your life? Other men are successful. Plus they’re more attractive. They do more than yoga. You are wasting your.
Don’t you think it’s been a long time? You probably didn’t set the phone right. You’re gonna be late, because you’re too dumb to check your phone. Come on, just look. It won’t hurt.
I breathe. I wait, and finally hear the three soft chimes that tell me the meditation is done. I get to my feet and for a while the battle is over; I have finally reached the Sanctuary of Coffee, my reward for being able to write in my journal – and better yet, what I write in my journal is the voice in my head. It suddenly has an outlet, to write about hopes, anxieties, happiness and sadness and anything.
And did I mention I get coffee then, as well? Mmm. Coffee.
Then I grab the fruit, or make a little Memphis toast, and grab a glass of water along with it as I settle in to my iPad, where again the TED app is easier to get to than Twitter or Facebook. I find a short talk and let my brain get primed. Sometimes the talks are silly first-world elitists, sure, but I find it pretty easy to just find incredible people, as well, and even if the ideas are pie-in-the-sky, well, I find that the sky tends to look a little better with pie in it.
With that, the protocols are done. I look at my schedule, and the voice in my head smugly announces Yes, those protocols make your day better, without fail. You really need to do them every day, no matter what. A really good personal-development writer would certainly do it. Hope you have the willpower to do it tomorrow; you have a tendency to be lazy, you know, and want to just slack off.
My brain is not helpful in the mornings. So I’ve chosen the ground in which the conflict occurs, and it makes my path to victory that much easier. Not assured, mind you – but easier. Much more likely to happen, and that makes the rest of the day that much better.
What’s your morning look like? Does your environment support it? If not, you might want to look at a little optimizing.
And if you have a voice in your head, too, I’d love to hear how you quiet it down. Mine’s telling me, simultaneously, that I should write two more posts and that there’s a whole season of Daredevil on Netflix, and I’ve been working all weekend, and surely you deserve a break, Gray.
I mentioned in the last post that I was trying out the “5 Minute Journal” technique for five days (which is kind of their “challenge” for skeptics). I am definitely one of those skeptics, due to the overwhelming amount of optimism that falls into their formula.
I will outline it briefly here:
Every morning, first thing:
- Write three things you are grateful for.
- Write three things that will make it a great day.
- Write an affirmation.
Now, the first one is easy – I’ve done that kind of gratitude exercise before. The second is sort of like a MIT (Most Important Tasks) list – except it’s three things that you control that you can do to make it a better day. The affirmation is something I struggle with; I have to work hard to come up with something that is both realistic and positive and meaningful. Today, for example, my affirmation is “I can control how I react to things happening around me.“
At the end of the day, last thing before you go to bed:
- Write the “Awesome 3”: three good things that happened.
- Think of your “Time Machine” moment (which I’ve taken to calling “the Tardis Moment”): if you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?
This is just the bare bones – you should really check out their website “fiveminutejournal.com” for the full scoop. While you don’t have to use their neat printed volume (I use a Field Notebook) you certainly could do worse in terms of quality journaling, and their tips and explanations help flesh out the concept.
Instant Change! Just Add Journal
While I started out skeptical, I was amazed at how quickly this process improved my general life. My productive nature made me naturally try to accomplish the “great day” tasks, which both was fun and also automatically made my answer to How’s your day? turn into “Great!” The affirmation was also surprisingly helpful in shielding me from some of my usual hangups, and the “Tardis Moment” kept me from feeling like this whole thing was just a saccharine exercise in rose-colored journaling.
The biggest change, though, came when I woke up on day 2. I lay there in bed, thinking What are my three things going to be? both for gratitude and for “great day.” With a shock, I realized that I was really looking forward to not only writing in the journal (for all of 60 seconds) but to making that “great day” happen. In other words, I was actively creating a better life for myself.
All from a few little lists.
I’ll be talking, along with my partner Natasha (who also has been trying this out), about the experience of the five-day challenge on the Weekend Roundup Podcast. If you have any questions for us to address, please leave them in the comments!
Instant Dilemma; Just Add Text
Every once in a while you get faced with an issue that seems completely unsolvable, until something changes to make it eminently solvable.
Here’s how the timeline went:
4:50 am: Wake up to take partner to her work at the coffee shop; I plan to write and do other work there until 10am, when I have a volunteer shift at the VA Hospital.
5:00 am: Find text that Middle Daughter sent previous night asking for some study time together. We’d tried to find that time yesterday, but scheduled meetings, transportation, etc. hadn’t allowed for it. “I’m totally serious about it this moring,” she wrote. “Let’s make it happen!“
That’s a fun word – it means “when two equally urgent but opposing needs express at the same time.” My whole moving back to Madison, WI has been one gigantic lifehack, an experiment in happiness. Since research shows that (statistically) people are happier when they volunteer and when they focus on family and friends, I’ve been doing that. And you know what? It’s working. I’m happier these days than I’ve ever been.
But the volunteer work is just that: volunteer. Nobody forces me to go, I’m not (like many other volunteers) filling in hours for Med School or somesuch. Really, it’s an excuse to wear sexy scrubs and bring smiles to vets who don’t get a lot of positive attention or respect in their day. The staff of the hospital treats them amazingly well, mind you – when I’m being treated there, it’s amazing how many times I get “sir’d” or thanked for my service.
In the rest of their worlds, though, a lot of these men and women are struggling with persistent problems with little help. I can’t solve their problems – in fact, I’m not allowed to even try – but I can be a pleasant and respectful person who pushes their wheelchair down to radiology or brings them a warmed blanket. And at the end of my three-hour shift I do, in fact, feel happier. Since there’s nothing urgent about my time there – at best, I’m a dose of “nice” in their day – I need to prioritize it myself. I need to push it ahead of the write more – make clients happy – do more stuff priorities to make it happen.
But Think of the Children!
On the other hand, my daughter is working her way through the difficult second year of medical school. She and her sisters and my grandsons are the primary reason I came back here, to get to both spend time with them and, when possible, be a help. They already have a great support system here, but I manage to fill in the gaps here and there with rides to appointments or Emergency Grandpa Childcare. I made a promise to myself a while back that I would make them a priority in my day-to-day planning – so I cancel most plans if possible to help them out, and given a choice between “spend time with them” or not, I always opt for “spend time” even if I don’t really feel like it. Time with them is the one thing I can’t make more of, after all, so it’s best to make it happen when I can.
The ultimate goal is to get good enough at this kind of family priority to extend it to my sisters, parents, nephews and nieces. I’m not quite that good yet, but I have seen them more in the past year than in the several before that. Kaizen: getting better, little by little.
Two priorities. Two responsibilities I’ve given myself, and I can’t do both. Sure, kids would normally be much more important than volunteer work – but Middle Daughter is an adult, she doesn’t need me to study with her. But the VA doesn’t need me either. Wouldn’t I be modeling good behavior by keeping my shift? Or would M.D. (heh, just realized, that’s funny) feel that she wasn’t important enough for me to reschedule volunteer work?
This was what went through my head as:
5:15am I settle into my chair, open my journal, and start writing.
My pen hesitated over the page. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be rationalizing my decision either way? Was it going to be “Today I get to spend time with my middle daughter…” or “Today I made a Vietnam Vet guffaw and smile as I shook his hand…“? As I paused, trying to decide, a question popped into my head:
What do you want people to read here?
At that, the dilemma disappeared in a puff of smoke. Because while I don’t know who, if anyone, will read my journals down the line, in my imagination it is someone like my grandson Harvey or Victor, and I know I would want them to read about how I had spent more time with their Tita (that’s Tagalog for “Aunt”). I would want them to know how much their grandfather loved his daughters. In fact, I’d want them to think I loved them far more than I do, because, after all, the real me is imperfect. The journaled me…well, as Heinlein said, autobiographies are often true but rarely honest.
Which is why I get to write this post while my daughter sits next to me, drinking the coffee I bought her and her roommate, studying the Krebs cycle. Is it a perfect morning? No. But it’s a happier one. And all it took was asking myself not What story do you want to write? but What story do you want to have written?
Whatever you do, don’t look behind you!
There’s a very scary shelf among my books. It contains words that make me cringe, shudder, draw back in horror – and that’s not from reading them, it’s from the mere idea of reading them.
They are my journals.
While they’re not all quite in order, they do stretch back quite a ways – to middle school, in fact. In it are not profound thoughts, deep reflection, positive wisdom on the state of the universe. No, instead there is insecurity, fear, jealousy, selfishness, lost dreams, abandoned hopes…
Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s why I don’t read them terribly often. A fellow journal-writer and friend said it pretty succinctly:
I suffered immensely at the hand of my past. Re-reading that is to relive it, invoke that shame and disgust. And it is hard to get past that.
Hard indeed. But worthwhile, if only for the whole idea that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it.
One of the most practical reasons to re-read journals and blogs is to be able to read between the lines. You have a distinct advantage over the person who wrote whatever words you’re reading: you know what happened next. That means you can start to recognize cause-and-effect. Perhaps more importantly you may be able to recognize when an effect is not caused by something. Either way, you have new information from which to plan your future.
Of course, that’s another lesson you will learn from reading it: things don’t always turn out the way you expected. The things you feared? Didn’t happen. And if they did, they were likely not as apocalyptic as it felt at the time. Unfortunately the flip side is true, as well. Those things you looked forward to, that you worked diligently towards until you achieved them – likely they didn’t quite match up to the expectations.
Again, both of those are useful lessons to learn, especially when you’re trying to plan for the future. But the fact that a practice is useful and practical doesn’t make it any more appealing when you dread it. If that were the case, I’d be doing a lot more yoga in my day.
So how does one get past the paralysis of autographochronophobia, a word I just made up to describe the fear of one’s writing about times past?
Not Feeling Yourself
I can’t speak for my friend, but while I share his loathing for revisiting the past, I can say that like many fears when faced it turned out to be much less difficult than I expected. It took a while, but I realized why that was: I am no longer the person who wrote those words.
That person was still either in the middle of or just barely beyond whatever traumatic events I was writing about. There were still fresh memories; the images were connected to intense reactions of neurochemistry, emotional maelstroms of anger and sorrow and grief and whatever.
That’s not the case when you re-read it. Instead you are removed from the situation, enjoying the benefit of perspective. You have greater strength and resilience that comes from having survived longer than that person who wrote the words. Not only that, you get to remember that you did survive all that – a reminder of the simple and admirable skill of survival.
Perhaps you’re in a better place now – then you’ve got even more reason to celebrate! I know I’ve looked at some journals from about twenty years ago and just shake my head. How did that young man manage to do all that stuff? I’m tired just reading it! My life now is both more simple and more wondrous than he would have ever been able to imagine.
Riding the Changes
Your motivations and values have changed – either become more refined and clear, or perhaps changed completely. You can see what dreams you carried with you, and what ones you left behind or traded in for new dreams. The same applies to friends, family, food, and probably a few other words that begin with F.
You may still have some things in common with that person who wrote the journal. You certainly owe them a debt of some kind, whether that’s positive or negative, because it was their action that put you where you are now. Perhaps you want to let them know how that makes you feel. No, it won’t make a difference to them, but it certainly can make a difference to you.
That’s why it’s not only worth it to make a practice of journaling, but also of reviewing your journals. Take advantage of holidays, for example, and spend an hour just paging through your past thoughts.
It’s not as scary as you think. It can’t hurt you; whatever pain was possible has already been inflicted. Instead it offers a chance for further healing, for more strength, and for a better future.
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