I never used to journal or “keep a diary.”
I suppose there are several reasons for this. Earlier in my life, I thought of journaling—keeping a diary—as “something girls do.” I probably came to that false conclusion because my early exposure to journaling was always limited to female examples, The Diary of Anne Frank is one.
A second reason is that, sadly, reading and writing were not highly valued in my childhood home. My mother never went to college, and my father joined the military before graduating high school. They were good parents, but neither placed a premium on the development of the mind. The idea of voluntarily spending time as a teenager or young man writing in a journal without being forced to by a teacher was the farthest thing from my mind. I am reminded of the hilarious scene in Back to the Future (click here for movie clip) when Doc tells the old men in the bar that in the future people run for fun:
Doc: In the future, we don't need horses. We have motorized carriages called "automobiles."
Barfly: If everybody's got one of these auto-whats-its, does anybody walk or run any more?
Doc: Of course we run, but for recreation. Fun.
Barfly: Run for fun? What the hell kinda fun is that?!
I would have said the same thing about journaling, albeit with different language!
I was wrong. History is replete with famous people keeping journals; Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Winston Churchill, to name a few. None other than George Washington kept a daily diary for much of his life, from his first surveying trip in 1748 until December 13, 1799, the day before his death.
The question is why? Why take the time and develop the discipline to journal? I believe there are at least six good reasons to keep a journal.
1. Journaling helps us remember the small daily events that compose the majority of our lives.
Life has its peaks and valleys, but we live most of it on the plains of our daily journey. Unless we capture, savor, and learn from the countless monochrome moments that compose the majority of our lives, they will be absorbed into the gray mist of life and history—gone and forgotten and indistinguishable from all others.
It is easy to miss the small and insignificant events that continuously fill our lives over time. Because there are so many inconsequential moments that makeup our lives, it is easy to miss the arc of our life’s journey. These moments are precious not because they are colorful, unique and profound but because they are life—they are the warp and woof of our imprint upon our families, colleagues and the world and their mark upon us. They are worth remembering and savoring. Keeping and reviewing a journal reveals our life journey in all of its plainness and grandeur.
2. Our lives are enriched, saddened—sometimes shattered—and redirected by peaks and valleys. They must not be forgotten.
These events must be embraced as opportunities for celebration, deep learning, and trusting God’s providence.
Having experienced many turning points in life, I have adopted Proverbs 16:9 as my life verse: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” While I remember some of these turning points, I have forgotten or failed to recognize others. And sadly, my recollection of is imprecise. I wish I’d captured the details of those turning points, reflecting on my feelings and lessons learned from them.
Journaling captures these pivotal events so that we can remember and redeem them for our good and the good of others. Journaling helps us discover the good from bad, even shattering, events that at the time only reveal brokenness. It often takes time (and sometimes never in this life) to recognize the immutable but often mysterious truth that, “… for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28, ESV) The rearview mirror—our journal—is sometimes the best way to see God’s goodness in what the puritans called “His frowning providences.”
3. Writing is good for you!
For those who don’t like to write, journaling may be good for you—like eating your vegetables and exercising—unpleasant but worthwhile! Seriously, the evidence is overwhelming that writing is good for our brains and our souls. According to Neurorelay (a site offering research on consumer neuroscience):
writing can serve as a calming, meditative tool. Stream of conscious writing exercises, in particular, have been identified as helpful stress coping methods. Keeping a journal or trying out free-writing exercises, can drastically reduce your levels of stress. [Moreover, writing activates specific regions of the brain]:
- The part of the brain that is associated with speaking and writing is the frontal lobe. This area is also responsible for movement, reasoning, judgment, planning and problem-solving.
- The parietal lobe is also important in writing. This part of the brain interprets words and language. Patients with damage to this part of their bran often have trouble spelling and writing by hand.
Judy Willis (a neurologist and teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project) expands upon the benefits of writing:
Consider all of the important ways that writing supports the development of higher-process thinking: conceptual thinking; transfer of knowledge; judgment; critical analysis; induction; deduction; prior-knowledge evaluation (not just activation) for prediction; delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals; recognition of relationships for symbolic conceptualization; evaluation of emotions, including recognizing and analyzing response choices; the ability to recognize and access information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain's cerebral cortex that are relevant to evaluating and responding to new information or for producing new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.1
4. A Journal helps you to celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes
I use a template for my journal entries. One section of the template is titled: “How did I do today?” Answering this question prompts me to reflect on what I did well, what I did not do so well, and what I learned personally and professionally.
5. A journal fosters gratitude if you write down at least one thing for which you are thankful each day
To prompt me to focus on my blessings, I include “I am thankful for/that” in my journal template. Counting one's blessings at the end of a day--no matter how bad the day was--is good for one's soul and fosters a good night's sleep.
6. Your children/grandchildren will learn more about you
A journal serves as an autobiography for your family. They will learn a great deal about you. They will discover things about you that you never thought to share or that they have forgotten. Think of your journal not so much as preserving your memory as being a blessing, as a gift. I certainly wish I knew more about my parents and grandparents now that they are gone.
A Word of Caution
I recommend that you do not include negative, private, or sensitive information about others in your journal. There is always the risk that your journal will be found and read by others. Putting confidential information in your journal runs the risk of damaging the reputation of others or hurting them. Avoiding hurting others also applies after your passing. Assuming you want family members to have a chronicle of your life, you should not include inflammatory or private information in your journal.
What Tool to Use:
There is an abundance of paper and digital options for journaling. What one chooses depends a great deal on the purpose of the journal, e.g., if it is intended to be read later by others and personal writing preferencess. Some people think and write better with pen and paper; others prefer digital so they can quickly search their journal and can write in it anytime using their computer or mobile devices. Based on my purpose and preferences, here are the criteria that I applied in selecting a journaling tool.
- I prefer digital journals so that I can quickly make new entries, correct mistakes, search the journal, and journal from any of my devices wherever I am. If you decide on using a paper journal keep in mind that it can be lost or destroyed more easily than a digital version that is backed up in the cloud. A paper journal is also less secure whereas a secure, unique password can protect a digital one.
- The journal must not be dependent on particular software or hardware. If I decide to change from a Windows machine or vice versa, I wanted to make sure that my journal could go with me.
- The file format must be “timeless” and software/hardware independent. In other words, future proof. Using proprietary file formats such as Microsoft Word, Evernote, Apple Pages, Google Docs, etc., runs that risk that when technology changes—and it will—that the journal can no longer be opened if the file format is abandoned or changed significantly. Avoiding this problem is why I always write in plain text. I also use Markdown, a simple way to format your plain text for using in nearly any other program from the Web to MS Word. In fact, I’m writing this blog article in plain text using Markdown.
- For those who are interested in know, I use the Ulysses app. for all of my writing, including my journal.
Here are a few other tips to keep in mind as you journal.
- Embed images to remember special people, events and more. For example, I embed pictures of birthday cards, handwritten notes from my daughters and grandchildren, a picture of a special meal, of my hotel room when traveling and more. These pictures will help you remember the person, place, or occasion and will bring your journal “to life” for those who read it after your passing.
- Copy and paste text messages and other social media content from family and friends that are particularly meaningful to you.
- Include your location to remind you when you made the entry.
Create a Journal Template
Consider creating a journal template that you can use each time you begin a new entry. A template provides a consistent structure for thinking and writing while not being unduly confining. One can always skip sections in the template and add any other thoughts and bits of information as desired. I use the following template:
- Date in the format of year-month-day. This format makes it easier to sort your journal entries.
- Where indicates where the journal is being written, e.g., on the beach, in another country, or the backyard.
- Highlights are quick bullet points of key events since your last entry, e.g., the birth of a child, the loss of a friend, a kind word of encouragement you received, or a particularly important news story.
- Thoughts, which unlike the highlights section, this is the area for more profound reflection. How did this event or this person affect me? How did I affect others? What is God teaching me? How am I feeling? What insights have I gained?
- I am thankful for/that, which as indicated above, is where you take time to count your blessings—naming them one by one. Although some will be generic, e.g., thankful for one’s family or health, try to think of more particular blessings no matter how small. I recently wrote in my journal that I was grateful for my dog Charlie who “sits on my lap or lays next to me whenever I’m home. He also loves to play fetch with his “bunny” and share snacks with me in my recliner. He never leaves me; he is my constant companion.”
- How I did is where you assess how you did as a person and as a professional. Be honest but not brutal nor blissfully ignorant and self-deceived about shortcomings. While avoiding putting information in your entry that could be harmful to others, how did you treat people? Where your words and actions honoring to the Lord and loving toward others? Is there someone you should tell that you love them or share a word of encouragement? Do you need to apologize to someone before you go to bed? (Eph. 4:26)
- Other is, well, for any other information since your last entry that you wish to include in your journal.
Journaling is a useful tool to chronicle your life and to grow as a person and a professional. Make it an intimate part of your life’s journey. You and others will be glad you did.