I’ve been keeping a journal for a long time now. I’m not sure how long, really. I have a journal from when I was in the fourth grade; perhaps I journaled even farther back than that. Fourth grade, though; that’s what, 9 years old? That’s pushing 22 years now. Granted, it’s not something that I do every day (never has been), but I’ve been semi-consistently writing down my thoughts and ideas for over two decades.
Semi-consistent, until 6 years ago. That’s when I joined the Army and quit thinking about what I was doing. It’s interesting to note that this really is true. All the stuff you hear about the military beating the independent thought out of you is correct, even in my case. I’m about the most independent person I know, and I don’t take orders well. I don’t know that I quit thinking about my life because the Army taught me not to question; I think it’s more of an issue of continuing to ask the questions, and for the first time, not really liking the answers.
After all, that’s what journaling is all about (or should be, anyway). It’s the search for answers to the questions that come up in your life every day. The necessity for reflection is one that I used to find so necessary that I filled tons of spiral bound notebooks and professionally bound journals for just that reason. It’s a habit that pays big dividends, for a few big reasons.
1- Journaling allows you to track your progress.
Progress of what, you ask? Anything, really. I look back at some of my old journals and am almost embarrassed by the depth (or lack thereof) of thought expressed there. However, on the other hand, it’s refreshing to see how far I’ve progressed; how much more of a “grown up” I am at 30 than I was at 20. But, that’s not the only progress journaling allows you to track. It can be much more concrete than that. You can develop ideas for almost anything (school projects, proposals at work, ideas for the Great American Novel, etc.) and track how they get fleshed out as you record your thoughts on them. The questions you have about aspects of the plan, the objections you foresee being raised and your responses to them, the next steps that bring the idea closer to fruition. All of this is located in one, easy to maintain location, allowing you to focus your thoughts.
2- Journaling can help you discover what you’re thinking.
It’s not just for recording your thoughts. I’ve found so many times, especially as I’ve gotten older and realized I don’t really know as much as I thought I did in the past, that I sometimes don’t even know what I’m thinking about a particular issue. Putting it all down on paper in a stream-of-consciousness dump allows me to see it all there. The thoughts in my head (and, maybe yours, too) tend to swirl around in a sort of fog that I can’t quite seem to pin down. Writing has the effect of pulling all these thoughts out of the spinning vortex and pinning them down to the paper so that I can examine them more closely and see what they’re really saying about the issue in question. I know that, honestly, there have been times when I’ve looked at something I’ve written after I’ve been going for awhile and I’ve surprised myself that I think the way I do. I never would have crystallized my views the way I did if it weren’t for my journaling.
3- Journaling can provide a great source of ideas for the future
Not creative, you say? I used to think the same thing. I quit using my imagination a long time ago and I wish I had it back now the way I did when I was 5. I found a great technique for using my journal to unleash my inner 5 year old. Leonardo di Vinci used the same technique in a lot of his journals, actually (and if it was good enough for him, I’m confident it’s okay for me).
What you need to do is write the question you want to answer at the top of your page (or type it, if you journal on your computer). Make sure you specify exactly the question you want to answer; be as precise and definite as possible. Then, put your pen on the paper and start writing (or, fingers on the keys, as the case may be). Don’t stop for at least ten minutes. Your hand will cramp up, and you’ll probably have to write “I have no idea what to write” a few times, especially in the beginning. What you’re doing is cutting through the conscious mind that filters our thoughts for us. Normally, this is a good thing (as anyone who’s had a young son or daughter ask an embarrassing question in a public place at high volume can attest). However, when you’re trying to discover creative answers to questions, it doesn’t help at all. You need to cut through the conventional thinking, the clutter and the extraneous, in order to allow the thoughts in your subconscious mind to bubble to the surface. This is when the thoughts truly get good.
The actual action of writing whatever comes into your mind, free-association style, allows you to dig (metaphorically speaking) a hole through your conscious thought to the subconscious stream underneath. Once you’ve been going for a few minutes (with no stopping!), you’ll be amazed at the stuff that starts coming out of your pen onto the paper. Truly, it may not be “great” stuff. However, you will notice that it’s original stuff, not conventional thinking, and probably thoughts that you don’t even recognize as your own. This means it’s working! Now, all you have to do is practice, practice, practice. The thoughts get better the more you get them out.
Anyway, those are just three reasons I journal. There are others, but this post is long enough. Reflection (like what I’ve done here) is so important to developing a true understanding of yourself; if you’re not currently routinely engaging in self-assessment of some sort, start today.