Without this daily habit, these stressful times would probably have taken a toll on me
On Sunday, 16 May 2021, I achieved a milestone. I completed #500DaysOfJournaling.
TBH, I never thought I’d make it this far.
It started on 4 January 2020 as a timepass experiment with Julia Cameron’s famed ‘Morning Pages’ from her celebrated creativity manual The Artist’s Way. The rules are simple: 3 pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up, and before I begin my day’s work and chores. This is the format of journal/diary writing I’ve been using now for more than a year.
I didn’t realise how and when my journaling became an automatic daily habit.
The timing couldn’t have been better: when the pandemic officially hit our shores two months later, I already had a head start.
Yes, there have been bad mental-health days since, but I wonder if I’d have had it tougher without the aid of this everyday practice. I feel it has kept me somewhat anchored amid a raging storm. Also, it would have been difficult for me to commence it in the middle of the pandemic, with all the stress, worry, panic, and chaos around.
Daily journaling has become so second nature to me that I didn’t even miss it on the day I was sick to the stomach and rolling in my bed with pain. The stomach ache compelled me to stagger the 3 pages over a couple of hours instead of the 30 minutes I usually take, but I did it. No need to exercise any discipline or willpower here; as I said, it all happened automatically. In fact, I have to summon my discipline and willpower to NOT do it at all!
In short, I cannot even imagine a day without this start now. All other appointments can stay on hold—not this one.
How daily journaling is helping me
Daily journaling has helped me achieve a kind of clarity of thought I never have in all my life before.
I’ve become a more solution-oriented person, more assertive, and better able to articulate and express myself, my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
I imagine daily writing as a pressure valve for my accumulated stress—an act of emptying my overflowing cup first thing every morning. I visualise how light it feels. I envision decluttering my mind and throwing out all those stupid, irrelevant thoughts that no longer serve me but are unnecessarily occupying my head and blocking the entry of some better ones. I picture myself taking the sting off those nagging, pesky thoughts by giving them the form of inked words on a page and not letting them continue to scare me by simmering and stewing in my head.
I think of writing first thing in the morning as a way to cleanse my mind the way I do with my body system in the loo. No wonder it’s called a ‘brain dump’.
Even this article by the University of Rochester Medical Center, New York, asserts that daily journaling is worth its benefits, ranging from anxiety control and stress reduction to mood improvement and help with depression. Pairing it with therapy works wonders. In fact, journal/diary writing is the cheapest form of therapy one can get, considering it’s FREE, barring the expense of pens and notebooks, of course.
In addition, the pandemic is an unusual situation for the entire world, and we need a weapon to prevent its ravages on our mental health. What’s better than daily journaling here?!
As an aside, I get to improve my vocabulary and communication skills and garner tons of writing practice in the process.
I tell myself that if I skip one day, I may end up skipping the next one, too. So, I journal every day to derive the maximum benefit from it.
5 tips that help me journal daily
Doing it first thing in the morning
They say your inner critic and inner editor are still asleep for the first 45 minutes of your waking up. So, if I journal during this window, I find myself less likely to stop in my writing and fuss over my sentence structure, grammar, neatness of handwriting, etc. The key to a solid journaling practice is to avoid all sorts of self-criticism towards your writing. I even use multiple languages at a time, and not just English. My sentences make no sense on most occasions. In short, to silence my inner critic, doing it first thing in the morning is crucial.
Also, if I defer journaling to other times of the day, it’d be akin to allowing other people and circumstances to dictate my day, mood, attitude, mindset—everything. I remember postponing a journaling session of mine on one occasion, years before my current Morning Pages practice. I thought I’d journal in the afternoon. But just when I opened my notebook to write, my phone beeped a rejection email for PiKu & ViRu (buy/download here) from a literary agent. Although it’s part and parcel of any author’s life, the email sent me into a tizzy and my mind into utter chaos. I couldn’t focus on anything. Everything was scattered. Journaling was the last thing I wanted to do.
That event eventually became the trigger for my daily Morning Pages habit. The fear of experiencing something like this again and jinxing my day by not journaling first thing in the morning is enough to make me subconsciously stick to my habit.
Mornings are the only time of the day when the world is yet to wake up and get started on its usual business. So, I make the most of them by employing this time wisely for myself. Because if I don’t take care of myself first, how will I be able to help others?
To make it easier to journal first thing in the morning, I keep my notebook and pen close to my bed. That way, I end up picking them over anything else. And I don’t check my phone, except for…
Using a white-noise website or app
The last thing anyone would want while journaling is to see the flow of their writing interrupted and consequently give up on journaling even before it got a fair chance to become a regular habit. That’s why ‘Do Not Disturb signs’ and a white-noise app help. I use Noises Online for my journaling.
I understand not everyone has the bandwidth to avoid disturbances daily. But given that daily journaling is the best therapy for our mental health right now, especially in the absence of good and affordable mental-health infrastructure or resources in our country, we have to find a way to prioritise it over everything else. We’ll only end up thanking ourselves later.
Writing for not more than half an hour
Too many people understandably back out of journaling because of the time commitment involved and the threat of its interference with other important things in life. So, the best policy is to wake up half an hour early for journaling.
Choose your paper size accordingly. I use an A4-size notebook, turn it horizontally, and split the page into two halves. I then fill three of these half-sections each morning. Total time: 25–30 minutes. I write fast enough to ensure I outpace my inner critic and inner editor and not surpass this 30-minute time limit.
Trying these prompts for journal writing
Let’s face it, not everybody on Earth can have enough material in their life and mind that will fill up their Morning Pages every day without the need for them to stop and think about what to write. In the 500 days that I’ve journaled so far, I’ve gone blank more times than you can imagine.
I have 5 solutions for this.
I start each entry with carefully worded and targeted affirmations. These set the foundation for my mental make-up. To make them more realistic, I use the words “I’m learning to…” Because there’s no denying that we are learning something or the other each passing moment, right?
After the affirmations, I write about the best thing that happened to me on the previous day. This format of diary entry helps me see even a wretched day with a different perspective and in a new light.
Then, I write about the one thing I want to do or see happen on that particular day. This allows me to figure out what I want the most in my life at that time.
If I can’t think of anything to write and my inner dictation is silent, I just keep writing, “I don’t know what else to write,” or something like that. I try writing this same sentence in multiple ways. In the process, something or the other always comes up.
I never try to convert my negative thoughts into positive ones. I try to find solutions, sure, but forcing myself to be optimistic when I’m not is counterproductive. I always endeavour to acknowledge, allow, and accept my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Keeping my journal to myself, without showing it to anybody
Your journal/diary entries are for your eyes only. Else, how are you going to write openly and freely? Never make the mistake of reading your journal/diary entries, lest your inner critic should spring to life and tear you to bits.
They say you should read them after a few months, but honestly, I haven’t come around to check them out yet. No time to do so. So, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Also, this is no exam that’s going to test you on the format of diary entry you use. Feel free to write your heart out!
If you’re inspired by my daily journaling practice to start your own and have the bandwidth to do so, try these tips and prompts for writing and see how your daily journaling turns around your life. If it’s helping me, I can’t see how it won’t help you, too.