The more I think about it, the more I realize how strongly life hinges on habits. How having healthy habits and rituals can bring order to life, keeping one healthy, happy, and strong. Emptying the dishwasher before breakfast in the morning means our kitchen is clean, readying it for the day. Ensuring I get a workout in on Monday sets the tone for the week, prioritizing staying fit. But then the chaos that is life comes in, and those very habits that help me feel organized are the first to be tossed out the window, leaving me feeling out of control again.
I think about how I feel when I return from a vacation. I may be well rested and rejuvenated but my routine is off. I probably stayed up later than I would when at home, and slept in a bit. I may have eaten foods my body is not used to. And then there's all the laundry to catch up on. Pretty soon, my rested feeling has turned into restlessness, as I try to regain some sense of order in life.
This is where journaling has come in for me. I set aside the first 15 minutes of every day to get up before everyone else, be quiet, sit with my thoughts, and then pour them out on a fresh page in my journal. Sometimes I only write a few lines, sometimes a few pages will come spilling out. My journal entries always begin with the word, "Yesterday," but can vary in how they continue. Sometimes there is a lot to write about the day before, and sometimes a couple sentences will suffice. Quite often I write about how I am feeling. or how I resolve to do something better that day. I make lists in my journal--things I need to do, or people with whom I want to connect.
Over the years, I have noticed patterns in my journaling--months where I feel like journaling has kept me tethered and on solid ground, a place to process my feelings, desires, hopes. Other months, my journaling has been less consistent--I've found myself writing in my journal only a few days a week. But the journal remains close by, like a friend who always answers my call. Like that friend with whom the relationship is easy, and no matter how long it's been, we pick back up like no time has passed.
Journaling is a keystone habit. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes keystone habits as “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” Imagine you start making your bed every day. Making your bed encourages you to put away the massive pile of laundry that has been hanging out at the foot of your bed. You go even further and put away the pile of shoes that has accumulated on the floor. Your spirits lift as you walk into an uncluttered bedroom, and you begin to put laundry away as soon as you pull it out of the dryer, in an effort to keep that serene space in your bedroom. You sleep better at night, and have less trouble getting out of bed as you wake to a clean room. The one simple habit you started has brought about massive reform, and you've become a more productive person. All because you started making your bed.
I think the habit of journaling has had the same type of profound effect on my life. So, I want to share with you...
To help work through problems
There are times when I am facing an internal struggle that I need to talk through. Perhaps it's something I do not feel comfortable discussing with a friend, or it's a secret to which I have been entrusted and I need to process it somewhere. Sometimes it's one of my kids who is struggling with something and I just need to vent. My journal is a place where I can dump all of these thoughts without judgement.
To validate feelings
University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker believes that writing about stressful decisions or events can help one come to terms with them. The other day I felt really stressed out about a major decision I had to make and my stress led to anger over silly things (like my mailbox refusing to open). I wrote in my journal, "I am angry and I do not know why. I've taken my anger out on my husband and my mailbox and they don't deserve that." This may sound silly, but these simple sentences helped me record my feelings and begin to think through what was actually going on inside my head. I knew it wasn't the mailbox not opening that had me so furious. There was an underlying issue that I needed to unearth. Writing about it drew out that issue.
To build confidence
Ann Frank once wrote, "I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn." I can really get down in the dumps when I think about my to-do list. But when I write out what I have actually gotten done in a day? That's when I feel like a super hero. My "courage is reborn," and I recover that part of me that knows: I can do this. Another suggestion I read recently is to journal first thing in the morning and at night. One of my favorite quotes from Gandhi is, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” If I resolve to do something (or to be something) in the morning, and I follow through with my promise to myself, then I can go to bed in harmony. Peace of mind is a beautiful thing.
To organize, plan, and create
Writing what I accomplished yesterday allows me to see what needs to be done today. I can prioritize the things that are important and make sure I am tackling the most urgent items first. Another benefit to journaling first thing in the morning is to get down on paper any creative thoughts that have brewed overnight. I have written on my blog about the importance of getting a good night's sleep because when we're sleeping, our mind is renewing itself, solving problems, and processing new tidbits it learned that day. In her book, The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington talks about studies that have stressed the importance of getting enough sleep. "Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity—a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance." That's why Josh Waitzkin, two time U.S. Junior Chess Champion and author of The Art of Learning, writes in his journal as soon as he wakes up. He recognizes that while he’s been sleeping, his subconscious mind has been busy figuring things out.
To record life
Writer Jessamyn West says, "People who keep journals have life twice." You are the author of your life, and don't you want your story to be worth reading? My dad is a master at journaling. He journals each night, most of the time just short one liners to recap the day, but longer ones when on trips or when special events have taken place. Recently, he texted me that he had been reading through an old journal and came across his entry about Jonah's first baseball game when he was 5. He had detailed notes about what positions Jonah played, what happened when he was on the field, and how he batted. Those are priceless memories, that I never want to forget about the first game of his baseball career, and the sport he loves and still plays. And now I don't have to worry about forgetting it. It is written in ink, recorded for all of time.
I'll end with this quote by Benjamin Franklin, which I think is so poignant...
"Either write something worth reading or do
something worth writing."
Is what you do each day worth writing? Did you know Lady Gaga keeps a journal? Next week, I'll share a list of celebs who also like to put pen to paper, and how journaling helps them. Hope to see you there...