“Paper is to write things down that we need to remember. Our brains are used to think”
- Albert Einstein
I’ll start by admitting that I’m a stationery fanatic. A lover of notebooks. A collector of post-it notes. An advocate of the simple black fineliner pen.
I have always enjoyed organising my time, my goals and my ‘to do’ lists in a diary or planner. In more recent years though, my use of notebooks, journals and diaries has changed to being something I do, something I have to do for my own mental wellbeing. I have the kind of mind that doesn’t have an off switch. My thoughts spin round and round, the tiniest mistake playing on repeat and the many unrealistic goals I constantly set for myself loom large in the middle of the night like Mount Everest.
Writing helps me to slow it down, make sense of things.
When I gave up the corporate life to go freelance eight years ago one of the first things I did was to go back to a paper diary, a written task list, a whiteboard in my office and a family calendar on the kitchen wall. I’m all for reducing waste and saving paper but I also know that, for me, there is nothing that works as well to keep my mind organised than writing things down.
"You become 42% more likely to achieve your goals and dreams, simply by writing them down on a regular basis."
-Dr. Gail Matthews, Psychology Professor, Dominican University, California
As we plunge into a second lockdown here in the UK this week, and as we begin this crisp new November – here are four ways I will be using my journal to take care of myself, track my emotional state and remain focused on the positive. You might find them useful too.
1. Set a goal
I love the 1st of the month; a time to set new goals and targets – to start a challenge or try something new. Committing to something for a month feels infinitely more realistic and less daunting than making a huge lifestyle change that you plan to stick with forever.
This is even more relevant if life feels a little different right now – perhaps you’re working from home instead of your office, perhaps you’ve had to close your business and are counting the days until you can re-open. Perhaps you are caring for a loved one. Or you may just feel lost, in limbo, unable to move forward with your life as you had planned to.
Setting a goal for the month can give us something to focus on and it can play a crucial part in keeping our minds active and therefore reducing the time we spend worrying about things we can’t change.
Here’s what not to do:
I have a tendency to celebrate the 1st of (every) month with a full-on commitment to lose a stone, cut out alcohol, quit sugar, learn a language, meditate daily, take an online yoga class, drink 8 glasses of water per day, deep clean the house, start volunteering, read a book a week, write a novel, decorate the office, batch cook and train for a 10k. It should come as no surprise then that, as the end of the month rolls around, I am feeling more defeated than I was to start with having failed to stick to any one of my monthly resolutions.
So my advice to you, which I will do my best to take on board myself too, is to
PICK ONE THING ONLY!!!
Choose something that’s easy (ish) to start with; something that feels like a bit of a challenge but not so overwhelming that you just want to curl up in bed and hibernate until the month’s over.
When you’ve chosen your monthly challenge, use your journal, diary or a notebook to track your success. If you are trying to lose weight, write down your food plan in advance of each day, decide which day you will weigh yourself, plan in treats for sticking to it.
Use the journal to record your ups and downs, your successes and challenges and keep up the daily writing whatever happens, even if (especially if) you go off track.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
2. Free writing
Julia Cameron is the guru of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing and you can find out more about her work here.
The ‘Morning Pages’ exercise she suggests involves filling three pages of a journal every morning with everything and anything that’s on your mind – the idea being to empty your mind of its worries and repeating thoughts so that you can go on and have a more creative and productive day. The writing doesn’t have to be in full sentences or make sense to anyone else, it’s purely an exercise in cleaning out and resetting the mind.
I suggest my 1-1 clients try this exercise for a week or two, but am often met with some level of skepticism and I can understand why committing to writing three full pages as soon as you wake up in a morning can feel a little overwhelming.
I therefore offer an alternative which actually came from the ‘Storytelling through Song’ process I teach, which is to pick a topic or theme, set a timer for ten minutes, during which time you write down everything that comes to mind on that subject. Again, there is no need to over-think, worry about grammar or feel it needs to somehow fit together, but I’ve found it to be a really effective way to kickstart a song, a poem, a short story, or simply to organise your mind.
A few cues to get you started:
Things I’m grateful for
What do I need to remember this week?
My favourite childhood memories
What I love about Autumn
What did I dream about?
If I didn’t have to work I would spend my days…
The songs that make me happy are…
Places I’d love to visit
3. Bullet journaling
Bullet journaling, developed by Ryder Carroll, is an analogue method of personal organisation and has taken the world by storm over the last few years. The beauty of it is in its simplicity plus the fact that you can adapt the system to fit your own lifestyle and preferences. I couldn't describe it any better than they do in this video here so I would highly recommend watching it if this is a new concept to you.
A couple of years ago I discovered, to my great delight, that there was in fact a ‘planning community’ – an entire network of people across the globe as obsessed with the best way to use a notebook as I was. They have come up with so many variations on this method, which I find can be helpful to get started. Try searching for #bulletjournal #bujo #planningcommunity #monthlyspread #weeklyspread
In addition to using bullet journaling to organise your day, task list, remember birthdays and prioritise your time, there are a couple of ways the system can also be used to still your mind, slow down, assess and reflect.
The simple act of writing down your list of things to do, each marked by a bullet, and crossed off once complete can bring an immense sense of satisfaction, particularly during times of uncertainty. It can make us feel more energised, proactive and give us a sense of purpose. If you try out only one element of bullet journaling make it this, keep it simple and take back control.
Taking time at the end of each week to recap on what you’ve got done can be an opportunity to reward yourself for all the little things you’ve managed to fit in and not necessary acknowledged at the time, to assess how the week has gone compared to how you expected it to pan out, and to evaluate how you’ve felt and what your energy levels have been like too.
Has something taken more of your time and energy than you’d like? Would you rather have more time to spend doing something that made you feel relaxed? It’s also worth asking whether the tasks you didn’t get round to are things you want to carry across to next week, or whether they’re not important anymore.
Top Tip: Always start the new week with a clean slate.
A daily recap of your to-do list and a weekly reflection of how your time is spent can be incredibly helpful in gaining a true perspective on how much you get done, where your energy is spent and what would benefit from more of your attention.
4. Gratitude log
I started a daily Gratitude Log about three years ago and have found it to be one of the easiest habits to stick to.
There are a couple of different ways to think about this, and I switch between the two, doing whichever feels right for the day.
One option is to write down three things that you’re grateful for – ideally not the same things every day, but to stretch yourself to think of three new things every day.
Another option is to write down three good things that have happened each day – I do this version more often because I find it challenges me to dig deep, especially on days that haven’t gone to plan or have been a bit uneventful. I usually find that whatever good thing I write about, I then naturally continue to say why I’m grateful that it happened.
I complete this task last thing at night, just before I go to bed, but some people prefer to start the day in gratitude, so do whatever works for you.