I reclaimed my life by journaling. It helped me accept myself and fix the habits that were holding me back. But, as much as people talk about journaling and the benefits of it, they seldom explain in detail how to really make the most of it.
For me, journaling felt very natural and immediately useful. But that's not the case for everyone. Some people have even felt like it set them back on their personal journey.
If you're looking for more direction, this article is for you. Here are five tips to help you maximize your self-improvement through journaling:
1. Set your focus.
Many people claim that journaling feeds their negativity. So they stop, feel better temporarily, and go on living a mediocre life.
But journaling is a tool. And its effectiveness, just like that of any other tool, depends on how it's used.
I've gotten a lot out of my practice because I have a clear focus going into each session. I'm reflecting on the thoughts and habits that made up my day so that I can see what I'm doing right and where I can improve. I'm celebrating my victories, and I'm accepting and encouraging myself in the areas where I've faltered. I'm looking for insights and clues as to things that I can change (or do better) to be the very best version of me.
Starting your practice with a positive focus precludes the potential to dwell on negative thoughts and feelings.
So, before you write a single word, take some time to make sure you're focused on what you want to get out of the practice and why you are writing.
2. Look for lessons; don't dwell on the negative.
This is so important that it bears repeating—don't dwell on negativity. If you have an effusion of negative thoughts that wrecked your day, you don't have to relive every single thought and bring yourself back to that dark cloud.
Instead, write down simply that you had negative thoughts. If you stopped the negativity with affirmations or something else, write about how you prevailed. Congratulate yourself, then move on to the other details of your day. If you fed into the negativity, you only need to say something like:
"I spent a lot of energy focusing on negative thoughts. Too much for my liking. But next time those thoughts pop up, I'm going to fall back on my positive thinking, affirmations, and proaction."
Negativity happens to everyone. It's how you respond to it that counts.
3. Once you identify problems, brainstorm solutions.
People focus on negativity when they aren't solution-oriented. So start thinking (and journaling) in terms of solutions.
Sometimes I have crappy days. My journaling habit and positive attitude make those days rare. But they happen. And whenever they do, there is always a culprit. My job as a journaler is to find the culprit and come up with the solution.
Nine times out of ten, my bad days are caused by a lack of accomplishment. I know that I could've done better, but for some reason I got hung up on little things. So, I identify those little things and plan against them.
More often than not, the issue is social media. Or email. So when I journal, I might write something like this:
"I got caught up responding to emails and posts on Facebook instead of creating and doing what I really needed to do. It made me feel less confident than usual, and uninspired. I didn't like it. So tomorrow, I'm going on a Facebook fast. I commit to checking my email no more than two times. In addition, I'll write two articles, edit two more, publish another, and pitch four new clients."
Bam. That's problem-solving in action. Notice how I don't dwell on the negative. I call it out. I mention how it affected me, then I immediately transition to self-acceptance and problem-solving.
- Adopt the same strategy and you'll come out on top with your journaling habit.
4. Write about what you're grateful for.
Gratitude and negativity can't coexist. You're either in one, or you're in the other.
It's hard to be grateful sometimes—especially when you're feeling down. But the option to be grateful is always there and always important.
So journal with an attitude of gratitude. Search out the things and people and events and efforts that made you feel really grateful.
I find a ton of gratitude in those little moments when I made good decisions even when it was hard. Like waking up with the world on my shoulders and falling back on my affirmations and success rituals instead of crawling back under my sheets. I'm grateful for that decision because it made me feel good about myself, and it helped me to do my very best throughout the day.
I express gratitude when I do something that makes me feel mature, like pay my bills on time, or volunteer my time, or pray for someone I'm having issues with instead of holding a grudge, or exercise when I'm feeling crappy, or encourage myself when I fall down, or practice gratitude when things go wrong, or any number of tiny but important decisions that influence my life.
If you focus on those small decisions with an attitude of gratitude, you'll make even better decisions, which will make you even more grateful. It's the beginning of an amazing positive feedback loop, and it will change your life. But all starts with the decision to be grateful.
Journaling, if nothing else, is about mastering your decisions. Expressing gratitude for your good decisions is how you'll reach mastery.
5. Begin with affirmations.
The last step goes hand in hand with the first: Find your focus. I write down the date, then I immediately write a couple of lines about what I am.
"I am useful, valuable, resilient, courageous, positive, uplifting, intelligent, creative, patient, hopeful, generous, grateful, decisive, confident, gentle, loving, and adventurous."
I always start with these affirmations because they supercharge my focus and eliminate the chance of lingering on negativity. I change the affirmations every day, and I usually focus on strengthening my weaknesses for that day. For instance, if I felt scattered, I'll affirm my presence. If I felt scared, I'll affirm my courage. You get the idea.
Then, when you end your journaling session, focus on applauding yourself for the incredible job you did—focus on hope for an even better day tomorrow. It's awesome because no matter how insanely good or incredibly bad, you can always have a better day tomorrow. If you focus on improving your journaling practice, those better days can and will be every day.
I naturally started journaling with really good habits and was blessed that my practice came so intuitively. But just because you haven't doesn't mean you can't get just as much out of journaling as I have. Practice these five steps, and I guarantee that you will find your journaling groove and reap some inspiring growth in just the next month.
And if you really need one-on-one instruction, you can apply for one of my coaching slots.
Daniel Dowling is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His writing focuses on personal development and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and FitBit. He studied sociology and anthropology at New Mexico State University.