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How The Mindful Act Of Journaling Saved My Life

Daniel Dowling
October 19, 2016
Daniel Dowling
By Daniel Dowling
mbg Contributor
Daniel Dowling is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Photo by Twenty20
October 19, 2016
Meditation pro Light Watkins’ new class A Meditation Expert’s 14-Day Guide to Creating a Daily Practice kicks off this week, so we’re taking a closer look at the transformative power of meditation and how it changes people’s lives for the better through personal stories. 
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Journaling saved my life.

In my early 20s, I had as much personal power as I had self-knowledge—zilch. But I didn't like feeling powerless, so I crammed my life with distraction after distraction: Porn, hookups, cigarettes, booze, and TV were the standard fare.

And then there were the luxury distractions, like one-night stands that turned into relationships. I lived for those. As long as I had a girlfriend, I had someone else's problems to worry about, and I didn't have to worry about mine.

I disappeared into my partners. That's how I liked it.

But the consequences of my unexamined life became evident in my early 20s. And by evident, I mean neon-glaring, hit-you-over-the-head-with-an-anvil obvious. I couldn't hold down even a menial job. I couldn't support myself. I couldn't maintain a meaningful relationship. I couldn't do anything—or so I thought.

I realized all of this after my last relationship imploded. I thought it was the real thing. But then it was gone, and I was left with nothing. I was consumed by anxiety and depression. I lost my health. I even lost my mind.

Then, I started journaling.

I'd never been a praying man. But when the anxiety and depression got so bad, what else could I do? On a September morning in 2014, my prayer was answered. I was struck with an epiphany: I decided that I would spend 15 minutes journaling every day for a year. I knew the act of journaling could be calming, meditative, and might even provide me with inspiration.

I'd never committed to anything for an entire year, and it scared me. But I knew in my core that it had to be done if I wanted to be happy.

So, at age 25, I started a nightly journal. I didn't tell anyone. But I wrote down the promise to myself: 15 minutes of journaling, every night, for one year.

I wrote about my thoughts, achievements, shortcomings, and feelings from morning to night. I made every little detail of my life concrete on the pages of that first ruby-red journal. And in the concreteness, I found stability. I found the power to make meaningful changes in my life. I found myself.

After the first night, I realized that the self-reflection I had feared was the thing I needed most. It was a challenge, too; sometimes journaling was the last thing I wanted to do. But since I'd made that commitment, I always found a way. When I poured my life onto the pure white page, I found clarity, insight, and assurance. I felt whole. I felt powerful.

After the first month, you couldn't pay me a million bucks to put down my journal—it was and is my key to a life well-lived.

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How journaling illuminated my life

Since the aim of journaling was to be and do my best, I flagged and trashed any habit that was counterproductive. Through my journal, I saw that constantly checking email and Facebook was keeping me from accomplishing goals. It made me feel helpless. So, I mindfully chose to replace bad habits with good habits: like waking up to affirmations and writing for four hours before I checked email.

I slowly stopped identifying as a failure. I earned money writing, and I touched people's lives with my story. Then, a few months later, I became a coach. After a year of journaling, I developed the self-esteem to take on bigger and bigger challenges—like writing for Fitbit and Entrepreneur magazine.

Now, I'm happy and independent. I'm paid a buck a word to do what I love. I inspire hundreds of thousands of people with my passion, all because I took the time to know myself.

I'm not worried about finding a girlfriend, because I'm too busy narrating a remarkable life. And when I do find my wife, I won't use her to escape my problems: I'll love her courageously and unconditionally.

Now, imagine what a journaling practice could do for you. How much more power would you have to live the life you want? What inspiring changes could you make if you examined every detail that makes your life?

How to start a journal today

First, find two journals: one for reflecting on your day, and one for planning the next day (daily planner). Blank pages work best for me. I like one hard-back journal and one soft.

Then, designate a special place, just for you, just for journaling. This helps to make journaling a ritual. Turn off your electronics and prepare to reflect for 20 minutes. Then, write about your day from start to finish: your thoughts, actions, achievements, letdowns, feelings. Everything.

Some of my clients have difficulty with this because their lives aren't exciting, or they're ashamed of how they live. Don't be ashamed. When you track the details of your life, then you can change your thoughts, actions, and habits to make an extraordinary life. But you have to write down the details first—no matter how boring. (No one will see the journal but you—remember that. Write down everything.)

Pay special attention to your morning. What were your waking thoughts? What were you feeling like? How did you start your morning? Was it positive? What were your rituals? Did your morning thoughts lead to an empowered day? Or did you let negativity swamp you? How can you fix that?

Then write how your day unfolded. Where did you dig in and give it your all? Where did you choose the hard right? And, just as important, where did you let yourself down? Where could you have put more effort? Then, accept yourself despite any letdowns. Imagine putting all your effort into overcoming those challenges. Feel the satisfaction of breaking through your barriers and living the life you want. Revel in the accomplishments.

Visualize what tomorrow's success looks like: What goals will you reach? What weaknesses will you strengthen? What success rituals will you stick with? Write it down—all of it.

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Transfer your goals to your daily planner

Now it's time to turn the insights and goals from journaling into action steps for tomorrow. Write down your goals for tomorrow in your daily planner. When you wake up the next day you'll have a concrete plan of action to make tomorrow better than today. Attack those goals and know that you are achieving your dreams, step by step. Feel good about, and check them off throughout the day.

If you keep this up, every day can be the best day of your life, and every year will be better than the year before. I promise. When journaling becomes as important as brushing your teeth at night, self-improvement will be a habit. Then you'll live the life of your dreams.

At least, that's how it worked for me.

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Daniel Dowling
Daniel Dowling

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.