How journal writing keeps you focused

For more than 30 years I’ve written quite regularly in a journal.  Some entries are lengthy with heartfelt emotional outpourings; others are brief describing only mundane (uneventful) aspects of daily life.

Journal Writing -- photo courtesy of Erin Kohlenberg
Journal Writing — photo courtesy of Erin Kohlenberg

I continue to write journal entries on most days.  If life gets in the way and I miss doing any entries for a few days, I just pick up where I left off and continue.

Old journals fill a small filing cabinet in the basement. I don’t often refer back to them but I won’t throw them out.  The journals form a record of much of my personal and professional adult life. They describe things I learned, struggles I’ve overcome, and life problems that I solved by putting words on paper.

Journal Writing as a Teaching Method

Journal writing was introduced to me during graduate school when one of my professors at McGill required a learning journal as a course assignment.  He wanted us to write about academic readings, experiences as we began work as therapists, conversations with professors, therapy supervisors and other students. Questioning our perceptions, identifying personal reactions to the emotions of clients, and considering how human relations theories applied to real life were to be included in the journal writing. The journal was an experiential learning log.

I loved this course and I especially loved writing the journal.  It sharped critical thinking skills.

Keeping the learning journal clarified professional social work values and beliefs; it also provided a means to express doubts, ask questions, consider challenges and bask in successes.

A Personal Journal

It was a natural progression to move from a professional learning journal to a personal journal. Writing the learning journal provided motivation and helped me to understand that I loved writing. I began a separate journal where I explored issues that I wasn’t going to hand in to a grad school professor.

My personal journal provided a space where I recorded my aspirations and my fears — both professional and personal.  I wrote about how I wanted to live and how I wanted to succeed in my career. I expressed my anxieties about love, friendships, money, appearance and self-image.

My journal became the place where I could record my imperfections and my shortcomings. I used it for problem solving and for clarifying various life decisions. Writing was therapeutic and confessional.  Successes, failures, hopes, fears, dreams and goals were written and re-written.

Journal writing provided a method to unburden myself of confusing emotions, a method to express joy, and a means to describe events or activities that I wanted to remember.

The discipline of journal writing led me to writing this blog — —although I try to  keep the deeply personal thoughts out of my posts.

Methods of Journal Writing

The great debate among journal writers is electronic versus pen and paper.

Many modern day writers believe that journal writing should be done electronically. Writing on a keyboard is faster and easier especially for those whose handwriting is often illegible. Word processors allow for auto correction of spelling and grammar.  Searches are easily performed using key words. Passwords protect privacy.

A quick online search brings up countless software programs and apps that will run on all types of computers and hand held devices.

An equally large number of journal writers believe that stream of consciousness writing happens best using longhand. Some believe that there is a direct connection from the heart, through the arm, through the pen and onto the page. Some believe that using a fountain pen and a leather bound notebook sets the stage for the free flow of creativity.

Brain to hand works best for me — perhaps because I began journal writing long before word processors were common.  I don’t use any particular type of pen and prefer lined sheets of pre-punched paper that can be placed in binders.  I number and date each page. My writing is usually in full sentences and paragraphs although sometimes an unstructured format with phrases and incomplete thoughts works best when recording impressions, expressing random ideas, or playing with incomplete conclusions.

Regardless of the method, it is important to write regularly, preferably daily. Having a set time to write and writing while propped up in bed as I drink my morning coffee works for me. Writing in the morning helps me to prepare for the day with a clear mind. When I choose the evenings to do my entries, journal writing helps to clear my mind and to relax.

Some people prefer to use several journals to record/explore various aspects of their lives.  For example, spiritual journals may be used in retreat settings to improve self-understanding.  As digital photography has been popularized, photography journals are popular as methods of recording daily life experiences — both spectacular and mundane. Dream journals are sometimes used as psychotherapy tools.  Travel journals are popular methods of recording memories of trips and sight-seeing.

Benefits of Journal Writing

Provides a record of personal development over time.  My journal writing began as a professional learning log but evolved into something that makes me think critically and deeply about issues in my life.  When I look at past entries I can see patterns and track issues that I’ve struggled with for years; I can also see how my thinking and world view has evolved over time. This is helpful for many seniors who are writing memoirs.

Creates a space for introspection and self-reflection.  Journal writing provides a judgement-free zone where I can listen to my inner voice, express emotion and consider deep-seated intentions. Self censorship is left behind as the journal provides a judgement free record of thoughts.

Helps with problem solving. Writing about a problem provides an organized approach to clarifying and defining a problem. Entrenched positions can be explored, new perspectives  identified and alternative solutions can be explored on the pages of a journal.

Keeps writing skills sharp.  Reasoning and logical thinking skills are maintained by journal writing.

Provides a space to explore creative ideas. A journal provides a notebook for those random inspirational thoughts, reflections and memories that need to be captured quickly.  Many artists and creative people use journals to record and explore ideas.

The time investment required for journal writing is minimal yet the payoff — over time — can be immeasurable in terms of personal growth, capacity for reflection and expression of accomplishments. Journal writing allows you to make commitments to yourself ; it allows you to track and record both the beautiful and the mundane moments.










2 Replies to “How journal writing keeps you focused”

  1. MARILYN VON ALLMEN says: Reply

    I have been journaling for many years. When I returned to college as a non-traditional student in the mid-80’s I took a writing course with an English professor who called this personal writing “freewriting”. I started out scribbling longhand but when I got my first laptop a few years ago I switched to digital and now prefer it. I threw away a lot of my early works because most were rants and over time did not reflect the life I went on to create for myself. However I sincerely believe that new life I created came as a direct result of those early entries where I found my voice.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      I love ‘freewriting’ to describe the personal things we put into our journals. It’s interesting that you made the conversion to digital journal writing. Like you, I believe that the life I now enjoy is the result of the aspirations poured into my journal over the years. Keep writing!
      Be well,

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