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Keeping a Journal (2): The Art and Craft

Updated: 3 days ago

Preparing the stage for journaling

  1. Book it - If you do not make yourself journaling, no one would demand that of you like you would be expected to show up on time at work, at the school of your children, or attend to your many other duties of a responsible adult. Therefore, journaling is one of those self-care things that, if you do not bring up to the equal status of showering, brushing your teeth, going to the gym, or going to bed on time, is simply not going to happen. So, if you firmly believe in the benefits that journaling provides in your life, prioritize it and then start small. Cover only a couple of points that are most relevant and interesting to you at present. Book just 5 to 10 minutes at first and see if your desire for more time on the activity increases or decreases with practice. Pair the new and fragile habit of keeping a journal with a more sturdy one, such as brushing your teeth in the evening, to serve as a reminder that after teeth, next comes the journal.

  2. Justify it - For ultimate results, journalling is part of a larger routine that also includes meditation, creative visualization, exercising, stretching, and some healing techniques that sustain your mind, body, and spirit in their optimal condition so that they can serve you for the truly important things in life: love, work, and play. The tricky part is that if you do not find your work, loved ones, and hobbies valuable, then you will not have the motivation to follow through with your sustaining rituals either, and vice versa. That said, no one's life is to be wasted away and robbed of substance in the name of time-consuming meaningless rituals. To make the rituals meaningful, do them like you mean it - with intention and complete focus. Then you can limit your maintenance time within a reasonable time frame. At present, I can afford to dedicate about 30 minutes a day to keeping a journal, 2x5=10 minutes to meditation, 2x5=10 minutes to creative visualization, 20 min to exercising, 2x5=10 minutes to stretching, and 2x5=10 min to healing techniques. This makes a total of an hour and a half distributed between a morning and an evening routine. However, when I add the time for reading, showering, skin and teeth care, the "me" time quickly escalates to 4 hours a day - A very expensive luxury indeed that may need to change when I become a mother. Currently, working as a full-time teacher, who deals with 60+ students a day and a dozen of colleagues, parents, and administration work, the 4 hours of "me" time are the absolute bare minimum I owe to my strained psyche if I am to be a sane member of society after all the care I have provided to it. Suppose you find yourself on the verge of burnout caused by poor (=unfair) distribution of tasks between you and your partner/ family that eliminates the possibility for you to have some time and energy left to yourself. In that case, I recommend "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do."

  3. Simplify it - Before you start, consider the media which will allow you to stick with journalling best. Whether you use the classic paper journal or you write on your laptop, tablet, digital notebook, or smartphone, the idea is to make it an accessible and intuitive extension of your other self-care practices. As of 2020, I also keep a digital journal in Scrivener for specific topics such as my New Year's resolutions and writing exercises I have done, along with reading transformational non-fiction books. Only recently, I started using the Way of Life app to outsource the check-list point for the sake of traceability and statistics on how regular I was in taking my supplements, having all of my daily meals, having a night of good quality sleep, and following through with my blogging, painting, and piano playing hobbies. You can insert here your relevant equivalent tracker of steps/ calories/ new words learned/ jokes told/ photos taken, etc., whatever is that you are working on. In my case, the targets are at least: 1 act of kindness and altruism, 8 hours of sleep, 1 hour of writing for the public, 1 hour of reading, 24 hours of sticking to my diet, and 1 hour of meaningful social contact. These are the things I track and analyze because they sustain me down the track I want to be on. As you can imagine, not every day is a glorious victory but recording the failure is a little victory over despair already. For you, the logs may differ dramatically, but in any case, you master what you measure and pay attention to tracing back and forth — more on this in Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Organizing your journal entries


In my last post about the pros and cons of keeping a journal, I tried to persuade you that the activity can be beneficial not only to writers and philosophers but to everyone, really. To give you more examples, Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey are all notorious journal-keepers. In this post, I will provide you with tips on the art and craft I learned about journaling during my own practice so you can start yours better than I did back in 2010. Since then, for 12+ years, I have been keeping a pen-to-paper journal to fluctuating results, accumulating 42 notebooks (size A5 of about 80 sheets each, if you care to know the exact volume). As you can imagine, it is an overwhelming amount of material if not systematized and organized appropriately. As you progress in your journal journey, you will accelerate at producing ever more and more content, which will require you to come up with a system of organizing your entries in a way that you can easily go back to them should you feel the need to. You will, I can promise you this, even if your life does not depend on it like a sentimental novel/movie such as The Notebook would describe. The sooner you come up with such a system, the better your random entries will be put together in a seamlessly flowing read.


Maybe you have noticed that libraries have a specific way of organizing their books. While there can be many criteria according to which a book can be categorized: author, title, year, publisher, country of origin, language, genre, topic, age appropriateness, etc., only 2 of these apply to your journal entries organization - date and topic. Whether you decide to organize your entries chronologically or thematically depends on what you prioritize to get out of them upon return.

  1. If you would like to trace the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year evolution of your story, you will have to remember to date your entries and sew them together in that order. A (series of) notebook(s) or a single word document is good enough at providing consistency.

  2. Suppose you would like to trace your evolution on a particular topic (such as financial situation, love life, career development, spiritual evolution, etc.). In that case, you will have to dedicate a separate notebook/ document for each topic to sort out the wheat from the chaff. OR

  3. You could go for a hybrid version where you organize your entries chronologically, but you reserve a specific place for the most reoccurring topics. This is the type I will consider below as the most helpful one for beginners.

Outlining your journal entries

To eliminate the paralysis before the white sheet, you need to have an outline to invite you to write, even when you feel like you have nothing to write about, or to organize your process when you feel like you have too much to write and you don't know where to start from. My grandfather metaphorically says about painting that "The appetite comes with eating," and I would add that so does the desire for writing comes with writing. You only need a skeleton of prompts, so I am giving you here my day-to-day one. Feel free to add or remove as it serves you:


In the morning

  • (0.) The dreams I had at night (if any) as best as I could. I often find them revealing my subconscious or unconscious wishes and fears that I deny my conscious mind access to.

In the evening

  • I. At least 1 new thing (a feeling/ thought/ vision/ action) I experienced today.

This first point (I write 1 and then circle it) provokes you to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It gets you enthusiastic about writing the story of how you encountered something new. This might be a new person that you met; a new way of communicating with the people in your life already; a new song/ book/ movie/ picture/ play that opened your senses to a new reality/ (fantastic) world; a new place you visited, a new (sports) game you played, or a new (useful) site, app, program, or media that improves your daily operations. Maybe you just bought something new. Ideally, these new things feed your zest for the life you lead. If not, consider changing something in it to freshen up your outworn experiences instead of trying to compensate for the dullness with shopping for things you probably don't even need. Shopaholism is a state of mind that feels banned from experiencing new things, yet it craves them deeply. If you have money to spend, and you are afraid of major changes such as changing jobs/towns/ country, you can prioritize investing in experiences rather than material possessions. Mind that changing your partner or starting an affair will not solve the problem of the constantly reappearing hunger for novelty but is more likely to exacerbate it. (CURIOSITY, ZEST)

  • II. At least 3 things I am grateful for that happened during the day.

You can make them less or more. Check the video on the right for the highlights of why gratitude journaling is one of the best causes for and effects of happiness. To give you a brief idea: gratitude is a 3-in-1 phenomenon - a character strength, a feeling, and a behavior. It helps us avoid jealousy, narcissism, cynicism, materialism, disappointment with self and others, social comparison, (self-)blaming, and disconnectedness from self and others. It serves as a social "glue," positive memories retention tool, sleep enhancer, mind re-programmer, and guardian against depression, addiction, burnout, traumatic events, and the never-(good) enough dissatisfaction syndrome, but most importantly, the exercise of gratitude (even if only listing just 3 things you are grateful for in your day) shifts your attention towards the good, valuable, and worthy in life. For example, the taste of something delicious, the smiles and the laughs you shared with your colleagues, the kind shop assistant, bus driver, waiter, your cozy home, lovely pet, wise relative, helpful doctor, etc. The more we spot these things, well... the more we spot them, and the better we feel about the world we live in and our lives in it :) (GRATITUDE)

  • III. Account of my actions.

I pin down the good things I am proud of doing and the bad things I am ashamed of doing. The writing gets thick here because it reveals the most up-to-date picture of the real current state of my character, which is the best indicator of what the future will be like for me and what I will think of the world then as "People do not realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character." - Ralph Waldo Emerson. I find the VIA research on character to provide the best analysis, and I use their classification as a benchmark for the 6 virtues and the 24 character strengths. One way to realize the account is by using simply writing the numbers of the statements in the below checklist that were True, False, or Not Applicable to you that day. Usually, only a couple of them will apply to a single day, so the process of evaluation is much quicker than it may seem now that you are only reading about it. Besides, with practice, you will grow more self-aware and conscious about your actions not only in hindsight but also on the spot, in the heat of the moment, when you have better chances to fix and change the outcome - an added bonus worthy enough on its own. (JUDGMENT, HONESTY)


WISDOM

1. Curiosity - “I seek out situations where I gain new experiences without getting in my own or other people’s way.”

2. Love of Learning - "I am motivated to acquire new levels of knowledge or deepen my existing knowledge or skills in a significant way."

3. Perspective - "I give advice to others by considering different (and relevant) perspectives and using my own experiences and knowledge to clarify the big picture."

4. Judgment - "I weigh all aspects objectively in making decisions, including arguments that are in conflict with my convictions."

5. Creativity - "I am creative, conceptualizing something useful, coming up with ideas that result in something worthwhile."


JUSTICE

6. Fairness - “I treat everyone equally and fairly and give everyone the same chance applying the same rules to everyone.”

7. Teamwork - "I am a helpful and contributing group and team member, and feel responsible for helping the team reach its goals."

8. Leadership - "I take charge and guide groups to meaningful goals and ensure good relations among group members."


COURAGE

9. Bravery - "I act on my convictions, and I face threats, challenges, difficulties, and pains, despite my doubts and fears."

10. Honesty - “I am honest to myself and to others, I try to present myself and my reactions accurately to each person, and I take responsibility for my actions.”

11. Zest - "I feel vital and full of energy; I approach life feeling activated and enthusiastic."

12. Perseverance - "I persist toward my goals despite obstacles, discouragements, or disappointments."


TRANSCENDENCE

13. Humor - "I approach life playfully, making others laugh and finding humor in difficult and stressful times."

14. Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence - "I recognize, emotionally experience, and appreciate the beauty around me and the skill of others."

15. Gratitude - “I am grateful for many things, and I express that thankfulness to others.”

16. Hope - “I am realistic and also full of optimism about the future, believing in my actions and feeling confident things will turn out well.”

17. Spirituality - "I feel spiritual and believe in a sense of purpose or meaning in my life, and I see my place in the grand scheme of the universe and find meaning in everyday life."


HUMANITY

18. Kindness - "I am helpful and empathic, and I do nice favors for others without expecting anything in return."

19. Social Intelligence - "I am aware of and understand my feelings and thoughts, as well as the feelings of those around me."

20. Love - "I experience close, loving relationships that are characterized by giving and receiving love, warmth, and caring."


TEMPERANCE

21. Humility - "I see my strengths and talents, but I am humble, not seeking to be the center of attention or to receive recognition."

22. Forgiveness - “I forgive others when they upset me and/or when they behave badly towards me, and I use that information in my future relations with them.”

23. Self-Regulation - "I manage my feelings and actions and am disciplined and self-controlled."

24. Prudence - "I act carefully and cautiously, looking to avoid unnecessary risks and planning with the future in mind.”


If you are very proud of some accomplishment of yours throughout the day, here is the place to mention it: an act of kindness, a brilliant idea that saved the day, telling the (bitter) truth when asked for it, keeping your promise, your temper, craking a memorable joke, fighting a fear that tortured you for so long, etc. Congratulate yourself for being that source of light and warmth for yourself and others! However, as you can expect, some days we will be more satisfied with ourselves than others. Nevertheless, that should not be a reason to question our inherent capacity to do and be great.


“Don’t beat yourself up if you stumble. Don’t let it be an excuse to give up. Instead, see it as an opportunity to re-strategize and recommit.” ; “Expect that you will fail again. But failure doesn’t have to be terminal, and it isn’t a character flaw. Be kind to yourself and try again.” in You Say You Made a Resolution: How Your Personality Traits Might Give You an Edge


Therefore, it is only logical to continue the daily journal entry with:

  • IV. Forgive myself and others.

Here, you might need to take a break to close your eyes, breathe deep, and evoke every drop of compassion for yourself and the people you felt hurt by throughout the day. It is never easy, but you will get better with practice. Once you really feel there is no grain of accusation left in you, you can write the magic words, "I forgive myself and/ or person A for x, y, z, because I realize we all do our best at all times." If they/I did not do it better, they were simply not able to. The relief this daily practice of forgiveness brings is one of the best things you can do for your general well-being and (mental) health. (FORGIVENESS)

  • V. Make a wish to get the chance to learn from the occasion, fix the situation, and grow as a result or simply stay in the light if that's where you perceive yourself to be at present.

You can call it a prayer, graceful begging, plea to the Universe, or whatever resonates with you.


In the days when you are perfectly happy with yourself, you can make a wish that (specific) others get to know the state of bliss you find yourself in so they can feel, be, and do better while keeping you company on cloud 9. In any case, allow yourself to be generous, even if it is only wishful thinking and writing. Wishes that are directed towards the well-being of others are heartwarming mood boosters that create a sense of connectedness with the grand scheme of life on Earth. Here is also a good place to insert a creative visualization session.


If you are far from such exaltation, you will need to find something else to fill in the empty space that forgiveness cleared for you earlier. Otherwise, the grudges will come back like mold that you have cleaned from a surface, but then you did not provide any light and heat to prevent from reappearing. Whatever was that thing you needed to forgive, the only way to move on after it, I am sorry to say it, is by learning from your mistake. As it takes two to tango, you can be sure that your part in the unpleasant situation was at least 50%. The wish that you need in such a case is the particular kind of strength that you were deficient in. If your wish is granted, another similar situation in which to do better and test how much you have learned will present itself soon enough. If you pass, you pass; if not, you return a cycle back, which is fine but time-consuming.


If you have noticed that the same painful situations keep reappearing (you are getting repetitively fired with the same pretexts, you end up with the same kind of partners, in the same kind of places, etc.), consider the possibility that you are stuck in the cyclic motion of a particular limiting belief embedded into your system in a traumatizing experience you have to deal with. (HOPE)

  • (VI.) Speculate on the probable limiting belief(s) that prevents me from moving away from the same kind of situations, if applicable.

It can be any negative self-talk we buy into, even without realizing, as they often sound absurd, such as "I don't deserve this job/ partner/ thing (and so I need to lose it to restore and do justice." This can have endless variations, but don't spend too much time looking in the abyss, for you will get sick of it, which is unproductive. Occupy with it only if you have a sudden breakthrough that recognizes a pattern of belief that is doing/ serving you no good, so by formulating it, you can outsmart it in the next step. (PERSPECTIVE)

  • VII. Come up with a positive belief/ affirmation.

Formulating positive affirmations is an art in its own right that deserves a separate post. Still, for the purposes of this one, I need to say that: 1) A positive affirmation ambitiously aims at turning around a limiting belief, or if you have not identified such, simply boost your self-image in an even more favorable light. 2) The hardest and most useful part is making yourself believe it. The way to do this is by remembering the concrete positive affirmation by heart, no matter how ridiculous and untrue for you it seems at first, and turn it into a mantra that is always ready to serve you in a problematic situation. For example, you may have told a lie in the past that generated a lot of guilt, shame, and need for forgiveness and led after itself to the limiting belief that people cannot trust you. Limiting beliefs, among other things, are life's way of making justice after we have gone against it somehow. So, naturally, we need to correct that. Believing that correction is possible is where we start. The suitable positive affirmation for that example situation could be "I am an honest person." and you play it in your mind like the repertoire of the guards at the gate every time before you allow a word to come out of your mouth. The "guards" are questions such as: "Is this what honest people do/ say?" The more you practice honesty, the faster the new (positive) belief is going to wash away and replace the old negative/ limiting one. (SPIRITUALITY)

  • VIII. Set (an) intention(s) for the next day (and check if yesterday's intentions were fulfilled).

By now, you have drawn a pretty decent self-analysis that provides you with enough information to check and balance the state of affairs in your most intimate realm. If you are doing things right, you will be eager to map out a plan of further action or at least set one or a few intentions for the very next day. These might reflect your intention to either compensate for something you are not especially proud of or to foster those things you are. Either way, the rewarding feeling of this eighth point is to be sensed the next day when you check whether or not you managed to fulfill any of them. (SELF-REGULATION)

  • IX. Quote of the day.

After you have completed this deep and difficult work of introspection, you will crave anything that is not written by you. There's something magical about the power of a tiny phrase to change our direction of actions. Unlike long, complex (and often complicated) theories that are not very operational at the go, shorter extracts from someone's thoughts are able to provide us with a very concise and minimalistic yet transformational food for our own thoughts. By default, then we will get the strange feeling of closeness with that someone out there who was in a similar situation and left a quote to memorize it. Oftentimes, these "prompts" come to us exactly when we need them, as if they have traveled a long road through time and space to find us and deliver to us what we need to deal with the pressing situation we are in. Throughout the years, I have found consolation, advice, help, support, and understanding not only among my closest people, to whom I am endlessly indebted, but also in songs, books, movies, plays, poems, and everything that can contain securely in words the essential soul first-aid kit. Cheers to all the poets and authors, thinkers, and wise people of all spheres of life who have left their mark on humanity's collective memory so we can benefit from their gifts of character and wit generously let out into the world for free! The quote of the day has grown to be one of my favorite things to journal about and is often followed by a whole essay inspired by it. (If you are out of ideas about quotes, you can check my digital collection of more than 2,200 quotes on Pinterest.) (LOVE OF LEARNING)

  • (X.) Other, if applicable.

Here, you have the chance to write freely whatever was not covered above, but you find it crucial to keep it for future reference or to pour out your momentary puzzlement if you still have the patience to do so :) (PERSEVERANCE)


A note on mindsets (realistic, idealistic, and crazy)


If the above sound too rigid, schematic, and utterly unexciting, you can try using daily writing prompts to make yourself more predisposed to the practice. Still, overall, the prompts are going to cover more or less the same as the above points. If the whole section from point III to point VI sounds painfully self-absorbing, bordering with neurotic, you can skip all 4 points altogether and go directly to the happy-go-luck point VII. This, however, would require you to put yourself in the idealists camp where you are able to believe with 100% certainty that everything and everyone in the world is perfect and so are you, so that you could make yourself believe crazy good things about yourself easily and without having to 'work on your character" to deserve that badge of honor - believable positive affirmation. However, if you are a realist, like most people, you would agree that no one and nothing is perfect, but as long as you are alive, there is a probability of getting better than you were yesterday, which is a reward in its own right. Whichever camp you find yourself in at a given moment, it is OK as long as you do not mix them together at the same time to the crazy/ dangerous blind belief that some things and people are perfect while others are less so - that would be a recipe for a self-made illusionary world from where you may not find a comeback alive. (Re-)read Don Quixote and Martin Eden if you don't believe me.


Now see if you can spot the realist, the idealist, and the crazy in the below Letter from the Universe I keep on the wall at my desk:


"Changing one's life is easy, and there are lots of ways to go about it, though all exact some sort of price:


1. Pinpointing invisible, limiting, self-sabotaging beliefs — Extremely demanding on brain cells and much easier to do if you have a friend who channels the dead. Either way, it'll keep you busy for the rest of your life.


2. Discovering what occurrences in the past have mis-programmed you — A therapist can help, though expensive if you don't have insurance, but you can both pretend you're a complex person and that if it weren't for your childhood, you'd have a perfect life.


3. Distinguishing between those who really love you and those who just wish to use you — Super tricky and may destroy perfectly good relationships. Still, with a good lawyer, you can laugh all the way to the bank while accepting little or no responsibility for your own happiness.


4. These are just a few of the most popular and widely written-about methods. Of course, you could also just begin imagining and moving toward the life of your dreams, treating everyone with kindness, and assuming all is well — profoundly and radically effective for both short and long-term gains, but totally lacking in drama, requires solo efforts, and is much too easy for most people to take seriously.


Oh well,

The Universe"


The answers are 1 & 2 - realists' strategies; 3 - people-going-crazy's strategy; 4 - the idealists' strategy.


Finally,

pick any strategy but the 3rd one and use your journal as the most reliable tool it is. The 4th one is the sweetest, but it requires the purity of heart that every Christian dream of having. If you don't feel quite there yet, you can always join the Stoics by paying attention to your character, and maybe then, you will have the imagination to create for yourself a life that's better than the best of dreams! - That's the goal of every true diary keeper. Be one! I wish you victorious journaling!



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