Across the ages, great men have been united by qualities, disciplines, and habits that transcend both time and culture. Their codes of conduct, relentless ambitions, inextinguishable passions, and perhaps most surprisingly, this simple, daily habit:
Keeping a journal.
Marcus Aurelius had one. So did Mark Twain. Theodore Roosevelt wrote faithfully in his, and so does Henry Rollins. From Da Vinci to Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway to Ernesto Guevara (and we haven’t even scratched the surface here), good and great men have all regularly devoted a portion of their day to writing and reviewing their actions, thoughts, and feelings. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the grandfathers of self-development, even went so far as to declare that there were only two things young men truly needed: a room to themselves, and a journal.
“…Keep a journal… It is not for what is recorded… but for the habit of rendering account to yourself of yourself in some more rigorous manner and at more certain intervals than mere conversation or casual reverie of solitude require.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“The Head,”The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Yet in spite of that, somewhere in the last century, we lost that art. Our focus shifted, moving away from self-reflection and towards self-promotion. Daily entries have given way to blogs, vlogs, tweets, status updates, and photo captions. Yes, we write more in a month than many of our ancestors did in their lifetimes, but we’re inevitably writing for others, searching for an audience or pitching to our followers. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s exactly those reasons that make journaling such an indispensable discipline for the modern man. Simply put, we need journals now more than ever.
The Benefits of Journaling & How It Helps
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of journalism is the opportunity it gives us to simply vent and vent safely. Not on some forum where our rants and raging will be recorded for all time (or worse, come back to bite us). This is a completely private space for us to spill our souls onto the page, and once we’re done, examine what we’re feeling and identify what’s causing us to feel that way.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same principle behind mindful meditation – not an absence of thought, but a time and place for us to work through our thoughts. If you tend to be a natural worrier like me, then journaling isn’t just helpful but essential in offering some much needed perspective. There’s few things that are better at grounding us than a black-and-white record of how we’ve gotten through tough times before.
Beyond the simple therapeutic aspect, journaling is a fantastic tool for developing self-discipline. The famed Meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius – the quintessential handbook on basic virtue – was originally simply a journal. The proverbs that inspire us even to this day were simply written by a man trying to remind himself to be everything he could be. Our journals can do the same thing for us, as the entries we write in our finest moments encourage us when we’re feeling our worst.
Of course, keeping track of our progress is an essential step in accomplishing everything we mean to, whether it’s something as simple as a weekend to-do list or as extensive as building your physique. Further still, journaling simply makes us better writers and better at expressing ourselves in general, and there’s mounting evidence that regular journaling has a direct impact on improving overall mental and physical health, even increasing the rate at which we heal.
How to Journal
For many folks, the toughest part of keeping a journal can just be getting started. After so many decades out of common practice, a few myths and misconceptions have sprung up around journaling that we’ll need to get rid of if we’re going to do this right.
bust the myths
Myth: Journaling Needs A Journal
While there’s something to be said for taking the time to slowly and deliberately penning your thoughts on actual paper, there’s no reason why a password protected Word document or an e-mail chain with yourself can’t work just as well (I personally do all three). The medium isn’t important, the self-assessment is.
Myth: Journaling Needs To Be Daily
While doing anything daily is a big help, turning journaling into just another chore or obligation is probably the quickest way of getting us to give up on it. Write when you need to, and you’ll likely find yourself writing daily, or even twice daily. One way or another, don’t think that you have to hit some perfect streak, and that missing a day, a week, or even a month is somehow a sign you should give up entirely.
Myth: Journaling Needs To Be Emotional
In the rare instances in which we see journaling brought up (usually in movies and on television), it’s usually done when the characters are at the heights of joy or the depths of despair. As we start out on journaling ourselves, it can be easy to feel that we’re not doing it “right” if we’re not wrestling with something profound. That’s absolutely not how it works – journaling isn’t about being deep, it’s about effectively reviewing and processing your days whatever they might contain. On that same note…
Myth: Journaling Needs To Be Eloquent
Journaling is, now and forever, a completely personal exercise. It’d be great if we developed the ability to write beautifully moving prose, but that’s not the point. The goal here is to “have a conversation with oneself”, and how we do that is going to vary from person to person. Some of us might write a soul-searching paragraph, some of us might pump out a stream-of-consciousness screed, some of us might jot in bullet points, and some of us might even just use hastily scrawled pictures like Charlie of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Our purpose here is simply to communicate effectively with ourselves, which should lead us to…
Write For Yourself
For our generation in particular, this can be an especially tough habit to break. In a world where everyone’s online, it’s a daily battle just to stand out as an individual against the anonymous masses. We’re used to branding ourselves. We’re used to self-promoting. We’re used to relentlessly maintaining a pristine persona and assuming that everything we ever do will be permanently recorded. And that’s all the more reason for us to have a refuge from that.
It won’t be easy, but the more we’re able to let go of that urge and explore ourselves uncritically, the more effective this discipline will become. Fundamentally, journaling gives us a place to be honest with ourselves while simultaneously training us to be more honest. When we’re switching from one mask to another, it can be dangerously easy to lose track of the real us, and journaling gives us a chance to truly examine our own lives and grapple with the people we are.
To do lists. Deepest, darkest fears. Epiphanies. Insights. Questions. Band names (just not “Brute Strength Parade” – I’ve got dibs on that one). Our journals aren’t supposed to be record of our thoughts but rather a place to figure out what those thoughts are. Every one of us is a twisted jumble of impulses, instincts, insights, irrational fears, and Game of Thrones trivia. These pages are where we’re going to untangle what we’re thinking and feeling, and that’s only going to happen by letting ourselves spill out everything (again everything) onto the page.
In a world where it feels like everyone’s watching (or equally terrifying – like no one’s watching), it can be strangely difficult for us to truly see ourselves. Journaling not only helps us discover that, but allows us to ultimately become the people we actually are. Whether you’ve been on the road a while or if you’re just starting out on your journey, every one of us could benefit from the tried-and-tested practice of logging our distance.
Primer's insightful article exploring Why People Don't Have What They Want: 12 Common Traps to Help Diagnose Stagnation, came about as a journal entry from Primer's founder, Andrew.
14 Journal Prompts to Get You Started When You're Blank
Journaling doesn't need to start with a question but on some days or when just figuring out the habit, it's helpful to have something to center your thoughts on.
What is a negative emotion I remember feeling today? Anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, jealousy, impatience? What led up to that moment? In retrospect, do I feel justified that I felt that way about it?
Where was I and what was I feeling 5 years ago? How has that changed?
Think of an area in your life that you're frustrated with: What am I doing that isn't producing the results I want?
Who are the most important people in my life for maintaining my current lifestyle?
What is one thing I could do this week, no matter how small, that could start a snowball for the better? This month? This year?
What was the most intense positive emotion I remember feeling today? What was the situation?
Where have I made progress, even a small step, in a project I care about?
What is something that has happened recently that you're proud of but didn't receive credit for, either because no one recognized you for it or because you can't tell anyone?
What was the last disagreement you recognize being in the wrong about in your current or previous relationship? Without regret or guilt, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently in a similar situation in the future?
What is something you judge yourself too harshly for?
What are three ways, large or small, that I've changed this year?
Describe the “character” you play in the lives of others. Is that the same or different from the character you'd like to be?
Without judgment, guilt, or pressure to do anything differently, what is a vice you have that may be unhealthy?
What was on your mind while you were getting ready this morning? On lunch break? While you were coming home from work?
Stay tuned for part 2, where Andrew, Primer's editor and founder, details his daily, weekly, and monthly journaling process.
Do you journal? Share your process, routine, prompts, and ideas in the comments below!