I’ve always had scrapbooks and diaries as a kid. While it’s hilarious to read through them now, I’ve noticed that they give me very little insight into what was going through my mind at the time. I know what I did, who I liked and disliked and what my grades were like—very descriptive but not much about my thoughts or feelings. I suppose that a part of me was holding back from going too deep, fearing someone would read it (not entirely unfounded, as I once discovered my brother locked into the bathroom with one of my diaries!).
Since the start of the lockdown in Singapore, bored and on edge, I started long-form journaling. This is a style of journaling where you fill the page with your stream of consciousness, like a brain dump. There is no structure, unlike in a bullet or One Line A Day journal. You simply write whatever you’re thinking, transcribing your thoughts without any judgement.
I have been amazed by the profound impact this practice has had on my life, and I genuinely believe that everyone would benefit from doing this regularly. Here are three powerful benefits you can expect and my tips on getting started.
On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank wrote her first entry in her famous diary.
I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.
No matter how close you are to your partner or friends, it’s unlikely that you always say exactly what’s on your mind. Even if you wanted to, it’s often hard to know why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.
Journaling allows you to take the time to sit still, look inward and be brutally honest with yourself. It’s not always pretty. We can be petty and insecure, selfish and envious. These are not qualities we’re proud of, so we tend to hide from those thoughts. Telling your journal the uncensored truth, without looking to impress or convince anyone else is difficult but necessary and ultimately helps you to know and understand yourself more fully.
When I first started, I could feel myself holding back, wanting to sugarcoat and caveat. After a while, I realised how silly that was — after all, I was only sabotaging myself by not being entirely truthful about what I was really thinking. It took a few sessions of writing without stopping to break through those mental barriers.
Andy Puddicombe, the founder of the Headspace meditation app, says that it’s important to find a way to be aware of our emotions, to experience, acknowledge and live with them, and yet not be at their mercy. That can be done through mindfulness and meditation, but also through journaling. Now, I feel the need to write whenever I am experiencing strong emotions, good and bad, because I know I will feel lighter afterwards.
How often do you stop and reflect on why you feel a certain way; why someone is important to you; why you took that reaction personally? Writing makes you think about the WHY’s. As you do it more, you’ll start to recognize patterns. You gain clarity on your triggers and the things you care about.
Writing reflects clear thinking and, in turn, clear communication. I have noticed how I am communicating more openly with my partner, able to articulate what I am thinking and feeling in a way that I would struggle with before. This has improved our conversations and our relationship in a meaningful way.
Writing also puts things in perspective. As writer Oliver Burkeman wrote in his Guardian column, “It’s a curious truth that when you gently pay attention to negative emotions, they tend to dissipate — but positive ones expand.”
I can honestly say that I know myself better and appreciate all the good things in my life more than I did a year ago.
One of my favourite quotes, by philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, perfectly encapsulates the power of journaling:
We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.
Honesty leads to clarity. Clarity leads to direction. If you’re not consistently reflecting on yourself, your why’s, your habits and your decisions, it will be difficult to see where you’re coming from or control where you’re headed.
Nobel prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests meticulously tracking the decisions you’ve made in your journal. The questions you’ve asked yourself, the reasoning behind the decision, how it made you feel, and so on. Doing this consistently and regularly going back to these notes will give you direction for future decisions.
You can’t rely on your memories, but you can always trust what you wrote in your diary. It is the best way to keep track of what was really going on in your life and your head at that time. Without a diary — most of your experiences, feelings, thoughts will vanish from memory. I am constantly amazed by how much I had forgotten whenever I read back through my journal and feel comforted knowing it’s all safely stored, there for me to learn from whenever I need it.
Where to start?
Starting with long-form journaling is simple. You just sit down and start writing — even if that thought is, “this is a waste of time, why am I doing this?”. Write that down and then the next thought. And the next one, and the next one.
These prompts shared by Andrew Yeung in his newsletter Musings & Perspectives are a great way to get the juices flowing. Just pick one and start writing whatever comes up, allow yourself to follow where your mind takes you.
What did I accomplish this week?
What am I currently stressed about?
What am I excited for?
What am I grateful for?
What do I need to invest more time and energy in?
What are my most important priorities next week?
I also thought I’d share some tips on what not to do:
- Don’t overthink or worry about what to write. It honestly does not matter. It doesn’t need to make sense, and there doesn’t need to be any structure to it. I jump from topic to topic, writing down whatever comes up in my head. I will write about my day but also about memories from my childhood, a conversation I had with a friend, an interaction with a stranger. I will also write out questions I am asking myself, answering them almost like an imaginary conversation. There is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s supposed to be messy and unstructured.
- Don’t think about grammar or punctuation either. You don’t need to be a good writer to journal because no one but you will ever read this. Don’t delete, don’t rephrase.
- There is no specific number of pages you should write. Especially in the beginning, you might find this style of journaling hard to do, so don’t be discouraged if you cannot write more than a few lines. Some days I write non-stop for half an hour; other days I just do one paragraph. It depends on my mood and what is going on in my life. What’s more important is that you do it often.
- You don’t need to do it every day to notice the results in yourself. I aim to do a brain dump at least 3 times per week, and I keep a log in my Done app (habit tracker) to make sure I am doing it consistently. Some people prefer mornings; some people prefer evenings. I personally write whenever it works best in my schedule.
- Lastly, don’t spend hours researching the best app or looking for the nicest notebook. It’s a trap I fall into as well, but it’s just an excuse to avoid getting started. Going back to the point of honesty — I personally prefer and recommend a digital app just because it is more secure and can be password protected. You can go for a paper notebook, but you need to make sure you are not censoring what you write out of fear that someone will read it — otherwise, you’re missing out on the biggest benefits.
And that’s it! The only thing left to do to make sure you get the most out of this practice is regularly re-reading what you’ve written. You’ll be amazed by how much you forgot, how far you’ve come and how much you’ve changed. As David Perell says: Words on paper are the closest thing we have to time travel.
I genuinely believe that this style of journaling can have life-changing effects, and I encourage you to give it a try. Let me know how it goes!