The Single Best Tool for Self-Development?
You need to feel it to believe it.
For almost 10 years, I’ve kept all kinds of notebooks.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that colourful banged-up pile of paper is one of my most cherished possessions. I mean — if my house were on fire, it’d be the first thing I grab before I run out.
For the last 2 years, I’ve also started digital long-form journaling: filing the page with my rambling stream of consciousness.
People are always surprised when I say I journal — especially when I say I’ve been doing it for years. The why? and how?! inevitably pop up.
An Investment in Yourself That Compounds Over Time
Let me start by tackling the first question. Why journal?
I promise this will not be an ‘everyone-should-journal!’ post; there are way too many shoulds flying around these days, and no one needs another thing to feel guilty about.
However — I am convinced that translating your thoughts into words on paper is the single best tool for self-development.
It’s been an incredible way to get to know and understand myself on a deeper level. To reflect on and unpick the whys behind my feelings, reactions, worries, and decisions. To take the time and space to consider multiple scenarios and angles, no matter how silly or embarrassing, in the safety of my mind. To see how I’ve grown over the past 10 years, and how I can rely on my judgment.
And that’s just the emotional benefits. On a practical level, I don’t know how I’d get anything done if it weren’t for journaling.
Just the other morning, I was lying awake in bed for at least an hour, feeling stressed about the day, going through all the things I need to do (+ those damn shoulds) in my head. Everything felt important, urgent and complicated.
So, I finally pushed myself to get up, take my notepad and start writing it all down. Every task, every decision to make, every conversation to have, every product to add to my Amazon cart. As I’m writing, I’m removing, prioritizing, combining. Just seeing it on paper makes me feel a million times lighter and ready to start my day.
Okay, I can hear you thinking — “wait a minute, that’s not journaling!”
Says who? That’s where most people trip up, in my opinion. Journaling isn’t only about writing down your deepest secrets and frustrations. It encompasses anything that involves taking a moment to sit quietly, listen to what’s going on in your head, and writing that down word for word. It doesn’t matter whether that’s on a used napkin, a $20 Moleskine notebook or an app. It doesn’t matter when you do it or how often you do it. It can be emotional, practical, or a blend.
Like when I was worried about a presentation for work I was procrastinating on. I kept going around in circles in my head, thinking about how many days I had left and berating myself that I should’ve started sooner.
Lots of energy wasted. I finally took 10 minutes to sit down and write some bullet point thoughts down, asking myself a few questions:
- Why am I so worried about this presentation?
- What are all the things that would need to get done?
- What would need to happen for it to go wrong? (Inversion technique)
- Who are all the people I need to speak to?
- What can I cancel today to make time to work on it?
- How can I break the big, overwhelming task up into mini-tasks?
2 things happened when I did this:
- Writing 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.”
- Working on a problem reduces the fear of it. By putting some structure and organization to the mental mess, I started to formulate a plan on what to do. I tackled the first obvious mini-task, and from there, it was much easier to keep going.
Now, you might say: I already do this by talking with my partner, friends or colleagues. Perhaps, but I doubt it’s to the extent that you can do it through writing.
The world moves too fast, and people are too busy to go that deep with you. So more often than not, our first thoughts are not our best thoughts.
Plus, we’re constantly filtering, embellishing, softening for other people. That’s just how we’re wired.
All It Takes Is a Mindset Shift
Now, the bigger question is: how do you start, and how do you stick with it? I’ve had many people tell me they’d love to journal, have tried a few times, but found it too challenging to keep up. No time, no energy, or just can’t remember to do it.
I’ve struggled with answering this question before because there’s no nicely packaged set of 1–2–3 instructions to follow. There’s no perfect system or recommended type of notebook.
All you need is a mindset shift.
Re-frame the concept of journaling
Don’t call it journaling. Call it Thinking.
Start by writing about what you’ve been doing that day. Don’t judge yourself, and don’t ask yourself what’s the point of doing this.
Write about what scares you or what you’re worried about. You don’t need to have the answers; just jot down the questions flying around in your head. Bullet points, words, complete sentences — whatever works.
Write about a conversation you had or one you’re avoiding. Why? Write about how your partner’s comment made you feel. Why were you upset about that?
Make a list of all the tasks to do this week. What can you do today? What can you put off until next week? What can you just cross off the list?
Start very small
As with any new habit, it’ll take time to incorporate j̶o̶u̶r̶n̶a̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ Thinking into your life. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to start every day for 30 minutes, so don’t put that expectation on yourself.
Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can't do something perfectly, then you shouldn't do it at all. - James Clear
Start very small. 5 minutes, just a few sentences. When a habit feels like an annoyance, you’re unlikely to stick with it. Build up over time.
If you prefer a physical notebook, keep it somewhere visible. Next to your bed or on your desk.
If you use an app, keep it on your home screen and set reminders on your phone.
I use DayOne for all my emotional brain dump / long-form journaling and a physical notebook for the practical stuff. I don’t worry about what goes where.
Some people prefer mornings; other people prefer evenings. I write whenever I have the time and feel the need. I use the Done habit tracker to remind myself to journal at least 3 times per week. Some weeks I do it daily; other weeks, I need the streak to push myself to take the time to write.
Place Post-Its around the house. Don’t scold yourself for forgetting — that’s completely normal. Instead, help yourself by creating visual cues and reminders, and after a while, you won’t need them anymore. You’ll figure out what works for you — you just need to allow yourself to make it to that point.
Let it be messy
Both in terms of content and style.
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. There is no right or wrong way to do this. It can be words and unfinished sentences. You can contradict yourself and scratch out words.
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. And definitely don’t worry about using the same colour pen every time!
You Need To Feel It To Believe It
Journaling is one of those first-order negative and second-order positive habits. It takes effort and time to get started, and in the moment, you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time.
You can override those thoughts.
Stick with it, and you’ll quickly start seeing and feeling the benefits I’ve been describing.
Just imagine having 10 years of your thoughts to rely on. I often read back through my past thoughts, worries and decisions and compare them to my current situation. What I’m learning is that somehow, things always fall into place. I can rely on myself, my judgment, and my decision making.
As David Perell says: Words on paper are the closest thing we have to time travel.
You need a journal to do this because we’re so bad at accurately remembering what we felt and thought in the past. We forget how stressed or worried we were. We can’t recall how or why we made a particular decision.
You’ll be amazed by how much you forgot, how far you’ve come and how much you’ve changed.
Once you’ve had that realization and see for yourself the beauty and importance of journaling, the habit will be with you for life.