How to journal like an ape (well, this ape)
Journaling can be a struggle for many. It often comes up when we discuss strategies for mental health, productivity, or organization, but when we sit down to do it, the point may escape us. It simply doesn’t feel like it should work. As a result, it’s common to view journalling as redundant–a mere extension of a conversation you may have internally. But, the truth is curiously different for reasons we’re still trying to understand.
This post will lean a bit harder towards using journaling for mental wellness over productivity, mainly because that’s why I use one. What can I say, I’m an egomaniac and this is my blog.
Let’s look at how to journal and some arguments from history and science pointing to why it’s essential.
The case for journalling
Philosopher Epictetus often complained about people spending so much time on their bodies but relatively little on their minds. For the ancient greeks, the journal became a critical tool to help unravel the difficulties of the day (and in a time before modern medicine and indoor plumbing, things sucked most of the time). Marcus Aurelias’s journal, once titled “To Himself” but more commonly known today as “Meditations,” would go on to become required reading for everyone from school children to world leaders (Barack Obama listing it as a bi-yearly read).
That original title, “To Himself,” highlights an easily overlooked feature. We exist in this world not as we truly are but through many layers of armour we wear for those around us. We’ve been convinced to not complain, be kind, keep smiling, man-up, stay pretty, and whatever else those close to us felt was important. Those hooks have gotten so deep it’s simple not to recognize how much of us is for other people. The journal becomes a safe space to explore our thoughts and feelings without filtering them for others.
Anne Frank reminds us in her diary that “paper has more patience than people.” We can use that to explore some tricky thoughts that may not be ready for public consumption. Putting yourself out there is not easy, raising a flag of vulnerability for all to judge. Yet, it’s through vulnerability that all progress must begin, so in the absence of being able to speak it aloud, perhaps we start somewhere that has a bit more patience for us.
Sometimes we hear a friend berate themselves over being stupid, unloveable, or unworthy. It sounds preposterous to hear, and we argue their worth back to them, all the while not noticing we feel those very same things about ourselves. Journalling allows you to be your own friend, viewing your perceived weaknesses from a different vantage point where they look foolish in the light.
These different vantage points become critical. When John Dewey pointed out that “we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience,” it highlights the psychological fact that we are poor narrators. We do not remember things as they were; we remember them as they were interpreted, so endeavour to interpret them in multiple ways so that we may see them clearly.
To the science
Enough of all these dead people who think they get us; what does the cold godless science have to say? Much the same, it would appear.
From a mental health standpoint, it does appear that journalling can lend a solid hand. You don’t get out of this life without struggles, so when the time comes to deal with your shit, you have an arsenal to choose from. Therapy, anti-depressants, meditation, diet changes, fitness, and sleep are just a few of the go-to suggestions.
So where does journalling land among them in terms of effectiveness? Fun fact! All of them (journaling included) have an effectiveness rating of about 50%. That’s not necessarily to say they’re all half garbage, but it shows that people are unique, situations are unique, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. The key, it would seem, is to get beyond the mindset of trying to find the best remedy and instead explore the best combination of remedies for you.
The good news is that of the potential treatments for mental trouble, journaling ranks near the top for ease of use, cost, and lack of side effects. It does seem to have a barrier to entry in that people get a little stuck on how to start, but beyond that, it’s a powerful tool to try.
Why it works (according to science)
It’s easy to assume that within the mind, most thoughts, events, and emotions are being experienced and categorized in a black-and-white manner. So surely what you think, speak aloud, write down, or put into a poem are just variations of the same thing… right?
As it turns out, different forms of expression can lead to different interpretations (which seems to matter most in the end). To borrow from the world of trauma therapy, Bessel van der Kolk’s brilliant book “The Body Keeps the Score” cites a study that found participant groups who did therapy, therapy + journaling, and therapy + journaling + interpretive dance all showed differing levels of healing.
The study found that while everybody improved, the participants who did the most things (therapy + writing + dance) seemed to fare the best. While the science of “why” in this scenario is still being worked on, it appears that the different expressions of the thoughts do matter. Therapy + journaling + dancing is not just three redundant means of telling an internal story. There’s an increased clarity that arrives with each additional layer.
And so, we can surmise that having thoughts and journaling those thoughts are two very different things. These slight perspective shifts appear to matter in seeing situations more thoroughly.
Types of journaling
The journal that will work best for you depends on several factors. Not only in your end goal but also in what kind of attitude you bring to writing. Do you want to clear your head and deal with a problem? Do you want to organize your day? Create something? Do you love writing? Is writing the worst, most daunting thing you do all day? Depending on how you answer these questions, some forms of journaling may be more for you than others.
Morning pages, popularized by Julia Cameron, are sometimes referenced as a way to trap the monkey mind on paper so you can get onto your day without that little bugger bouncing around. This brain bombing isn’t necessarily designed to create much of anything value-wise but to act more like a pressure release valve to help with focus. By giving your anxieties and neuroses a sandbox to play in, they can feel a little heard, and perhaps they’ll become less needy (for a time).
It’s most commonly described as three pages long, and if you get there (or beyond), great. If you don’t, feel free to exercise some flexibility there.
Five Minute Journal
The five minute journal is less free flow and more prompt based. This one focuses on short questions designed to engage your mind so you can blast beyond any potential “what the hell should I write about” roadblocks.
Prompts might look like “3 things that could make today great” or “something I’m not looking forward to today is…”. One thing I like about the five minute journal is that it helps us recognize that we aren’t great at noticing. Sometimes all it takes is thinking about the best parts of our day to realize we’ve been so focused on a problem that there actually were good parts to the day.
Bullet journaling is rocket fuel for those who like to go deep and organize hard. It covers a lot of bases, so it might excite some while overwhelming others. Think of it as a hardcore to-do list that spans days, weeks, months, and years.
For how I journal (and how I am), bullet journalling is positively terrifying. That’s not to say it’s terrible by any stretch; it’s just not something that works all that well for me. So if you’re curious because you’re awesome that way, here’s an explainer video that won’t be dripping with my bias.
How I journal
The method I gravitate to is the morning page style. Again, not because it’s the best of the best, but rather because the struggles unique to me react best to it. I tend to get in my own way and procrastinate to protect myself, so the lack of structure is an immediate turn-on. For me, laying the contents of my mind on paper helps me realize that most problems are nowhere near as tangled as they might feel. We suffer more in imagination than in reality, and the journal is how I recognize the imagination for what it is.
So I sit down each day and write without wanting to make it meaningful or good. It’s a free-association exercise of tossing down whatever is on the surface. Before long, the battlefield map begins to reveal itself, and I can more easily see where my troops are getting pummelled, where things are going smoothly, and where resources need to be moved. My apologies, as a dad in his 40s, most of my analogies eventually arrive at “war things I saw on the History channel.”
As mentioned, this method can take on a certain “where the hell do I even begin” quality. Some people find the blank page incredibly daunting. I have developed a couple of cheats for such a feeling.
1. Canned starting points
Should I sit down and be struck by a mental blank, I have three starting points I can use (borrowing a bit from the 5 minute journal). I either list my to-do list for the day, begin my opening sentence with “at this moment I am feeling…” or write down what I am most excited for in the day.
Typically, picking one of those randomly is enough to spark an “oh ya, here’s the thing about that…” statement, and I’m off to the races. A to-do list quickly turns to deciding which order to do them in, asking how I’m feeling turns to asking why that may be, and the excitement prompt is an invitation to wonder how to get more of that into my life.
Should none of those result in anything meaningful, we always have cheat #2.
2. It’s OK to write nothing
Some days it’s there, and some days it’s not. While the pull to feeling like a failure can arise, the absence of a spark is valuable to recognize. In the same way that noticing an electric mind during a meditation is precious information, not having anything in the tank to journal with can also be a signal. Are you sleeping enough, eating well, moving your body, or avoiding something uncomfortable? Maybe, but maybe not. It doesn’t matter much, but it is an invitation to explore.
Sometimes absolutely nothing is wrong and you don’t feel it. Such is the tidal nature of energy. Sometimes the energy is high, and sometimes it’s low; energy levels aren’t good or bad, they just are. Being mean to yourself for something so natural is cruel, so don’t be a dick.
Paper or digital?
There appears to be science to show that they aren’t the same, and that paper does seem to win out in this battle. In a 2021 study, researchers had participants take and retrieve information from notes on paper or digitally. They found the participants using a paper notebook had a shorter recording time, higher accuracy, and stronger brain activations in the hippocampus, precuneus, visual cortex, and left and right frontal operculum than those using electronic devices. While this study looks more at information gathering and retrieval, it highlights that handwriting and typing activate different parts of the brain.
While all that is good, perfect can quickly become the enemy of good. Sometimes we need to stop trying to optimize all the damn time and get to it. Whether you’re handwriting or typing, you’re still taking a thought and processing it, which is the backbone of what is known as the “generation effect.” The generation effect states that information created by a person is processed in more areas of the brain than information that is more passive, such as reading, listening, or thinking.
Writing things down requires more cognitive effort than simply reading or listening to information, making the information more meaningful and memorable. By generating the information through writing, you create a personal connection with the material and are more likely to remember it later.
I gravitate first and foremost to whatever will get it done. While I do find the act of writing on paper to be more pleasant, my way of journalling naturally lends itself more readily to doing things electronically. Because of the free-flow nature of my journalling, I’m more comfortable writing in a way I can be assured nobody else will ever read it. While it’s preposterous and egotistical even to entertain that anybody would want to do such a thing, even just a password on my notes app gives me the mental freedom to relax and be genuinely expressive.
Concepts to help your journalling
We can bring several concepts into this practice to help us find our foothold. They’re helpful to keep in the back of our minds and can be used to start anything, not just a journal entry.
The paradox of effort
If you sit down to write the next great American novel or solve a great emotional mystery with your journal, you stand a great chance of falling flat on your ass. The mind hates to be pushed around. Just as easy as I can make you think of a purple bear by demanding you not do it, requiring your brain to come up with literary gold or solve a complex issue will likely backfire.
Give up the fight. Put everything down, let the writing be the only bar to clear, and expect zero in return. If you can get to a place where you actually believe that, you might be amazed at what shows up unannounced.
Action first, motivation second
Most of us get this backwards. Many never start that thing they have in their mind because they’re waiting for some magical alignment of events. What they don’t realize is their mind (that bastard) has dictated this magical alignment of events and has made it purposefully difficult. In a world where comfort and distraction call out to us from every couch cushion, screen, and cupboard, you’re going to wait for motivation to find you? This life is just one damn thing after another. That alignment you’re waiting for will not arrive, and your mind knows it. That bastard.
So we swap the formula. Do the thing first, and allow motivation to find you shortly after that. Rarely does anybody give up 3 minutes into a jog, writing a report, or vacuuming. Once you start, the thing tends to get immediately easier.
Prompts to get your journalling started
Perhaps you’re not quite ready or excited to go into a free-flow writing session and would prefer some prompts. Very well, we can play with that. Here are a series of questions you can answer or riff off of:
- Describe a moment from yesterday that made you smile.
- What have you been meaning to do but keep putting off? Why haven’t you done it yet? What would completing it today feel like?
- What is one thing you wish to change about your life? How can you work towards making that change happen?
- What job would you train for if you could do it all over again? What would have to happen to start that training today?
- You’re currently struggling with something. Do you know anybody who’s been through it already? What did they do?
- What could you look back on one year from today and be super proud of yourself for doing? What steps can you take to achieve that goal?
- What is your favourite trait in a person? Do you have that trait? What’s something you could do today to strengthen that trait in yourself?
- You have 5 minutes to write a letter to 5-years-ago you. What advice would you give them?
One of the first objectives in a therapy session is for the therapist to set up an environment where somebody can feel safe to express themselves as they truly are. All the thoughts unfit for public consumption need a place to be heard and explored. In a way, this mirrors one of the most significant advantages of journaling. Free from the prying eyes and judgements of others, we’re allowed to remove our armour and be as we are for a moment.
Whether you’re reading ancient texts or current scientific studies, the message remains consistent: the benefits of journaling are undeniable. As far as therapy goes, it’s about as accessible as it gets, requires a minimal time commitment, and has no immediate side effects.
For those looking to get started, Morning Pages offers a way to release the pressure of a busy mind, 5 Minute Journals can provide ways to get unstuck, and Bullet Journalling can act as a comprehensive to-do list for those who need order in their lives.
While my method is mainly used as a way to challenge misconceptions in a somewhat cruel mind, you may find your mind works against you in other ways. Play around with different types of journaling until you find one that fills your cup and brings you clarity.