I recently started a morning writing habit.
You might already be familiar with the format of a daily gratitude journal. The one I started out with was a mixture of gratitude and goal-setting - a basic template that’s supposed to be quick and easy, and set you up for the day. However, that initial gratitude exercise has instead become so much more to me. It does what it says on paper - I feel more positive. But deeper down, I feel so much more connected with who I am and what I want from life.
Today I want to delve a little deeper by explaining why I journal the way I do, but why it’s so important that we each develop our own routine, and what we can take away from an intentional journalling practice.
First of all, I need to explain that my journalling comes in two different flavours:
A daily habit of journalling in the mornings and evenings, using prompts. I basically use the 5 minute journal template, although I typically take 10 minutes, maybe 15. The reason is that I tend to write more long-hand than in the bulleted list in the official template. I simply need more space on the page to really explore my intentions and emotions, and I personally gain more value in the slightly longer reflections.
Long-form writing that can be as long and as deep as I want to. Whenever I feel a bit lost or disconnected, or not sure what to do next, this is where I turn. I use this journalling as a space to get real quiet with myself and listen to what my inner voice is telling me. It’s where desires I didn’t know I had come to the page and make their existence known. It’s where I discover myself. With all this new-found inner wisdom, I find myself able to make decisions with greater clarity and focus, and be much more intentional in my day to day actions. If this sounds super deep and a bit full-on, keep in mind that it’s up to you how deep you want to go.
(I use one notebook for both types of journalling. I used to keep them separate, but this just got messy for me. I also prefer being able to see how my thoughts change and connect over a period of time - and this is definitely easier if it’s all written in chronological order!)
The daily journal: practising gratitude, setting intentions, and reflecting on a job well done
I view my morning journalling like a springboard - it’s where I hook up with some positive vibes and set my intentions for the day. It’s not the time for me to work out where I’m going with my life, but I want to start the day feeling all sorts of awesome.
I tend to write first thing in the morning, because I want to make it a habit and part of my daily routine. I could write my intentions later in the morning, but I find that especially on days in the office, I’m not going to make the time and space to do this - so instead I try to do it first thing, almost as soon as I wake up.
First, I like to make sure I’m awake. Otherwise I find my thoughts are quite groggy and blurred. So I get out of bed and wake myself up with one minute of some sort of movement. I have a drink of water, do some press-ups, and then stretch my body. I take some deep breaths. I find this helps to ground myself and puts a pause on my mind’s propensity to start worrying about the day ahead.
Then, I take out my notebook, make a note of today’s date at the top, and I write down three things I’m grateful for. Taking just a moment to fully pay attention to the birds outside the window, reflecting on my friend’s good news the previous day, or acknowledging the cat coming in to say hello, puts me in a better frame of mind and all-round general good mood.
Do not underestimate the gentle power of this habit. I find the value is in practising the mindset - if you’re in the habit, you naturally find yourself being grateful more often throughout the day. And guess what? it feels awesome :)
Getting more intentional
Next, I write down three things to make today great, or what I want to get done. I still haven’t 100% figured out what to call this part of the journal yet, but I can tell you I really struggled with this prompt when I first started, as I couldn’t always think of what I wanted to do - it sometimes felt like quite an overwhelming question!
This led me to reflect on the fact that more often than not, my task lists are more of a ‘I need to get this done today’ list, rather than ‘I want to get this done today’ list, and it made me realise how passive I was being about setting up my day. So now I try to be really intentional with what I want to get done. Sometimes, there are just some tasks that we have to do, but I find that if I can approach these tasks with a more intentional mindset (i.e. decide that I want to do them) it can make huge difference to my enjoyment of the task. Honestly, something as humdrum as laundry can still feel pretty great if you come from a place of conscious awareness and intention.
And if I really don’t want to do something, but still have to do it? I’ll focus on the feeling of accomplishing it.
Finally, I write down three affirmations. This may feel a little weird at first, but I view it like Amy Cuddy’s talk on how our body language can help reinforce feelings of self-confidence, and at the end of the day I’m happy to write them down because I enjoy doing it.
If that all sounds like a lot, I also try and write something down in the evening…
The evening journal is more of a reflective practice. I write down three things that were good today, and I might also write down three things that I can learn from. I don’t use this for big life lessons (that’s what my deeper journals are for!) The purpose of this exercise is to prompt your awareness and curiosity about how we can help ourselves in small ways. For example, one of my entries notes how I felt I didn’t move enough during one day - my body just felt a little cramped and lethargic. So I now pay more attention during the day to listen to my body and try give it the little break or change in position that I know it wants!
The value of a daily journal
My daily journal routine helps me get out of bed in a more positive light (win!), but I find the continual practice of processing these positive thoughts is where the real value lies. My outlook on life is just generally all round more positive and pleasant - and that really helps me when I need to draw on the positive in more challenging circumstances. Emotional resilience has never been my strong suit, but I feel like I’m better equipped than I have been in the past when things don’t go all fine and dandy.
But for me, the moment it really started to click was when I started being way more intentional in how I approached each day. I started a morning journal to practice gratitude and hopefully make myself a little bit happier. But I didn’t fully appreciate how this practice can help infuse your thoughts and actions with more meaning, which just makes the day so much better. Savouring positive emotions gets you into the habit of noticing more positive emotions, to the point where I feel like I’ve stumbled into some wonderful virtuous cycle - where gratitude informs intention, which feeds into connection and fulfilment, which in turn serves to reinforce gratitude.
How I use deeper journalling sessions
I have personally found that the habit of writing on a daily basis encourages me to write things down when I need to go deeper and explore my thoughts and feelings on a particular matter.
If I feel generally lost, disconnected, or not sure what to do next, I know I need to get out the notebook and write it out. Why? Because writing down my thoughts is the best way for me to help me process them. It allows me to anchor them somewhere - to acknowledge each thought and say ‘you’re important’ and give it the weight it deserves, by writing it down. Then I can move on to the next thought, and the next thought after that.
These deeper journalling sessions are less about ticking off the positive vibes, and more about sitting down and really listening to myself. What do I really want? What am I scared of? Why do I feel like I haven’t quite figured this out yet? It’s a safe space to be gentle with yourself and ask yourself searching questions without threat of judgement or shame.
And if this sounds like it’s only for serious enquiry, don’t worry, because it doesn’t have to be - remember, you can take it as deep (or not) as you want to. I use this type of journalling (also known as ‘writing it down’) to work out what I want to do with a free afternoon. It’s super useful for neurotic indecisive types like me who are likely to feel guilty if, heaven forbid, we feel like we’ve wasted a few wasted hours!
How you can create your own journalling routine
There is no one routine or template that can work for everybody. The important thing is to find what works for you - and that will probably involve trying things out and paying attention to what’s working for you.
My personal recommendation would be to not be too precious about it. There is no set format, so you can’t go wrong! That said, if it starts to feel like an obligation, you might want to try approaching it from a different angle. Be curious - this is special time to spend with yourself exploring your deepest and darkest desires - what fun! Or, if that thought terrifies you, then think of it more like a gentle stroll through the park with your subconscious, where you get to have interesting conversations about what you want to do next week.
The point is, you don’t have to write in any particular way, and you can use whatever tools and methods you feel help enable your practice - so do whatever feels right to you. It’s far more important that you feel like you’re doing it for your reasons, in your style, so it becomes a delicious treat that you can indulge in on a frequent basis.
A note on using pen and paper:
It helps me focus. Writing stuff down in the old fashioned, traditional way means that I have to slow down and consider my thoughts in turn. I used to worry that all my thoughts would come tumbling out and I wouldn’t be able to write them down fast enough (which often happens when I’m typing), but I find that my thinking actually seems to slow down when I’m writing pen to paper. I don’t feel that my thought process suffers - if anything, I feel my thoughts are clearer and more concise.
I’m not saying this is going to be the same for everybody, but for me it makes the world of difference.
A final note…
A few months after I started my journaling journey, I listened to Sara Tasker’s podcast episode with Megan Hayes on the practice of keeping a positive journal. Megan shares how a journal can be a space in which to uncover and explore you positive emotions, and her book offers a guide on how we can use writing as a tool to help us feel more fulfilled in our lives. If you’re at all interested in how journaling can help you develop a bit more positive feeling in your life, I would totally recommend listening to this podcast to get Megan’s perspective on journaling, and ways to get started.
Whatever you want to call it, I truly believe that my daily writing habit has made a deep and meaningful impact on my overall levels of happiness and emotional resilience. If you think journalling could make a difference in your life, I’d encourage you to give it a try, in whatever way feels right for you.