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I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. J. K. Rowling
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« Do It Tomorrow Reviewed by Academic Productivity | Main | Evernote - A Note Taking Program »

Road Test: Journalling (Revisited)

I first wrote about journalling quite a few years ago, and there is a description of it in my first book "Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play" (2000). What I wrote then was:

"My own experience of writing like this for a period of about eight months, during which I hardly missed a day, was quite incredible. I described it at the time as like having a new brain. My mind became full of ideas, which seemed to bounce off each other. I became much more energetic and problems of procrastination fell away of their own accord. Although for various reasons I now write in my journal far more sporadically, I remain convinced that the practice left me with a permanently raised intelligence and far more self-awareness."

In spite of the benefits I had received from journalling, I didn't succeed in re-establishing it as a regular feature of my life for years. Then finally on 26 August this year I decided that I was going to adopt a "No Option" attitude to it. Since then I haven't missed a day.

There are many methods of journalling but the one I use is the one described in Julia Cameron's book "The Artist's Way": three pages a day in a spiral-bound A4 lined notebook, written without stopping to think. I'm writing this review to celebrate the completion of my first notebook this time round!

Ideally the writing is done first thing in the morning, which is why Julia Cameron calls it "The Morning Pages". Although it's good to do it as the first thing one does, I don't regard it as essential.

So what has been my experience of starting up again a practice which I found so beneficial six or seven years ago? My excuse for not doing it was that I had already got as much benefit from the practice as I would ever get. Did that prove to be true?

My experiences since 26 August have in fact been exactly the same as I experienced at first:

  1. my mind has been noticeably sharper
  2. ideas have started to flow again
  3. procrastination has vanished

Let's say a little bit about each of these:

Sharper mind. I have found again that my mind is working much quicker when thinking through ideas. I also have more confidence in being able to think on my feet when needed. Before I tried journalling for the first time, I would often find it difficult to think what to say in meetings or how to reply when asked a direct question. This hasn't been a problem since, but I have definitely found less mental fog since re-starting. I can usually measure this by the number of times I have to ask myself through the day "What am I trying to do?" because I've lost the mental thread.

Flow of ideas. This has been a major change. In fact at one meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago, people were remarking in amazement at the number of ideas that were coming to me in the course of the meeting. I have made major changes in the direction of my business since re-starting journalling - and this blog is just one of the results.

Procrastination. I remember well how when I journalled before, how procrastination suddenly disappeared. I think it was because I got really enthusiastic about all the new ideas I was having. When you're enthusiastic about something, you can't wait to see how it works out. Starting journalling again had exactly the same effect this time. I've developed loads of techniques to overcome procrastination over the years, but suddenly I found myself not needing the techniques.
In short, the experience of re-visiting journalling has been that it is everything that I remember it being.

I know that many other people swear by journalling, but I also know that some have tried it and not got much out of it. This may well be a matter of individual temperament. However one thing I have found is that it is important to avoid two extremes when writing one's journal. One extreme is to make it nothing more than a factual list. I have known some people make their journalling into not much more than writing out a to do list. This may be a very useful thing to do, but it is not journalling!

The other extreme is to make it an endless exploration of one's feelings and emotions. This is very easy to fall into, especially if you are in the middle of a break-up of some sort, but doesn't really get you very far.

My own experience is that ideally journalling should consist of both facts and emotion, and above all of concepts and ideas. Journalling should be where you wrestle with ideas in the context of your own values and convictions.

And finally, there is some evidence that writing in this sort of way can stave off mental deterioration due to age and even increase one's life span. I'll report back on that one in ten or twenty years' time!

Reader Comments (16)

My journaling has lately consisted of doing the dialogues between me and Future Self as described in your second book. I find the writing goes very quickly. I have the standard questions posted at my desk so I don't have to remember what they are. I've never gone back to the journals to re-read them; perhaps simply the act of doing them is enough.
October 17, 2006 at 17:58 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
I don't very often re-read my own journals either, though it's an illuminating experience when I do. I haven't got my copy of "The Artist's Way" to hand but I think Julia Cameron recommends not looking at what you've written for at least two weeks. Without making it an unbreakable rule, I'd concur with that.

P.S. I've just found my copy and in fact what she says is "You shouldn't even read them yourself for the first eight weeks or so."
October 18, 2006 at 13:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Do you mean journalling is a better way to cure procrastination than DIT? ;-)
October 18, 2006 at 20:41 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia
Hi, Sylvia. No, I mean that if you do both you will have a really powerful combination!
October 18, 2006 at 23:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, could you let us know more about how you go about journalling?

According to The Artist's Way, the idea seems to be simply stream-of-consciousness writing. I filled a couple of notebooks with Morning Pages as described by Julia Cameron. But it had no very beneficial effect, and in retrospect more focus might have helped.

I can see that making lists and so on would be planning rather than journalling. But how do you avoid "an endless exploration of one's feelings and emotions"? This seems to be exactly what Julia Cameron is suggesting.

Do you set an agenda for each day's journalling, consciously selecting the subjects before you start? Or just confine the journalling to one or two subjects that happen to be on your mind that day?
October 19, 2006 at 9:35 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Wilson
Thanks for your query, John. I write the pages very much as advised by Julia Cameron. In other words I just start writing without any preconceived ideas about what I am going to write about.

But looking back on what I have written, I find that I do in fact write much more about ideas and concepts rather than feelings. But I'm not writing in the style of an essay. I am writing about them in a very personal way. "Talking it over with myself" is the best way I can put it.

Perhaps I ought to mention that I came to the Morning Pages idea originally after reading and practising Natalie Goldberg's "Wild Mind" which describes a similar method of writing without stopping to think. But she does advise having subjects to write about. So my experiences with her methods may well have influenced the way I tackled the Morning Pages.
October 19, 2006 at 11:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks for your reply, Mark. I have not read "Wild Mind" but I have Natalie Goldberg's other book "Writing Down The Bones" where she advocates timed writing exercises on specific subjects. So I think I see what you mean.

I also use a technique like mind mapping, writing and linking words or phrases about things to consider on a specific subject. But that is more like analysis, list-making and formal planning, and seems a long way from journalling in the sense used here - writing spontaneous prose.

Perhaps each of us must find his or her own way, between the two extremes you describe in the article. Next time I will try using one or more ideas or questions which are uppermost in my mind, to start with.
October 23, 2006 at 9:59 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Wilson
What's three pages? All depends on how big the paper is and how small you write...

A guide in terms of time would be more helpful. I find three pages takes about 30-40 mins which seems excessive and has really stopped me making this a sustainable habit.

Would appreciate any input.

March 26, 2008 at 16:25 | Unregistered CommenterMike

As I said in the article "three pages a day in a spiral-bound A4 lined notebook". A4 is the paper size and the lines mean that the size of your handwriting doesn't make a great deal of difference. It takes me about 35 minutes.

I found the benefits of doing it to be so great that they outweighed any time penalty. However there is nothing particularly magic about three pages, and writing for a specified period of time is just as effective. The important thing is that you keep your hand moving and you know exactly when you are going to stop.
March 26, 2008 at 16:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, any reason why this journaling can't be done digitally? I live on my laptop, would prefer to use it to capture my thoughts.


March 27, 2008 at 3:42 | Unregistered CommenterCharles
Hi, Charles

There's no reason why it can't be done on a keyboard rather than in handwriting. I have done both.

I do find though that there is rather a different dynamic, and personally I prefer handwriting. It seems to be more direct and personal.

There's also a problem with the keyboard in that one is constantly tempted to go back and correct. It's important to resist this. Any editing you want to do should be done when you have finished the writing.

Some people even go to the length of turning of the screen while they are writing the pages so they can't see what they have typed!

March 27, 2008 at 6:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark
I've found enormous benefit from doing your dialogues as set out in your book. I do these on the PC once a week (like a check-in with my 'virtual coach'), and also keep a personal daily journal in hand-writing. They both take me to different places, in terms of clarity and moving forward. Having used a journal for years, I now see in my writing an Emotional level (the 'feelings' stuff), a Cognitive level (trying to understand and make sense of it) and an Action level (what am I going to do about it?). In this way, for me my journal is both therapeutic and constructive. I've found at least 26 benefits of keeping a journal! You might like to road-test my book 'The Self-Esteem Journal: Using a Journal to build Self-Esteem' (Sheldon Press) available on Amazon - to see the many ways I've found a journal useful (including drawing when words don't come easily and mind-maps I call 'worry maps' to take us from fretting to problem-solving).
Always grateful for your wonderful ideas and how you use them on yourself!
Cheers Alison
March 27, 2008 at 16:46 | Unregistered CommenterAlison Waines
I'm reading 'Opening up' by James Pennebaker at the moment. He's performed many experiments on journaling and his subjects have shown massive improvements in physical and mental health. So far (I've read three chapters) he has asked people to focus on 'worst traumatic event' or certain situations like job loss.

I tried 'morning pages' a few years ago, but stopped. The free form writing didn't seem to be getting me anywhere, and I found Cameron's 'new ageiness' off putting.

I'm tempted to give Pennebaker's more focused method a go, Also, he's less new agey and provides experimental backing.
March 30, 2008 at 9:51 | Unregistered CommenterMal
Dear Mal:

As I say in the article the best results from this sort of writing come when you write about both facts and your feelings about the facts.

Writing only about facts doesn't help you to get at what's going on in you at an unconscious level.

Writing only about feelings doesn't go anywhere, and tends to be just a wallow.

This is very much Pennebaker's approach. For instance on the subject of job search he used a control group who wrote about their plans for the day and their job search strategies. They were compared with a group who wrote about their deepest feelings about losing their jobs and the effect it had had on their lives and families. The second group benefited far more than the first.
March 30, 2008 at 12:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,
I find that another good mental posture before journaling is to say to myself "the inner editor has no work here". I find that gives me free rein so the more "out of the box" ideas can find their way in without being stopped at the door by the bouncer.
Love your books by the way!
-Doug Motel
April 14, 2008 at 13:54 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Motel
Hi, Doug

Yes, that sort of mental preparation can be very valuable before journalling - and many other tasks too!
April 15, 2008 at 8:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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