Like so many other people, I journalled a lot when I was a kid/teenager. But once I hit my mid-20s and early 30s, adulting threw me for a curve. It was hard to find the time to pull out my writing journal. I moved to a list-based gratitude journal and a vision board journal.
Blogging for SohoSpark got me journaling again. As I poked around for blog ideas, I got inspired. My most important takeaway has been that there aren't any rules. It’s my own personal journal; I can do whatever I want with it. If I don’t have time to write every day, that’s okay. If I want to glue ephemera into it, that’s okay too. And if I realize that a notebook isn’t working--either because of its physical characteristics or because my vision for it went sideways--that's also okay. Just move on. It’s no biggie. The important thing is to figure out the best journal for me, and go with it.
This freedom to do whatever my little heart desired, plus the multitude of topic ideas swirling around the interwebs, kicked me into gear. I wanted to start writing--and handwriting--more. I chose a new cute notebook to write in from SohoSpark's Writing Journals. I intended to follow the time-worn path of writing introspectively about life events. Instead, it segued into a book of unsent letters.
I also started a travel journal, which sparked joy in my crafty side. Who knew you could glue stuff into writing journals? I thought that was just for scrapbooks! Duh, right? I love that I can explore meaningful moments from my travels through writing AND also paste in mementos.
I also changed the course of my gratitude journal. My research convinced me that a daily gratitude list isn’t terribly effective. A concise daily list can become rote. And rote gratitude isn’t really gratitude, you know? Gratitude should be meaningful. It should be mindful. And so, now I pull out my gratitude journal only sporadically. And when I do, I explore the gratitude I’m feeling in depth.
Finally, I tossed my old vision board journal and started a new one. I realized that I didn’t like the old one. It was the wrong size, too neat, and too big to be easily portable. My new one is small, with two-page spreads of messy collages. It’s fun to work in and I’m excited to watch it grow.
As I’ve made these changes and watched my notebooks fill up, I’ve had some revelations. It’s only been about 9 months since I starting changing my journaling habits. And already I can see personal growth when I flip back through the pages.
Here’s the thing: journals are all about self-improvement, either by focussed direction or by happy accident.
If you wanted to, you could dedicate a writing journal (or section of a journal) to self-improvement. For instance, you could write down your goals and brainstorm ways to achieve them. But self-improvement can also happen serendipitously, as you work through issues and review your journal entries for patterns and revelations.
Let’s take a look at how your journal can help you become happier, less stressed, more fulfilled, and more self-aware. Who wouldn’t want that? Amirite?
Goals! Goals! Goals!
If you’re actually gunning for self-improvement, goals are the way to go. Now, to increase your chances of meeting those goals, write them down. Studies show that people who write down their goals are more likely to accomplish them than people who don’t.
With a little extra work, you can max out the effectiveness of this trick. In a piece at forbes.com, Ashley Feinstein suggests writing about a few related things::
- A vision. As I explained in my blog on vision board journals, visualizing your goals helps to manifest them. Don’t skimp on the details either. Write down how you anticipate feeling when the goal is achieved. What are the sounds, sights, and aromas around you? What season is it? Who is with you? Where exactly are you?
- Benchmarks. Big goals can be daunting. It’s easier to achieve your goals if you break them into smaller chunks. Want to lose 50 pounds? Why not break that into five 10-pound goals?
- A plan for measuring success. At what point will your goal be achieved? If, for instance, you want to set up an Etsy shop, will you meet your goal when your shop opens, when you sell your first item, or when your books show a profit?
Writing Prompts = Meaningful Self-Improvement
What if you’re not sure what your goals are, though? You Type A people out there: stop rolling your eyes at me. This is a valid question. I’ve admitted in other blogs that I don’t have a lot of “goals.” I’m a daydreamer, not a planner. But, to be honest, until I started delving more deeply into my journal writing, I wasn’t even that good at daydreaming. I was afraid to dream big. I was timid in verbalizing what I wanted, certain that I wasn't entitled to my dreams.
If you’re like me, journaling prompts are the way to go. Prompts can work in two ways.
First, if you want to develop actionable goals, you can use writing prompts to figure out what goals you want to reach, and how to reach them. Lindsey Wigfield over at JRNL Blog has a great set of prompts for this, including:
- What is the biggest event that you have coming up in the next few months? How can you make it special?
- What would you like your life to look like in five years? Where would you like to live? What would you like to be doing?
- How do you envision retirement?
- What’s one personality trait that you wished you had? What kind of steps could you take to create that trait?
- What are your top five interests? How can you incorporate those into your daily activities?
Second, self-improvement isn’t solely about setting and accomplishing goals. It’s about self-care and improving your physical and mental well-being. It’s about becoming a better person and living a more meaningful life. It’s not about filling a need or a lack within a specified period of time. It’s committing to a life-long journey to live your best life.
Not sure what your best life looks like? Journaling prompts can help with that too. Jessica Estrada has some powerful prompts on her blog to kickstart self-reflection. Some of the ones that speak to me are:
- What am I proud of myself for?
- What makes me feel truly alive?
- What do I need to forgive myself for?
- How do I add value to the world and those around me?
- What am I most grateful for right now?
And that last prompt, about gratitude, is a key one for self-improvement.
Gratitude is Key
Gratitude is a trending topic right now, and for good reason. Gratitude is very much interconnected with two other qualities that are key to self-improvement: joy and mindfulness. Together, these three things can contribute to lower stress levels, improved focus, and deeper self-awareness.
I’ve found that a dedicated gratitude journal, where I can explore my gratitude in depth, is more powerful than a daily list of x number of grateful moments. For one thing, the lists can become repetitive, even with the best of intentions. For another, gratitude is like ripples in a pond. It’s rare that one instance of gratitude is unrelated to any others. For instance, yesterday I was grateful that I had cash on hand to offer to someone in need. I could certainly stop right there. Or, I could also consider my gratitude for having money to spare, which leads me to be grateful for my job, my amazing coworkers, and my good health. And, hey, I would be remiss if I didn’t also include gratitude for my new office, with its large window (buh-bye SAD symptoms!). See how that works? The more you acknowledge gratitude, the more you recognize it, and the richer your life becomes.
Here’s the thing, though: Sometimes we seek out self-improvement, and sometimes self-improvement finds us.
This is what I notice as I flip back through the writing journals I’ve been keeping over the past nine months. The most noticeable change is that I no longer hedge words about my dreams. I actually wrote in one entry that I was tired of disbelieving in myself. I jotted down that I refused to listen to the disparaging chorus in my head any longer. Since then, I have been forthright and honest in recording my dreams.
How does that happen? What exactly is it about journaling that helps us become more self-aware and gently pushes us towards our best lives? There are a few explanations for that, actually.
First, writing in a journal is therapeutic. Personal journals are a safe place to vent and give voice to those thoughts that you have difficulty verbalizing. For this reason, writing journals help manage mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Improved mental health definitely = self-improvement.
Second, your writing journal is an excellent place to work on how we tell our stories - reframing our narratives. Whether we focus on the positive or the negative when we tell our stories impacts our happiness and mental health. A shift from a negative life perspective to a positive one is certainly a major stride in self-improvement.
Third, by reviewing your entries, you have the chance to recognize patterns and triggers, which can help you figure out a way to reroute your path. Any time you take action to move away from negativity and towards your best life, you are achieving the best kind of self-improvement.
What about you? What are you itching to work on in terms of self-improvement? Or are you tempted to take the serendipitous route and trust in the power of your journals?