Dear diary, let’s have another look at this life…

American writer Jessamyn West, author of The Friendly Persuasion, said, “People who keep journals have life twice”. It’s hyperbole, but appeals to those of us who want to live a life worth remembering. To live a life twice! How grand. 

Journaling is something I’ve done off and on from the time I could write as a young boy. My grandmother Ann, a progressive and learned woman of letters herself, would let me read the diaries and letters of her parents and grandparents, and while I never knew them as people, their lives and thoughts came alive on the page and set my young imagination on fire.

In a paralysis and fog of despondence a couple of years ago, I once again began keeping a journal. It wasn’t for any delusions of posterity, but therapy: I’d expunge the sadness and grief of my then-life falling apart, and it helped to let it all out and not feel judgement or disappointment from the Moleskine journals (I like them). Pouring myself out onto pages that would simply ‘listen’ was an enormous tool in helping me work through some very big challenges.

The gratitude diary fad

In recent years, as our society begins the early stages of wondering why so many of us feel so bloody maudlin and disenchanted with modern life, many have espoused the benefits of keeping a ‘gratitude diary’.

The thought behind it is this: by reflecting on things you are grateful for, the mind begins to refocus on the good and pleasant. And by making a daily note of two or three things, no matter how ‘ordinary’ or simple they may be, the cumulative effect is one of increasing the sense of appreciation, that will drive actions of reciprocity, and the web of gratitude spreads wider and wider. Awww!

I’ve tried it, but having a notebook purely of things I’m grateful for felt like a little betrayal of how I was truly feeling; as Instagram is to a photo album. And it meant another notebook… while I do love them, having two seemed silly.

Lists and organisation

Making to-do lists has been helpful in my former professional life, where a million different projects and expectations jostled interminably for attention and completion.

Each week I’d turn to a new page in my work notebook (a third notebook… these things breed like gremlins after midnight) and write a bulleted list of everything needing to be done that week for my work to stay on track – or, heaven forbid, be ahead of time.

As my career went on and my roles became more senior, and expectations higher, the bulleted list grew to 4 pages each week. But still, I kept at it and enjoyed ticking things off as I completed them, though never seemed to tick everything off and always had more to add, depending on whether my boss at the time has a moment of apparent divine inspiration about a whole new strategy and project I “need to get cracking on” at a moment’s notice. Sigh.

As I fell apart and broke down throughout 2016, simpler tasks like making breakfast, showering, checking the mail, keeping on top of bills etc, all became difficult. Piles of mail built up, as did washing, and despair, and I felt overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life.

A friend encouraged me to keep a notebook (another one?! We’re now at four!) of just three tasks, no matter how simple, I’d like to achieve each day. They could be things like ‘Put on a load of washing’, ‘Open two items of mail’, and ‘Cook some vegetables’, if that was what I felt I needed to focus on.

Notice these tasks are only part tasks: ‘put on’ washing (hanging it out to dry was for the next day), ‘open’ some mail (dealing with it could be next week). Having just a few small tasks to get done each day became a big part of how I climbed out of the hole.

My fifth notebook: a thought tracker

The psychologist I’ve been seeing for a few years encouraged me to make notes every few hours of how my general outlook and mood was. At that time, I was only ever hovering between a 1-5 out of ten, it seemed.

So I opened notebook number five (this is just f*cking ridiculous, now) and tracked my mood.

I noticed more variation than I was aware of, and some triggers began to emerge. In time, I was able to either eliminate or plan for those triggers, and along with the three simple tasks, my days slowly improved.

The journal of journals

Five notebooks is three or four too many. Even me, a notebook and fountain pen appreciator, can see that.

So, I set about creating my own ‘journal of journals’ – a collation of the most helpful aspects of each one, which I would use each day for catharsis, accountability and to track how I was (or wasn’t) progressing.

My journal of journals is something I’ve now been using for a year, and it’s been amazing. I sit down with my morning coffee and write down a few things for the day:

  • An affirmation – anything I feel I might need reminding of
  • Three things I am grateful for
  • Three things that if done, will make this day a good one
  • How I feel at that moment of time (out of 10)

And each evening, I sit down with a cup of lemon and ginger tea, and complete the rest of my journal of journals:

  • Three reasons today was a good day
  • Three things I found challenging that day (if there are three, but no more)
  • What I did and what I ate: morning, afternoon, evening
  • My mood/outlook out of 10, at four-hour intervals
  • A checklist of general wellbeing (did I drink 2ltrs water, did I stretch/walk regularly, etc)

It might all sound terribly wanky, but using my ‘Journal of Journals’ each day has been a MASSIVE part of me returning to a happier frame of mind, and made me more productive.

I no longer keep mail building up (much), I can see a visual of how my mind is each day, I’m more grateful for the good things, and I limit myself to small lists by which I evaluate the day.

I do keep a second, actual notebook – as distinct from a printout of my journal of journals – for cathartic brain vomit. I’m not Samuel Pepys, Adrian Mole, or Bridget Jones, but my journal and notebook help me with the task of simply doing my best each day, and gradually improving over time.

It’s almost as though I’m becoming my best self and living my best life… if you’ll forgive the clichés.

Originally published at The Westsider

Download a sample template of JC’s ‘Journal of Journals’ at jcclapham.com/journal

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