In 2018, circumstances inevitably changed and I began taking up much more in life. I was under stress, regardless of being on the safe side, and the patterns that kept me grounded were no longer holding up.
Back then, seeing the big picture was unattainable with the stress snowballing and skewing my perspective. Dwelling in my head, paving the way to learned helplessness, I decided to try out journaling.
More than a year later, I can finally say alles gut. Although circumstances haven’t changed much, I certainly handle them better. I keep journaling as of today, and am excited to share my setup and (hopefully) motivating takeaways!
How I Journal
I did not go for the traditional diary format. I decided to Bullet Journal, a flexible journal method founded in quick lifelogging by means of a pen, paper, and bullet points.
Pen and paper pull me out of my head and let me continuously evolve my notebook as my needs change, since there is no predefined template. As for bullet points, we all know their efficacy: hasty logging and later reviewing at a glimpse.
Peek into Bullet Journal official page for an overview, as I won't dive into the framework basics.
The Bullet Journal framework is made out of four fundamental “collections”: Index, Daily Log, Monthly Log, and Future Log, plus custom collections you find valuable. After a while of tinkering around, I came to some insights and tweaks.
Index only turned out useful when I added custom collections, as those usually end up scattered across the journal and thus hard to find.
Daily Logs is where I keep track of notes, events, tasks, thoughts, and ideas. (All mixed together, which portrays a day accurately if you ask me.) I recommend using signifiers and nesting (for a tree-like view) in bullet points to convey meaning with ease, as Bullet Journal suggests.
Monthly Log didn’t work for me. I steer towards weekly or quarterly ranges. Also, my online calendar is more practical so I couldn’t bother drawing calendars every month.
Future Logs are useful to migrate tasks or events to upcoming months, for when you don’t get something done but can’t “nevermind” it either.
As for custom collections, the Bullet Journal ecosystem is huge! I’ve seen stuff of all kinds out there: finance/sleep/food/water trackers, recipes, trip planning, doodles, and whatnot. Yet, these are the ones I always come back to:
- Diaries: longer diary entries or brain dumps without the limitation of bullet points, for when I feel like it.
- Habit Trackers: a simple daily tracker to monitor or develop habits across weeks, e.g. meditation, alcohol intake, call family.
- Weekly Logs: my weekly variation of “Monthly Log”, with upcoming events and small goals for the week. Usually done on Sunday or Monday.
- Quarterly Logs: my quarterly variation of “Monthly Log”, with upcoming events and big goals for the quarter.
- Year Retrospective: a straightforward year review regarding what did and did not go well, what to keep or let go from last year etc.
I journal spontaneously throughout the day, but mostly in mornings or evenings. I do it every day, even when I don’t feel like it. In the long run, that’s gotten me to fathom my anxieties by having them logged as well as what was up days before. It goes a long way to flip through logs of piled up chores, social isolation, binge drinking, and sleep deprivation, to later find yourself taking down “I am anxious. Can’t do shit”.
Be that as it may, I don’t keep it all gloomy. With my throughput in mind, I may also soften up my daily logs with receipts from exquisite restaurants I come across, cute post-its from friends, or even silly useless quotes from fortune cookies.
At last, I have to say I’m not really a big planner so you can see that’s not what I optimise my journal for. All I strive for is a little awareness of whatever I’m doing for the time being. I enjoy a spontaneous and organic life, and that’s gotten me far enough to make me happy.
Pen & Paper
In 2019, I used an A5+ (slightly wider than regular A5) dot-grid notebook. It’s bulky to carry around but I don’t regret it: the pages are wide enough to encourage writing. The quality of its pleasing yellow paper is outstanding, thick enough to prevent ink from leaking through. I ended 2019 with a few pages empty.
This year, I went for something more portable: an A6 dot-grid notebook. It took me a while to get used to the size constraints, and I’ve been certainly more straightforward with my logs. I am pretty sure I will have no pages left this time. (Wondering what was the advantage of it all as I’m not going anywhere anyway thanks to COVID-19.)
As for pens, I use different colours of a 0.4 mm fineliner.
What I’ve Learned
I'd not assume these stem necessarily from the way I set myself up. Audio or video recordings, traditional diary, and other journal formats are worth exploring and might help just as well.
Less overwhelm, more time. To truly chill out when life gets overwhelming, you gotta plan ahead. Especially in already busy weeks, I use my journal to put down chores I commit to get done, prioritising what I signify as deadline-sensitive. Before, with my tendency to overfocus, I’d take up activities without planning and end up neglecting my responsibilities and needs. Imagine how far this can go!
Emotional awareness. I’ve gained a grasp of the phenomenology of my emotions and the lens through which I see life, markedly my cognitive distortions on stressful days. Attitudes like pessimism inevitably surface as you jot down negative thoughts all the time. Being mindful allowed me to reframe negative views, and turn obstacles into opportunities.
Better retainment. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I have a bad memory” when one has been busy and mooning for so long. Leading a busy life mindlessly is not what I strive for, and journaling only feeds into that: I hold dear people, moments, promises, and no longer miss so many appointments (planning helped here too!).
Constant assessment. Journaling is a tool to assess the present as well as the past and the future. By peeping into where I’ve been, what did/didn’t go well, or who I have been with, for instance, I can ponder more sensibly on my growth and relationships. Early feedback on my own life, sort of, to leverage self-improvement in relationships, health, work, and so on.
Perfectionism. Obsession over constant logging or perfection is right at the door for you to slip into. On social media (Pinterest, YouTube), everyone’s journal seems visually-appealing every day without fail. Even Bullet Journal, a method dead straightforward, can be a rabbit hole. Remind yourself to solve your problem in a way that enhances your daily life, not burdens it. You gain absolutely nothing from buying into slices of life people sell online.
Habit-building. When not a habit, journaling is just another chore. Make it effortless and engaging: establish a routine (if that’s your thing), designate it a place where it’s always within reach, or tailor the framework to your needs. If you enjoy drawing once in a while, why not? If you have no patience for 29872 different pen colours, why do it? If you want to write about your day with your partner in bullet points instead of coming up with a best-seller love story, who cares?
Procrastination. Journaling constantly nudges you to look back at your life and how you’ve been spending your time and energy. That can be challenging and won’t change. For starters, you might come to the unpleasant realisation that you self-sabotage, or that a certain relationship is fading away. If you are avoidant, you will most likely put off journaling often; not because of the method or routine, but fear of what you may find – fertile soil for procrastination.
For pen & paper… No backup. Some companies have tried, but what’s hand-written won’t sync with a cloud server. You do carry the weight if traveling or taking it to work, and it’s probably gone if you spill coffee on it. I, though, think the trade-off is worth it and haven’t looked back.
Final Takeaway 🥡
I am all for simplicity, yet that didn’t keep my mind from boggling when I realised such a simple tool turned out to be a game-changer. Starting off was not easy, but the benefits showed up and kept me motivated – a rewarding feeling I wouldn’t expect so hastily while building a new habit. Today, it’s just effortless and natural.
Ultimately, I hope this stimulates you to try journaling in whatever way and to deem simple tools as helpful to uncomplicate and improve our lives.