The Examined Life: Five Keys to Effective Journaling
“The unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates
If you’ve read this blog before or heard me speak at any events, you may know that journaling is a huge part of my life. That is because it is one of the most effective ways to reflect on (examine) your life and make changes for the better.
Through journaling, I wrote my way out of struggles and wrote my way into clarity and purpose. And it is not reserved for writers alone, it is a core part of our personal and spiritual development.
Why journal? A personal perspective
For me, journaling has been…
History in the making. Writing is a form of documentation, a type of memorial. So when you feel lost or confused, you can go back to evidence of your journey so far and gain some encouragement. It’s always amazing to see how far you’ve come, or watch simple dreams from years ago materialise into something real.
A discovery into my own mind, soul and self. Self-awareness has been on a pop-science pedestal recently. We’re encouraged to be more aware of who we are and how we are moving in the world. And this is a noble thing, but how? The practice of journaling untangles your thoughts, emotions and experiences, and transforms them into something more meaningful.
A safe space for self-care. In your private writing time, you can be completely honest. It’s a judgement free zone where you can go at your own pace. Sometimes the clarity and peace don’t always come immediately, they come after a series of journal entries and that is fine. In a world filled with hustling, journaling allows you to go at your own pace without guilt or comparison.
A form of prayer, or connection with God. Journalling has been a huge part of my faith journey. The clarity I’ve mentioned doesn’t come through my own intellect, but through the Holy Spirit speaking through me.
How to actually start journaling
Many self-help resources talk about the benefits of journaling, but the “how” isn’t always obvious.
I have developed five key principles for structuring your journal practice, based on my experience. Please note that as you become more confident in your writing, you may not need to follow these step by step. Sometimes the steps blend into each other.
I have also included journal prompts (questions to help with writing inspiration), as well as two fictitious journal entries which are examples that help this advice come alive.
Journalling begins before the pen hits the page (or before your fingers hit the keypad)
An effective journal practice begins with the mind, not with your actions.
Remember there is no such thing as a good or bad journal entry. Whether it’s 140 characters or 4 pages long, what matters is that you captured it.
This is one of the safest spaces you can ever create. The only person that ever has to read your journal is you — so there’s absolutely no pressure. Start with what you have, scribbles and spelling mistakes included.
Embrace the organic. Unlike university essays or business reports, you don’t need a plan, you don’t even really need a point. It’s an opportunity to be completely free and spontaneous. Go where the words take you.
Engage in prayer (optional, but it helps). Journalling is a great opportunity to get more prayer in your life, which 99% of my Instagram family said they wanted to do more of. I always keep it simple, asking God to guide and speak through me as I begin writing. No pressure.
2. Starting by describing a specific situation
Journalling does not mean you make a laundry list of every single thing you did today. It’s better to start with a specific event, feeling or conversation.
Journal Prompt 1: What has been the most interesting, frustrating or notable thing you have experienced this week?
Your experience counts, no matter how small or insignificant you think it is. Some of life’s greatest moments are found in the “mundane”. If it’s coming to your mind right now, it’s good enough to write down.
The key here is to set the scene.
I will use two examples to illustrate my points — Example A, based on a specific event; and Example B, based on emotions or thoughts.
EXAMPLE A: Imagine you attended a concert. Your journal entry may begin like this: “I went to see [artist] last Wednesday. As usual, they put on an incredible show, and I left feeling energised and inspired. It was as if all my dreams were finally within reach”.
EXAMPLE B: Thoughts and emotions unrelated to an event can also inspire journal entries. They don’t have to be directly linked to ‘real life’ event. “Lately I’ve been frustrated with where I am in life, it just feels like things aren’t going my way”.
3. Explore the moments when something shifted.
The purpose of this stage is to do more than describe what happened and become clear about how they made you think or feel — for better or for worse.
Journal Prompt 2: At which point(s) was my mind stimulated?
EXAMPLE A: “What moved me specifically about this concert was the video montage [artist] showed about their life, from the days when they were winning performing competitions as a child, to their quarter-life crisis of anxiety… and finally to them reaching the peak of their career. It was amazing to see that they were still able to maximise their gifts beyond their mental health struggles”
EXAMPLE B: “I think a lot of my frustration has come from how things have been going at work. It feels like I’ve tried everything: networking, putting myself forward for things, coaching others and I don’t feel like I’m reaping the rewards. Bonus and promotion season just went by and again I was overlooked.”
Notice his Example B didn’t begin with a specific event, but in reflection, some real-life examples started to come up.
4. Join the dots and reflect
This is arguably the most important (and exciting part) of the journaling process: understanding what the situation means for you, past, present or future.
Journal Prompt 3: Why was this so significant to me? What is it about this situation that resonates so deeply with my understanding of life and/or my circumstances?
EXAMPLE A: “The video montage really moved me because it reminded me of my own life’s ups and downs. I guess I have been nervous about how my past struggles might affect my ability to truly live in my purpose. So it was comforting to see that [artist] made it out. Even though I’m still not sure what the future holds, there is a reason to remain positive.”
EXAMPLE B: “I find this whole bonus/promotion situation so frustrating because I am passionate about my job. I believe I am meant to be pursuing this profession but for some reason, despite my best efforts, there’s no progress”
Joining the dots is also the perfect time to pause and reflect. Let your mind wander deeper into your emotions and the world around you.
At this point, I get reminded of times in my life or in the lives of others that add more depth to my initial thoughts. The more attention you pay to the world around you, the more clarity comes as you write:
EXAMPLE A: “This reminds me of when my grandfather spoke about starting his career. Initially, he believed he would always be behind because it took him a few more years than average to graduate. But over the years he learned that he was right on time. The key was to stay focused: riding the waves of success when they came, and weathering the storms of struggle long enough to see daybreak. I guess King David knew what he was saying when he wrote ‘weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning’ - Psalm 30”
EXAMPLE B: “Maybe it’s time for me to take a break and recalculate. Maybe this is the right career, but not the right company. Or maybe sometimes the best way to make progress is to stop pushing for premature success and let the process take its course.”
You may have noticed that in Example A the writer sounds quite confident in their reflection. By contrast in Example B, the writer is entertaining various outcomes. Both of these are powerful in their own way. Journalling is a form of expression, not performance and there is beauty in accepting the grey areas for what they are.
5. Finally, turn it into something tangible (optional)
Self-reflection is great, but ineffective if we don’t do anything with it. It can be as simple as making a decision to think differently, or a full-blown plan of action. More often than not, there will be something you can ‘do’ with what you’ve written down.
If you struggle with prayer, turning your reflections into prayers is a great way to start. Again, using our two examples:
EXAMPLE A: “Lord, strengthen me as I go through life’s ups and downs. Remind me that my struggles do not disqualify me, and that everything I experience is working together for my good”
EXAMPLE B: “Lord, please help me become more clear about what to do next in my career. Whether I should take a break from hustling, or switch companies completely, give me the discernment to make the right choice.”
If you struggle writing things down...
Use your phone’s Notes App or online products like Google Docs and Evernote. I have used all three in the past, and enjoy them. If you’re using online tools, try to keep your folders organised, use favourites for important journal entries, and maybe even print them out and bind them together.
Another alternative is using websites and apps like Instagram and Tumblr. You can create new accounts that are totally private, sharing pictures, videos and text all at once. I love doing this because you end up with a visual index of to refer back to.