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Start building a manageable journaling practice today

Updated: May 26, 2020

A journal is a valuable tool for an artist. Complex concepts can first take shape in the pages of daily journals. Any medium of expression can be bolstered by this practice and yet, it can be intimidating.

For years, I struggled to keep a regular journaling practice. I still regret not having a better record of certain life experiences. Far too many of the entries I did make began with woeful statements about how I needed to write more. I know I’m not alone.

There are many potential barriers to writing regularly. The hurdles I experienced can be summed up as procrastination, a perceived lack of time, and overthinking my organization. These hurdles reinforced one another and it took me years to figure out a way to knock them down.

Now, I journal every day with few exceptions. I incorporated the following four elements into my life, one at a time, to build a manageable journaling practice. Hopefully they can help you do the same!

One sentence journal

Christmas of 2014 was a particularly hard time for me. I was engulfed in a tidal wave of grief and was struggling to find a sense of meaning in my life again. A perceptive and caring colleague gave me a beautiful gift that I remain grateful for to this day. It was a one-sentence journal. The book had 365 pages, each representing a day of the year, with five spaces for brief entries. Once completed, each page served as a five-year log of my life on any given day of the year.

This journal was a game-changer for me. I had always been one to go on a writing rampage once I started but I found that the allocated margins taught me to distill my day into a short paragraph (always more than just one sentence, to be fair). Suddenly, under ten minutes was all I needed to make journaling a daily practice.

I still do keep a brief daily journal. I’m partial to using a paper day planner, so that’s where I jot down a few notes about each day now. Whether you buy a journal formatted for this or create your own, the key is to limit how much you can write. If you’re a writer, the exercise of choosing just a few words per day is very useful too. It’s a great lesson in editing.

Indexed journal

I used to have far too many notebooks on the go at once. I tried to be organized and allocate certain subjects to certain books but before long I would mix them up, winding up more disorganized than ever. Compartmentalizing simply didn’t work for me. What did work was keeping one or two journals at a time and using an indexing system to keep them in order.

For this system, I number all the pages in my journal and reserve the first two or three pages for the index. As I make entries, I record them. It usually looks something like this:

Index Pg. 1— Index  Pg. 3 — Journal entry May 5  Pg. 6 — Poem — Scorching  Pg. 7 — Story idea — Brick Layer in a Storm  Pg. 8 — Notes from Class May 7

When I want to transcribe poems or find a story idea, it becomes really simple to access what I need. And when I revisit a retired notebook, I can just flip through the index to see if there’s anything of interest within. I have tried making an indexed notebook that doubled as a day planner as well as having them as separate items. I prefer to keep them separate. Experiment with techniques to tailor the right method for yourself.

Found time

While I had a solid habit of using my one-sentence journal for a number of years, I was still finding it difficult to pen longer entries. I was lamenting my lack of time to a friend when she challenged me to view the time I felt was lost to the mundanities of life as “found time” rather than “lost time”. Suddenly, I noticed all this free time that I was able to apply to my journaling practice.

Time spent commuting, waiting for appointments, taking breaks at work, dilly-dallying between plans — this all became reframed as found time I could spend writing a few sentences or paragraphs. It was revolutionary for me. I gained a whole lot of time I didn’t think I had and came to appreciate it so much more. Where can you find time in your life for your journaling practice?

Morning pages

The concept of found time is what really cracked the morning pages code for me. Morning Pages are a popular tool for artists presented in Julia Cameron’s famous workbook for creatives, The Artist’s Way. She recommends doing three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every morning. It’s a brain dump to help clear the mind and uncover subconscious ideas. The ideal way to do Morning Pages is immediately upon waking. I tried. I failed. I am not a morning person.

With the found time of my morning commute, or in the case of quarantine, my morning routine, I finally managed to regularly do my morning pages. I could still be more consistent. Morning Pages really are the next frontier for my journaling practice. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I’ve been more committed to writing regularly, my creative horizons have also expanded. I find myself feeling more inspired, more energized for creativity, more at ease in my mind, and more satisfied with my accomplishments overall.

These strategies may work for you, they may not. But what I hope you take away from this is that keeping a journal doesn’t have to be time consuming or stressful. In fact, it should be cathartic. As long as you establish a practice that addresses the barriers you experience and that works with your life and routine as it is, you will be successful in making it a habit that promotes healthy processing. And what is art if not a way to process experiences? Journaling and creating both help us to understand, to make sense of a complicated existence. Through these practices, we internalize experiences and anticipate what might be. Making them manageable for ourselves is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our art and our mental health.

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