I write things down in order to get things done.
This is true for my daily plan, with my appointments and tasks written out; and it is exponentially more true for my journaling.
My journal is how I discover what decisions I need to make, and what things I need to do, that I believe will lead me to a well-lived life. Journaling for me is about getting the right things done: the meaningful things, the things I hope to look back on with pleasure and not regret. I use my journaling practice to examine my life, and to make decisions about what actions I’ll take, going forward.
Sometimes journaling guides me into new territory: New decisions to make. New things to try.
Sometimes journaling guides me to hold fast, and stick with something, when I feel impatient.
My journaling practice has helped me to:
take interesting risks, like starting blogs and businesses
dramatically improve my mental and physical health
navigate important relationships
navigate emotional turmoil
figure out what is really important to me, what I want in life
be creative, make all kinds of things
figure out logistics for the day: what’s for dinner, when can I squeeze in that errand?
Journaling can be a form of meditation that guides you to specific actions, that help you to shape — and change — your life.
It has certainly transformed mine.
Western Spiritual Contemplative Roots are Action-Oriented
People journal for all kinds of reasons: some people keep notebooks for art or writing ideas, or record what’s going in the natural world.
The journaling I’m talking about is journaling that incorporates your thoughts and feelings about your life, and records the ideas that bubble up for you, about what to do next.
My own journaling practices are influenced by the idea that contemplation and action are linked; which is a marker of Christian spiritual practices in the West.
Well-known practices that come from Eastern traditions like mindfulness meditation, insight meditation — at least as I have learned about them in the popular Western press, through practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn — are not directly linked to actions, although a practice of mental discipline like mindfulness meditation will certainly help you to choose wiser actions.
But a wide stream in the Western contemplative tradition, largely developed through the Roman Catholic church, DOES link contemplation with taking action in the world.
Most people when they think of monasteries think of contemplative orders who live separately from the world; like the Trappists, the order to which Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating belonged.
But many monastic orders in the Western church were dedicated to taking action in the outside world.
Some orders were known for preaching (the Dominicans), others for service to the wider community (teaching orders like the Oblate Sisters of Providence; the many religious orders associated with providing medical care). Universities and hospitals in the West evolved from institutions established by religious orders.
Taking action in the wider world is part of the Western spiritual DNA.
Many specific spiritual practices developed in the Western church are also meant to move individuals toward making good decisions and taking right action.
In the 16th century Reformation, Martin Luther took an established monastic contemplative practice — lectio divina, that is, reading scripture very slowly and reflectively for spiritual enlightenment — and tied it to action. Luther’s last step for contemplative reading is “tentatio” — try it out! In other words, when you engage in this practice, take the intuitions and inspirations that came to you during this form of prayer; and try them out in your daily life.
Contemplation, oriented toward action.
In the Counter-Reformation, Ignatius of Loyola — who was a warrior before he was a priest — came up with several psychologically astute contemplative practices, which people still use today, to help people make decisions and take actions in a state of spiritual freedom and awareness. The religious order that Ignatius founded, the Jesuits, are quite action-oriented.
One of Ignatius’ psychological insights (to put it in modern secular terms) is that if you make an important decision in a time of relative mental peace, you can put more trust in it later on, when the inevitable doubts and second-guessing come up.
This is something I use in my own journaling, that I learned directly from Ignatian discernment practices: my journals record my actions, my decisions, and my mental states around those actions and decisions.
Unless new evidence comes in that would prompt a change, I trust the decisions that I make in a state of relative peace and groundedness.
That Western spiritual sense linking contemplation with action continues today: the Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, because, he said, we need both.
And in seminary, students go through chaplaincy training (known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE), usually in a hospital setting.
The model for learning in CPE is called Action / Reflection / Action.
You visit a patient, you present the case to your supervisor and fellow students; you talk and think through what happened and how it connects with wider perspectives; you take what you learned about yourself and about others, and you carry that learning and reflection toward future actions.
So, my journaling practices are shaped by this Western spiritual conviction that contemplation is linked to action.
How To Journal For Taking Action and Changing Your Life
What to write about?
There are two things you can always write about, for a contemplative action-oriented journal:
1) Whatever is on your mind: it is very likely that whatever is on your mind, has something to do with your life; and that your mind is chewing on it because your mind thinks, “Hey, we ought to do something about this!”
Otherwise it wouldn’t be on your mind. So, you can simply write down whatever is on your mind.
2) What you did during the day (that is, what actions you took during the day), and how you feel about them.
I journal for a longer time in the morning, and for a very short time in the evening.*
In the evening, I write down a few sentences about what I did that day. Then I write down how it made me feel. This is so I have a record of what I was doing, and how my actions relate to my state of mind. It takes me about five minutes, tops, on a regular day. I review this periodically.
My morning journaling session does more of the heavy lifting.
When I’m journaling in the morning, I write down whatever is on my mind, whatever chatter in my head I’m waking up with. I write down how I feel and what I think. I consider what I will do next, and write that down.
Then, if there is anything actionable there, I copy that into my productivity system.
Sometimes my morning journaling is quite straightforward: I’ll write down something like, “Wow, I sure do have a lot of appointments today, and I also want to get XYZ done, how am I going to do that?” — and then I might keep writing to myself, keep thinking it out: “Well, maybe I can schedule in XYZ after that 11:00 a.m. meeting…”
Journaling gives you the time and space to do some simple planning, to think through the logistics of your day. This is straightforward.
But sometimes journaling is much less straightforward. Perhaps you’re going through a time of turmoil, or transition.
You can — over time — journal your way from a state of not even knowing what you want, or what to do; to a state of having plans and having confidence in acting on those plans.
You can also incorporate meditation and prayer into your journaling practice.
Write It Down, First. Decide What It Means, Later.
Sometimes it is not obvious what I should do next, or what is important for me to pay attention to. In that case, I pray for guidance on what to do, or what to pay attention to, next; and relax my body and mind (some deep breathing helps here), and listen inside, and then write down whatever comes back to me.
I think of this process as prayer, but you could also just think of it as a form of meditation: asking a question for your deeper mind to answer; taking a moment to settle your mind in a quiet and meditative state; and writing down whatever comes back.
If you try this, it is important not to censor what you write. Write down whatever comes to you. You can decide whether you will do anything with it, later. But first, you want to record whatever came to you: a thought, an image, whatever. (And sometimes nothing comes back; but often I’ll get an insight later in the day.)
You are totally free to ignore whatever you write.
You are in control of what you decide to do, about whatever comes up in your journaling.
And — if nothing else — your journal should be one place where you are completely honest and uncensored. You don’t have to act on ANYTHING you write. Give yourself great freedom to write whatever comes to mind.
What’s rising up in your consciousness? What are the thoughts or images running through your head and heart?
You are in partnership with the unknown; the unknown parts of yourself, for sure; and depending on your spiritual leanings, perhaps something more. Your journal is the meeting place for this encounter.
The simple act of recording what’s on your mind will already begin to change it, and spark new thinking and ideas.
This is the beginning of reflection.
Now you might ask some questions about whatever you are writing: how do I honestly feel about this, what should I do, what does this mean?
More ideas might bubble up; write them down.
Remember, you don’t have to act on anything you write down. Just write it all down now, and decide what to do with it, later.
The journal is just a container for whatever comes to your mind.
Every Thought Is Welcome in the Journal
I am not at all judgmental toward myself, with any thought I write in my journal: I assume that if I write down something that I wouldn’t want to act on, that I probably needed to vent and express it.
I assume if I write out my feelings of anger or frustration, that those needed to be expressed so I can work through them to a wiser perspective and course of action.
But every thought is welcome in my journal. That is the safest place for my thoughts to go, and allowing my thoughts to be acknowledged and expressed — allowing my thoughts and feelings to have their say — allows many of them to move on. When those feelings are heard, then I can think about what would be a wise way to handle the useful information they gave me.
For example, perhaps I express some irritation about something. That feeling has been heard: now it subsides and now I have the mental bandwidth to ask myself — in writing — “wow, I guess I’m really irritated about that, what should I do?” Maybe I’m irritated because I realize I didn’t eat anything, and I’m hangry. Or maybe I’m irritated and realize I need to have a conversation with somebody. (Or both.) I write down those thoughts. Then I can act on them later, if I choose.
This is why journaling can be such a healing, meditative practice. It helps you recognize problems, AND their solutions.
So, just write down whatever comes to mind. Do not censor it. Just write it down, now.
Evaluate it, later.
Some amount of time spent journaling is helpful.
Too much time spent journaling can turn into unhealthy rumination.
Especially if you are journaling to help yourself take action, setting limits is a good reminder that the practice is meant to help you go about your day, and live your life; not to become another distraction that keeps you from living your life.
So give yourself a limit: a maximum number of pages, a maximum word count, a maximum amount of time. Julia Cameron’s morning pages practice sets a limit of three pages. You might also give yourself a limit like 500 words, or no more than twenty minutes.
Try Out Actions That Come From Your Journaling Practice
After experimenting over the years, I decided I would take whatever action I wrote down in my journal; as long as the action was an ethical and life-giving thing to do.
Even if it didn’t make immediate sense.
Often the ideas that come up while I’m journaling will be very simple and straightforward, like remembering to send a text to someone.
Other times they will seem to have nothing to do with what is in my mind: I might be stressed about something at work, and get a sense that I ought to spend a little time decluttering a closet.
Often when I follow the action — decluttering the closet — I then get an insight about what to do about the work situation.
It’s not always a linear process, but I have found it to be a trustworthy one.
I journal to gain better understanding of what is going on in my life; AND to find out what I should do next.
My mental and physical health, and my creativity, depend on my journaling practice. It is my foundational contemplative practice for my own well-being. If I do nothing else in a day, I write in my journal; unless I am literally too sick to hold a pen.
If I were to pick the one thing that has most powerfully changed my life, it would be using journaling as my tool for action.
* My journaling practices change over time depending on my needs. But I keep the following journals fairly consistently:
1) Morning pages — before I look at my phone, before I turn on the laptop, before I allow other people’s thoughts and opinions in my head, I get up and write three pages about whatever thoughts go through my head. For details on exactly how I do this, here’s my post on my other blog, analogoffice.net.
2) In the evening, I write a few sentences about what I did that day, and how I felt about it. This is SHORT. This is FAST. But it is useful in helping me make connections between how I am living my life, and how my actions make me feel.
3) I also use a day planner to make brief notes about health-related habits; my post about keeping a habit journal is also on analogoffice.net, right here. I’m talking two to three sentences. It’s enough.