I’m a journaler. Ever since my teenage years, I’ve kept a journal. It was a place to record my thoughts, my prayers, and my angst-filled adolescent longings — but it was intermittent. I would write in it only sporadically, when the need for self-expression got particularly intense. Finally, though, I devised a sustainable way to keep a daily journal, and I’ve done it now for twelve years. Every. Single. Day.
A little background
Journaling can be a very beneficial practice. In my life, it is a way for me to sit before God and look at all of the events of the day with him. As I write, I reflect on his presence, I rejoice and grieve over successes and failures, and I process it all with Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. Journaling is my most potent form of prayer, and I’ve come to depend on it as my main way to hear the voice of God.
The trouble with journaling is that, if you’re anything like me, it takes too long to write longhand about all of the interesting or painful or exciting things in a 24-hour period. In addition, it gets boring and tedious to write things like, “Then I took a shower, got dressed, and made a cup of tea….” But you don’t want to omit these details if, for example, something interesting sometimes happens over your morning cup of tea. Or perhaps you might look back and wonder, “When did I take a shower that day?”
So about twelve years ago, I was looking for a way to include lots of detail in my journal while also shortening the process, because I was tired of writing everything out in prose. I wanted to give myself a limit (one page) so that I wouldnâ€™t go on journaling for an hour or more. I wanted to journal each night for no more than about 15 minutes. I experimented with a few different visual structures and finally landed on a system that has worked wonderfully for me.
Would you like to see?
Journaling in the round: how to do it
Let me begin by saying that all you really need to practice this style of journaling is a pen and a blank piece of paper. And maybe a small cup, but even that is optional.
I spend about 15 minutes journaling each night. In this stage of my life, it happens right after I put our two daughters to bed, while I sit in the kitchen as they drift off to sleep. Iâ€™ll explain each part of the journal page (see illustration), corresponding with the pink numbers:
- When I started this system, Jon helped me cut out a sturdy piece of plastic in the shape of a circle. We punched a hole in it, threaded a ribbon through the hole, and attached it to my journal as a handy stencil for my circle. I use this every day. You can trace the bottom of a cup, or you can even draw a circle freehand — no one is looking!
- Inside the circle, I write the day and date. Then I make four marks at the 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock positions (as if this were a clock). They represent time, but in a 24-hour scheme. The topmost mark represents midnight, and the opposite (on the bottom) is noon. The sides are 6 am (on the right) and 6 pm (on the left). This gives me a structure in which to record the events of the day.
- All around the circle, I note the events of each day with varying degrees of specificity. I usually begin with sleep (I hope that happens at least between midnight and 6 a.m.!), then continue on with each major event. This helps to jog my memory about what I did that day, which also reminds me about different thoughts and emotions I had along the road.
- On the sides of the page, I sketch out my reflections about the day. Noting that I had a quiet time in the morning might remind me of a thought or insight I had at that time, and I’ll record that on the side. I reflect on the reactions that I remember from the day’s activities, and I write down the ones that seem significant. Sometimes I have lots of thoughts, but I try to limit myself to one page. That is almost always sufficient. If I want to write or think about something further, I may make a note of it so I can journal more at another time.
- In the upper left corner, I write the words “consolation” and “desolation.” This is the space for my practice of the Examen by Saint Ignatius. When I’m finished writing about things on the sides of the page, I answer the questions “What was most life-giving today?” (consolation) and “What drained life from me today?” (desolation). I find it interesting to look for patterns over time through the reflections from my Examen practice.
Chronicling a life
I didn’t start out intending to journal every day straight for twelve years, but that’s what happened. After much experimentation, I’ve found the kind of blank journaling book that I like. It is about 7×10”, and it has a durable spiral binding, unruled pages, and hard covers. I especially like the journals of this size made by Michael Roger Press. They are usually $10 to $15 each, and each one lasts me about six months.
It is very rare for me to miss a day of journaling. I sometimes wonder if the practice borders on addiction — but in a healthy way. The ancients called this kind of thing a habitus (habit), and they knew how much power our habits have to shape us. I did miss a day or two my older daughter was born (laboring makes journaling difficult), but journaling is so ingrained in me that I went back and recreated those days when our baby was safely taking a (twenty-minute) nap. Keeping up with the journal was probably most challenging during the first few weeks of having a child, but even in those days, I just had to find a regular time that worked for me.
Sometimes, when I talk about my journaling practice, people sigh and say, “Gosh, I wish I had the discipline to journal every day.” And I always say, “No! It’s not about self-discipline! It’s just a thing I have to do!”
I don’t journal so that I can be sure that I have a record of every day (although that has come in handy during debates with Jon about when we took that trip to Milwaukee). I don’t journal so that I can fill up a shelf with books I’ve written on. I don’t even journal because I feel it is right or good. I journal because I need to. I depend on it as my regular time for processing my day and my emotions before God.
To tell the truth, I rarely look forward to journaling. There is almost always a slightly painful moment when I step out of my “highway” of activities and tasks, stop to take a breath, and create some space for reflection. But I know I’ll feel better when I’ve done it. Journaling is really good for my soul, and I am grateful for the ways God uses it as a tool for spiritual formation in my life.
My words to you
I know that not everyone loves to journal, so here are my recommendations, ranging from whether you love it or hate it:
If you hate journaling, don’t journal. Do something else! There are so many different spiritual disciplines and practices that can help you in your life with God. Do one of those. Rejoice in your self-understanding, honor the fact that you don’t like journaling, and find another way to connect with Jesus.
If you aren’t sure about journaling, give it a try. You don’t have to do it every day. You can decide with God how often you want to journal. Maybe it works for you to journal only on weekends. Maybe you want to try journaling for thirty days straight to see what happens. You might want to try journaling in the round, or you might want to write lists, or you might want to write a letter to God. What do you have to lose? Give it a try and, after a time, evaluate it with Jesus.
If you love journaling, try journaling in the round. See if you like it. Maybe you will and you can build your own plastic disc for making that circle. Maybe you won’t like it, but you’ll have ideas for your own structure for journaling. See where God might take you next with this practice.
Whatever your journaling proclivities, I hope these thoughts can inspire you to develop spiritual formation practices that are well-suited to your personality and your days. Blessings on the journey!