Have you given thought to how you begin and end your day? What intention have you built into the first moments of your morning? What allows you to relax and rest as you prepare to sleep? I believe these bookend moments define the quality and health of your daily activities. May I suggest that whether you have a routine or not, keeping a journal or diary is a worthwhile endeavor. No practice has inspired me to try more things, be more attentive, and practice listening than keeping notes on my day.
But what the heck should you even write about? Reading and studying the journals of both great and ordinary people throughout history may leave you with the sense of inferiority, as I certainly felt at the beginning. Not all of us will write compelling prose in the once obscure pages of our notebooks like MLK Jr., Anne Frank, or Thoreau. We can’t all be published posthumously from our daily scribbles, and maybe there should be comfort in that. The practice of keeping a journal is not for others, but it is wholly to your own benefit. Keep a journal for you.
(If I may digress for a moment: I have never understood why when a man keeps such a notebook, it is called a journal, but the women’s equivalent is called a diary. If either of these words have ever hindered you from taking up the habit, choose the other word. Or name it something else entirely. What you call it could not matter less.)
To begin, grab any old sheet of paper and write down things that are important to you that you would want to take notes on and have a record of if you ever should get the urge to travel back in time. These things may be documenting workouts, bullet point summaries of the day, or what you are grateful for. A quick search online can point you toward several templates, ideas, and examples if you get stuck. (My favorite examples are the 5 Minute Journal template and Tim Ferriss detailing his practice.)
Next, decide what time is right for you and how much you want to write. I write for 15 minutes in the morning with my gym clothes on and for 15 minutes in the evening before getting into bed to read. This lets me fill half a page in the morning and complete the day’s page at night. But, of course, that is what is right for me.
Finally, write. Once you’ve chosen an initial template and time frame, the next step is to simply write. It need not begin with “Dear Diary”, though if you’d like to consider an entry as writing to a third party reader, go on ahead. It may feel clunky at first, but remember, you’re taking notes on your day for you and for you only. There’s no need to write and think in finished, publishable prose. And remember, if you want to tweak your template, try splitting the page for a morning and evening session, or any other change you might conceive of, do it. You’re writing by your own rules. These will inevitably change as your values and priorities evolve.
I currently write six days a week with the following template. (Dixie and I practice an adapted Sabbath day on Fridays, during which, even journaling is allowed to rest. Next week, I’ll explain and discuss our Sabbath practice in detail.)
Header – Scripture chapter and date.
Scripture reflection (5 lines) – I value reading a chapter out of the bible every morning before I open my notebook. I reflect on the subject of that chapter, raise questions, or summarize what I’m reading in my own words in order to more fully comprehend and understand.
⇐ [Left Arrow] (1 line) – I value learning to listen to what Dixie cares to speak about as we prepare for bed and fall asleep. I figure the last thing my spouse wants to talk about in the day carries added weight and importance, so I recall our conversation from the night before.
Future (2 lines) – Without drowning in too many self help guru’s messages of imagining my best life, I do practice a form of visualization. I take stock of my current habits and imagine them out to their final conclusions, for good or ill. For example, what would I look and feel like if I ate like I did yesterday? If the outcome is less than ideal, I know exactly where I must course correct. I also take the time to imagine what it would be like to live into some of my wildest dreams and goals, engaging as many senses as possible. A common recurrence is owning a house with an expansive porch where I spend a majority of my time at home outside reading, playing, smoking my pipe, and having conversation with friends and family.
Today (2 lines) – With the two lines above in mind, I spell out one or two discrete and exact actions that I could do today to put me one step closer to the future I visualized.
Gratitude (1 line) – What am I grateful for in the exact moment of writing in the morning? It may be as simple as the cool glass of water I have that morning. Nothing is ever off limits where gratitude is concerned.
⇒ [Right Arrow] (2 lines) – With the same philosophy as the left arrow in the morning, I take care to notice and actively listen to the first thing Dixie wants to talk about when I get home from work.
Summary (5 lines) – Here, I take notes on my day. A summary of notable events, conversations, tasks completed, my inner self talk, or emotional state.
TIL [Today I Learned] (5 lines) – If everyone can teach me something, than I am never not a student ready to learn. This posture helps me enter my world with humility and curiosity. By taking notes on specific things I learned, it again helps me to practice active listening and engagement throughout my day.
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.” – Abigail Adams.
Prayer (5 lines) – As a Christian, a prayer practice is central to what I believe it means to commune with the Divine through Christ, but I have always struggled with the words. So here, I pray through writing. I address God. I vent. I ask questions. I challenge. I request. Prayer is much more to me than five lines a day in my notebook, but where I feel words are necessary, this is where they go.
1% (1 line) – The Kaizen Method, or One Percent Better exercise, is a reflective practice that I discovered some time ago in which I ask myself how I could be just one percent better tomorrow than I was today. Too often, goals and aspirations grow to be so grandiose that they becoming daunting in their size and complexity. So instead of asking how I could lose 100 lbs. in one year, I ask how I could work toward losing 2 lbs. in the next week. I draw little check boxes next to my one percent better tasks for tomorrow, then either check the box or circle the box the following day depending on if I followed through or missed the mark.
Gratitude (1 line) – What am I grateful for in the exact moment of writing in the evening? Keep it simple and honest. Again, nothing is ever off limits where gratitude is concerned.