What is a Sustainable Journaling Practice and Why it Matters for You

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You may have heard that journaling is good for you. Perhaps you have stumbled across the growing amount of supportive data collected which shows short term physiological benefits to health that occur on the cellular level, beyond the mental health benefits and in addition to the emotional improvements. Let’s face it, like brushing, flossing, and exercising you know journaling might be good for you. You’re just unsure how to make it as regular as say…a bowel movement. (I just appreciate these kind of semi-gross connections). Or perhaps you’ve seen the variety of notebooks, planners and journals promising to help you in every aspect of your life. Or maybe, just maybe, you remember being a child staring in wonder at the new little diary you received, with it’s little dangling key, and promise of secrets to come dancing in your head.

On the other hand, you may be here as one who is a bonafide, hard-core journaler who dedicates a plethora of pages and piles of paper to the practice of journaling. You are the Instagram flat-lay, reel extraordinaire. You have a ridiculous amount of washi-tape, a journal stash that would make Barnes & Noble jealous, and enough pens to keep you writing through Armageddon. I feel you.

But whoever you are and however you got here, I want to share what I have found to allow for a sustainable journaling practice, and why you need to hear me out.

First things first, I have sustained my own journaling practice for an accumulated time frame roughly since I was in my 20’s. I journaled prior to this but intermittently throughout the teen years and as a young girl. But when I was about 20 I started using spiral bound notebooks to help me navigate college, work, and all the roles I was juggling for better and worse. As my days got busier, the three-subject notebook became a 5 subject, and eventually I added a small dated planner into the mix. My work life, personal thoughts, schedules, dietary intake, exercise, and to-do lists all competed for space on the pages of these notebooks, which travelled with me to the gym, to the job, to wherever I went. I still have them on the bottom shelf of my 300 plus volumes of notebooks gathering dust on shelves in my office. I can remember the days when I only had a small box of filled journals. Now I have two full sized bookshelves dedicated to them, along with separate bookshelves filled with Scrapbooks, and other writing projects. I don’t think I ever imagined I would accumulate a lifetime of journals…and let’s just say I by God’s grace I hope to have a few more years on the planet, so that means more space dedicated for filled journals. Downsizing and minimalist thinking aside, unless you are careful, you can accumulate a lot of journals in a lifetime. Sometimes my hubby asks me, (usually when he is plotting my death)- what will he do with all of the journals if anything happens to me! Good question.

There is a passage of scripture in the conclusion of Ecclesiastes that lingers long in my mind…though I do try to keep it in perspective and context, but it refers to the making of many books as endless (truth!) and much studying as wearisome to the flesh. OH, God knows our hearts well! This is the warning just before the grand conclusion and aim of the book’s wisdom which finishes with this, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Yeah, it is one of my favorite books of the Bible but it is sobering. It causes me to pause and check myself, my motives, my priorities constantly. Yet, I still love all the books! OY!

Back to your journaling practice or lack thereof. Let’s start with where you are currently with journaling. Do you journal, how do you define what journaling is and what it looks like for you? Have you been looking for resources, and have you found a practice that works? Let’s break it down.

Journaling and Shoes

I think journaling is a lot like a good pair of shoes. You find the right pair, and you want to wear them. They suit you. Oh, occasionally, you want your dressy shoes, or your running shoes, or the hiking boots. But your everyday shoes need to be comfortable, right? You want to slip them on and not think about them at all. They don’t pinch, or make your feet throb at the end of the day. They just fit. That is exactly what a sustainable journaling practice feels like. It requires a choice initially. “Oh, these shoes!” and then, you’re walking through your days and your shoes are just supporting you for the journey.

Question (Take five to journal if you like): What does your current journaling practice feel like to you? Does it feel like it suits you? Think about your favorite shoes. What qualities of them are transferable to how you approach your journaling practice or journal?

Life is Too Short for Uncomfortable Shoes…

Now let’s consider a time you wore shoes that caused discomfort. Oh, they looked great in the store, and you tried them on and they looked good. But, once you got them home you wondered if they really were worth it. They still looked good, but you looked at them and knew. These just are not me.

My husband- bless his creative soul made me the coolest pair of dancing shoes for my wedding. They were meant for me to kick off my heels and dance the night away in style. They were white Ked type sneakers and decorated with pearls, lace and flowers. I danced the night away for sure and that was good. But when we arrived to our honeymoon destination, I realized I hadn’t packed any other sneakers. Now they were great for one night. But walking on our beachy Nantucket Island honeymoon excursion was not for these shoes. We had to buy sneakers, but meanwhile the blisters on my feet caused discomfort even in the new shoes. Why do I share this story? Because there are plenty of beautiful journals available. But you need to have something that allows you to walk in it daily, or on the pages of it with the least amount of friction for your focus. If you look at your journal and see it and think, this is not me, or this is for a special occasion, well you can see the blisters forming already!

Another approach as you consider a journaling practice is defining what areas of your life would benefit most from applying some intentional thoughts and actions. This makes a journaling practice valuable as you think about it in terms of practicality. Journaling is absolutely a practical exercise at it calls upon our intellect and emotion as we express and clarify our thoughts and experiences. Newcomers to journaling often are unsure about where to start. The obvious answer is write from where you are! Right?

When I was new to journaling, I was focused on bodybuilding and powerlifting competition. My journals reflected it completely. I recorded, documented and rambled from every area of my being. Not only my food consumption, but my attitudes, choices, problems with clients at work as I tried to find solutions, notes about tips on strength training and diet, pictures of fellow competitors, written out posing routines, music choices, ideas for others, and it just goes on. I wrote from where I was at the time. Is all I required was a spiral bound notebook and a pen and a few minutes of my day.

The next important point is to spend less time thinking about journaling, or searching for resources for journaling. Instead as we already stated, start where you are. You don’t need a lot of stuff to have a sustainable journaling practice. As a matter of fact, the less you think about journaling, and seek out supporting materials the easier it will be to maintain your focus…which is journaling, right?

I know what I am saying is not popular from a consumer trends standpoint. I have my hand in that cookie jar myself. I have more than my share of notebooks, pens, and journaling products. But the truth is, is all I need and use regularly are two things: pen and paper. I want to suggest that first and foremost, pen and a notebook is all you need too. If journaling has lost its appeal or you don’t know how to get momentum or build any traction, keep it simple. Like brushing your teeth simple. You know where you keep your toothbrush and toothpaste, right? Well, try putting a well chosen (think favorite pair of shoes) notebook and pen in a place you are likely to write. Sit in that space, and build or renew your practice simply. Don’t complicate the practice with extraneous additions initially (like tea, candles extra journaling items). The goal is to build a practice you can maintain. You can always add…but usually momentum is lost when we feel we need all the “gear” before we start the activity. Sometimes the extra distracts from the desired outcome, like a journaling practice we can live with!

One January, I remember feeling the need to simplify my own journaling practice. I cleared a small desk and allowed nothing else on it. In the draws I kept my Bible, journal and pens. That space was for one thing and one thing only, writing in quietness in my journal. I did not allow myself to add any other activities, or ephemera. I saw that desk and I knew it was the place that I did one thing. When you create that space, certainly your heart’s desire will meet you there. Mine did, yours will.

The Beauty of Simplicity in Building Sustainability

It was a Summer night in 2005 as I walked into my local Barnes and Noble store. My goal was to purchase my next journal. At this point I did not have a stash of journals at home…sigh, the good old days. I would venture out when I was nearing the last pages of my journal and full of great expectation, shop the beautiful options available. It was a magical experience, as I lingered over the extensive variety of journals on display, picking each one up and holding it for a moment, knowing this would be my solo partner over the next few months. These days, I have available to me a stash of fresh journals to choose from and can shop in the privacy of my home. I challenge myself to NOT shop more often than actually shopping as I have more than enough. I still love receiving a new journal and I do occasionally buy them, but I sometimes look back fondly to the days when I would have to go out and choose my next journal…when there were no blank journals awaiting me on my shelf at home.

We can build into our journaling practice moments of beauty and simplicity with what we don’t allow into our journaling space and practice as much as we can with what we allow.

What ritual could you embrace that would encourage your regular journaling practice to be the experience you are looking for or activity you desire it to be?

What do you need to eliminate from your approach to journaling (or how you currently perceive the idea of journaling) to allow it to be exactly the practice you need it to be?

For me at times it’s eliminating all the distractions and extras that have popped up into my journaling practice. The fountain pens, washi-tape, stickers and stamps. I intentionally neglect them for periods of time to my benefit. This is not to say that these are bad. But at times I need to subtract all of these wonderful additions to purify my practice and adjust my focus. Sometimes the good can detract from what’s best for us. This allows me to to remember my heart and pen synchronize well, and stay connected best without any extra stuff. Simply put, I take it back to the basics when I don’t have time, focus or energy for anything but the bare minimum.

There are other times, I add…when I need to infuse creativity into my practice, or ambiance. I add appropriately. Maybe a candle on my desk, or collage in my pages.

So the question is what is it you seek in your journal? Is it a stronger faith? Mental health exercises suggested by your counselor? Is it a place to vent your emotions? A vehicle to help you explore your emotional landscape, a diary to document your latest life lessons? Is it a cage to corral your special moments and memories of fur babies, or grandkids? Is your journal a place to record fears, pray for friends and family, or track your career accomplishments? Are you recording your dreams to gain insights? Or maybe seeking in this season to build continuity in showing up, no matter what? Maybe you want to stretch your creative or artistic wings?

Define it to refine it. Your journal can do all of these and more. Approach the journal as a diver approaches the diving board…depending on the particular dive, he walks to the edge, presses his weight down and launches himself up and into the air, eventually landing into the pool, immersed by water. Walk to the edge of your proverbial board and dive into your journal, set the timer if you need to. Write whatever comes to your mind. Can you write for 5 minutes? Ten? How about twenty? There are many ways to approach the page. All of them will get you closer to building the momentum you need. Lose the scrolling, let your pen do the rolling. I know, that was cheesy. But this time, I am speaking directly to those of you who scroll for 20 minutes on social media without a thought but say you can’t journal…trust me, sit down with your pen and no phone for a while and your mind will have some things to show you. Show up for yourself. Journal first. I’m convinced that 85% of social media would be better served if people journaled before speaking to others, or making a public post.

Let’s summarize how I think a sustainable practice can be attained. Get ready for some ouchies:

  1. Stop scrolling social media for inspiration. Tune into your own voice.
  2. Start where you are- write from your now, whatever that is.
  3. Stop thinking about journaling and instead start putting your pen to the paper.
  4. Subtract distractions from your journaling practice (the extras).
  5. Go to the bare bones of writing: try pen and journal only for 7 days.
  6. Create simple rituals, such as keep your notebook and pen in a favorite spot.
  7. Clear external distractions (visual clutter in the space) and set a timer or light a candle during your journaling time if these add and enhance your practice.
  8. Remember less is more when building sustainability – which is to build or maintain or support a process over time. Start small, and stay small if that’s what works best for you.
  9. Journaling also helps build the practice of sitting quietly with one’s thoughts and being still. These are not small things in the day and age of distractibility and continual noise!
  10. Show up to the same place for 7 days, without anything but your journal and pen and sit with your thoughts recording what comes. Seek to write for a minimum of 10 minutes. Keep going if you feel led. If you feel stuck, walk away after 10 minutes.
  11. LAST but not least…please allow yourself a place to be messy. Give yourself the gift of freedom that comes with messiness, scribbles and imperfect journal entries. Some of my best stuff publicly comes from messy stuff on journal pages privately! I may not have the prettiest handwriting, or journal pages…but that is not the goal or intention of my journaling practice. A journal is a place for our imperfection. There’s beauty in that. The journal is a springboard for most of my public poetry and prose, however it ain’t so pretty when it first shows up on paper! I say it this way: fight perfectionism with love. Make it pretty if you like, but don’t make that be your main priority. Freedom is worth fighting for, and that freedom found on private pages most certainly will come out in all your public voices.

I have written a book called Journaling for Discovery and Delight. If you would like more journaling ideas and ways to approach the blank page check that out HERE. November 2022 will mark 5 years since I first released Journaling for Discovery and Delight into the world. I hope to mark this milestone with a number of journaling posts to support your writing practice into the new year. If there is a question you have about journaling or if you want me to write in more detail about a specific journaling topic, method or tool, let me know in the comments below. After all my life is an open book. Messy, but definitely open!

Thank you for reading this post! With you on the journey,

Enthusiastically, Dawn

Published by enthusiasticallydawn

Dawn Paoletta is the author of Journaling for Discovery and Delight. Her writing is included in several anthologies and her poems have been included in the Wickford Poetry and Art Exhibit and Books. Dawn is currently working on her next book. Inquiries at dawn.paoletta@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “What is a Sustainable Journaling Practice and Why it Matters for You

  1. This was a really thoughtful, helpful REAL post about writing. I remember the days, also, where I would look forward to finding my next journal at B&N because there was no on-line consumerism available. Does that make us dinasaurs? 😊

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